It seems apparent that a clarification on the issue is needed, though it will likely not take place soon.
Giving conclusive remarks on the synod Oct. 27, Pope Francis said the document must have an effect on the bishops, since "we wrote the document, we studied it, we approved it," and now "the Spirit gives us the document so that it could work in our earth. We are the receivers of the document, not people outside."
Pope Francis' words offer two takeaways:
First: it is not certain the pope will issue a post-synodal exhortation, as Pope Francis wants to evaluate the fruits of the document first.
Second: Pope Francis actively participated in the drafting of the document, and made clear that the document is directed toward bishops, who are themselves are called to make it effective.
Pope Francis seemed to want to reassure the synod fathers that while the Church might change its approach, synods will continue to be sub Petro et cum Petro, that is under Peter and with Peter.
The pope's need to clarify this issue is understandable. Paragraph 121 of the final document, which dealt directly with synodality, had almost the least consensus of the entire document.
The paragraph is about "the Synodal form of the Church." It says that "Synod participants became aware of the importance of a Synodal form of the Church," as "Synodality characterizes both the life and mission of the Church, that is the people of God composed by young and old people, men and women belonging to any culture and with different perspectives," but it is also "the body of Christ of which we are members one of another, starting from those have been marginalized and trumped on."
The paragraph ended with an invitation to further develop "some of the fundamental aspects of a Synodal style" as a way of leading the Church.
The paragraph generated a wide discussion because – a synod father told CNA – a clear definition of the synodal style was missing. Does "synodal style," suggest a new way of governing the Church or a way of conducting discussion that waits for the final word from the pope?
This latter seems to be Pope Francis' interpretation, considering that the pope often refers to the Church as "Holy Hierarchical Mother."
However, there is not a clear statement on that yet.
The way the final document will be interpreted will become crucial.
Paragraph 3 of the document says that the final document must be read in "continuity" with the synod's working document, though they are different and distinct documents. That suggests that the final document seems not to be considered the final and conclusive phase of a wider process, but rather a step in an ongoing process.
This approach is supported by Pope Francis' September apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio, the newly-released -norms of the Synod of Bishops. Episcopalis Communio puts a great deal of emphasis on the preparatory work of the synods. The rationale seems to be: everything starts at a local level, is discussed at a central level, and then goes back to the local level.
There are, however, many questions pending. Is the synod intended to make concrete proposals? Or is the synod intended to provide a model of government?
A series of moves show that, in fact, Pope Francis has already started his quiet reform toward a synod-like approach to ecclesial government, though one that maintains a central role for the pope.
When the list of cardinals-elect at the Feb. 22, 2014 consistory was released, Lorenzo Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, was second on the list, right after the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Ludwig Mueller. This was a clear signal of how important the synod is to Pope Francis.
His emphasis on local Churches has also been shown by the fact that he frequently uses and quotes documents from the local bishops' conferences in his official documents.
And many of Pope Francis' moves have gone toward proposing a greater responsibility for diocesan bishops.
Two examples are revealing: the motu proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, which entrusts the judgment on marriage declarations of nullity to bishops; and the motu proprio Magnum Principium, which gave more freedom to bishops' conferences in translating liturgical texts.
Among possible future moves is the idea of establishing regional tribunals of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to tackle the abuse crisis. The Council of Cardinals spoke about that at the February 2018 meeting, though that first discussion was not followed by proposals for implementation.
The gathering of the presidents of bishops' conferences from all over the world on the topic of the abuse crisis, set for Feb. 21-24, will be a further way to develop Pope Francis' "synodal" way of governing.
A key moment will also be the publication of the new apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, which will regulate tasks and functions of the Roman Curia. This document might give a definitive shape to Pope Francis' synodality, since even the Council of Cardinals might become a permanent governing board.
These moves suggest that Pope Francis seems to want to foster synodality by expanding the number of meetings and consultations, and by giving more responsibility to bishops on certain issues.
At the same time, the pope will keep a central role, and will make all the final decisions at those meetings. In the end, it seems Francis understand "synodality" not just "walking together," but rather as "walking together under the pope."
Andrea Gagliarducci is an Italian journalist for Catholic News Agency and Vatican analyst for ACI Stampa. He is a contributor to the National Catholic Register.