Fr. Gerald Murray: The Sheep in Place of the Shepherds, the Synod Subverts the Church

I am grateful for the opportunity this evening to share with you my serious concerns about the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops soon to open at the Vatican. My remarks will include first a discussion of the changes to the nature of the Synod of Bishops made by Pope Francis. I will then examine the Instrumentum Laboris (working document).

I will conclude with a reflection on what I consider to be the animating principles that have inspired the efforts currently underway to re-create the Catholic Church into a Synodal Church, in which Church the hierarchy submits itself and the whole body of the faithful to an ongoing process of determining a new understanding of the meaning of Catholic doctrine and practice. This new understanding will emerge, supposedly, from listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through a selected group of the faithful gathered in Rome for that purpose now, and in October 2024.

1. The Synod of Bishops and the changes made by Pope Francis

The Synod of Bishops was established by Pope St. Paul VI on September 15, 1965 by the Motu Proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo. The Synod of Bishops is grounded in the common mission of ruling the Church of God that the Holy Spirit has given to both the Roman Pontiff and to the bishops in communion with him. The Synod of Bishops is a means for furthering that divinely conferred governing mission of the hierarchy.

Paul VI described the creation for this new hierarchical assembly of representative chosen bishops as being prompted by “our esteem and regard for all the Catholic bishops and with the aim of providing them with abundantly means for greater and more effective participation in Our concern for the universal Church”

Canon 342 of the Code of Canon Law summarizes the nature of the synod. This canon identifies the eminently episcopal duties that pertain to the synodal meetings: fostering hierarchical union with the Pope, promoting faith and morals, strengthening ecclesiastical discipline, and reflecting on the Church’s activities in the current situation. These are all part of the ordinary concerns of the shepherds of the Church.

Canon 346 §1 is clear on who makes up the membership of this ecclesial institution: “A synod of bishops assembled in an ordinary general session consists of members of whom the greater part are bishops elected for each session by the conferences of bishops according to the method determined by the special law of the synod; others are designated by virtue of the same law; others are appointed directly by the Roman Pontiff; to these are added some members of clerical religious institutes elected according to the norm of the same special law.” [Note: “others” means “other bishops”]. The only non-bishops who can become members of the synod are clerics who are members of religious orders. This exception is based upon the close relationship between the episcopate and the priesthood, and upon the exercise of governing authority by religious superiors who are priests.

Pope Francis, in his 2014 Letter to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, described the importance of the Synod of Bishops: “the Successor of Peter must proclaim to all who ‘Christ, the Son of the Living God’ is, and at the same time he must pay attention to what the Holy Spirit inspires on the lips of those who – accepting the word of Jesus who declares: ‘you are Peter’ (cf. Mt 16:16-18) – fully participate in the Apostolic College.” It is this “affective and effective communion which constitutes the Synod of Bishops’ primary purpose.”

Thus, the “affective and effective communion” of bishops from the various regions of the world with the Roman Pontiff, the Chief Shepherd, is strengthened and given new expression in an institution that allows the Pope to “pay attention to what the Holy Spirit inspires on the lips of those who… fully participate in the Apostolic College.” This is an episcopal gathering that promotes the common concern of all bishops to teach, govern and sanctify the People of God amidst the pastoral challenges presented by the current state of the world.

The episcopal and hierarchical nature of the Synod of Bishops effectively came to an end with the publication on April 26, 2023 of an unsigned document from the Press Office of the General Secretariat of the Synod that announced the extension of participation in the Synodal Assembly to non-bishop member.

The document states that “[o]n 17 April 2023, the Holy Father approved the extension of participation in the Synodal Assembly to “non-bishops.”. There is no citation of a papal decree dated 17 April 2023 enacting this change of law, and I am not aware that such a decree has been published. Canon 51 states: “A decree is to be issued in writing.” The reference in the document to a papal approval of a change to existing canonical provisions is not sufficient to establish legal certainty in this matter.

I note also that the Press Office of General Secretariat of the Synod does not possess the canonical authority to derogate from either the canons of the Code of Canon Law nor from the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio, which regulates the Synod of Bishops. The document nowhere states that Pope Francis approved of the contents of the Press Office document and ordered its publication.

Thus, the document cannot be said to issue from the hand of Pope Francis. Thus, the General Assembly of the Synod and all its acts would be subject to a technical complaint of canonical nullity, absent the publication of a papal decree giving legal force to the extension of membership in the Synodal Assembly to non-bishops.

Incredibly, the document states that “[t]hese modifications which are warranted within the context of the synodal process will not, however, change the episcopal nature of the Assembly.”  This would only be true if baptized Catholics who are not bishops were also placed by the Holy Spirit… “to rule the Church of God.” (Acts 20:28) This, of course, is not the case. What we now have is a Synod of Bishops and Non-Bishops; we no longer have a Synod of Bishops.

The document also assures us that “the episcopal nature of the Synodal Assembly is not affected, but rather is confirmed” because non-bishops will be “less than 25 percent of the total number of Assembly members.” (I wonder what percentage of non-bishops the Secretariat believes it would take to vitiate the episcopal nature of the Synodal Assembly).

When non-bishop members with voting rights are introduced into an assembly of bishops with voting rights, the assembly ceases to be episcopal in nature. Those who are not shepherds in the Church are being given a role that pertains by the nature only to the shepherds. The Assembly is not a Synod of Bishops any longer. By analogy, would we say that the election of a pope at a conclave made up of cardinals and also of non-cardinals would still be an act of the College of Cardinals? Clearly, we could not say that.

The document describes the reason for this revolutionary change: “This decision reinforces the solidity of the process as a whole, by incorporating into the Assembly the living memory of the preparatory phase, through the presence of some of those who were its protagonists, thus restoring the image of a Church-People of God, founded on the constitutive relationship between common priesthood and ministerial priesthood, and giving visibility to the circular relationship between the prophetic function of the People of God and the discernment function of the Pastors.”

I note that that the attribution of a prophetic role to the People of God in contradistinction to “the discernment function of the Pastors” ignores the fact the bishops exercise Christ’s threefold role (munera) of priest, prophet and king in exercising pastoral care for the flock. Restricting their role to simply discerning what the prophetic People of God as a whole might somehow determine to be according to God’s will is a mistaken appreciation of the nature of the episcopate.

The document further states: “It is therefore in the role/function of memory that the presence of non-bishops is included, and not in that of representation. In this way, the specifically episcopal nature of the Synodal Assembly is not affected, but rather is confirmed”.

The denial of a “representative” function to the 70 non-bishop members is contradicted by document itself which earlier states that the 70 non-bishop members “have been added who represent various groupings of the faithful of the People of God.”

The Synod of Bishops had been a meeting in which selected shepherds of the Church gathered together with the chief shepherd to discuss and explore what best needs to be done to fulfill their divinely given mission to teach, sanctify and govern Christ’s flock. Now, we have a totally different assembly in which lay people who are not sacramentally conformed by holy orders to Christ the High Priest will be treated in law as equal to bishops.

The changes implemented in the Synod of Bishops ignore the essential distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained in the Church. Christ’s establishment of a hierarchical Church means that certain roles pertain to the shepherds that do not pertain to the sheep.

To create confusion in this matter by making non-bishops equal in law to bishops at the General Assembly of the Synod does harm to the Church by obscuring the roles of shepherd and sheep, creating the false impression that the hierarchical authority of the bishops can be legitimately exercised by the non-ordained. Such an understanding would violate the divinely established nature of the Church.

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