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May 26, 2014

The authority of the world Synod of Bishops is again coming under the microscope now that a relatively new pope has called not one, but two, synods for the next two years to discuss issues affecting the family. In the background is the issue of whether the synod could allow those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment of the first marriage to receive Communion.

The straight answer is that, no, the synod cannot do this. Nor could the synod ever be given the authority to make such a change.

Those examining the role of the synod rightly note the pope has supreme jurisdiction over the entire Church. The collegial authority of the bishops exists under only two circumstances. First, the bishops assembled in an ecumenical council can act as a body so long as they are acting in communion with the pope. Second, a collegial act can occur when the bishops scattered throughout the world speak with one voice, again in unison with that of the pope.

The actual operations of the typically three-week synods have also been criticized. The first week or so of these gatherings is taken up with speeches of bishops representing the concerns of their national conferences of bishops. There is insufficient dialogue at these events to create consensus on matters of weight.

One must ask, what then is the point of these synods? Synods do provide an opportunity for bishops from around the world to present their pastoral concerns in a forum at which the pope and other bishops can hear those concerns. They also enable bishops to form friendships with their confreres from other nations.

The issue of collegiality, however, does not arise – which was precisely the criticism of the synod when it was announced at Vatican II.

Nevertheless, the synod is a consultative body, a sampling of bishops to whom the pope can put whatever questions he chooses. The synod's feedback may carry no authoritative weight, but it can still be of great assistance if the pope hears in it the voice of the Holy Spirit.

One need not yearn for the synod to be given real jurisdiction in order to see it as an important gathering through which God's will can be expressed.