Cardinal Coccopalmerio, with Pope Francis

Revolutionary: Vatican cardinal Coccopalmerio opens door to binding votes for bishops’ synods

Vatican cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio has floated the revolutionary idea that the votes at bishops’ synods be deliberative – that is, binding – and not consultative, as is the case now.

Driving the news

Coccopalmerio, the President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts – the Vatican body charged with interpreting Church or canon law – wrote an opinion piece on synodality for the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano.

In that piece, the cardinal ran through a number of quotes from the final document of October’s Amazon Synod that seem to challenge the idea that Church leaders make decisions by fiat, thereby bypassing democratic processes.

To take just one example of those calls from the Synod final document:

“To walk together, the Church today needs a conversion to the synodal experience. It is necessary to strengthen a culture of dialogue, reciprocal listening, spiritual discernment, consensus and communion to find spaces and modes of joint decision-making and respond to pastoral challenges. This will foster joint responsibility in the life of the Church in a spirit of service” (88; emphasis ours; cf. 92, 94, 101, etc.).

Go deeper

Despite the Amazon Synod’s call for “joint decision-making” and “joint responsibility” between all members of the Church, Coccopalmerio pointed out that canon law makes a distinction between “consultative” and “deliberative” votes in Church meetings.

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“The consultative subject is the one who advises the deliberating subject and therefore suggests what should preferably be done”, the cardinal explained.

“The deliberating subject is the one who receives the advice of the adviser and then makes a decision about what needs to be done.

“In the particular case of ecclesial consultation, the advisory subject is the faithful, the deliberating subject is the pastor: the faithful give advice, the pastor makes the decisions”, Coccopalmerio continued.

That said, the cardinal went on to point out that “the texts of the Synod… repeatedly affirm that the faithful together with the pastor make the decisions”.

The point is that even if the synodal texts are not written precisely in the language of canon law, it is clear nonetheless that the synod texts and the Code of Canon Law “are at odds”.

According to the Synod final document, “the faithful together with the pastor make the decisions” in the Church, the cardinal recalled.

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Why it matters

To reconcile the “blatant contrast” between the role of the faithful at the Amazon Synod and their role in canon law, the cardinal proposed a change in Church legislation to reflect this shift in status.

As for how that change in canon law could work out, Coccopalmerio explained that, though more people would be involved at the deliberative stage of decision-making, they would all form a “unity”, a “single subject”, a “deliberative communal subject”: as in democratic votes, for example.

The majority of the votes of the deliberative communal subject would express that subject’s will, as in normal political processes – but to this vote, in the Church, must be added the free, concordant vote of the pastor, Coccopalmerio said.

In the case of a synod, that pastor is the Pope, and it would fall to him to ratify rather than modify the decisions of the gathering.

The cardinal pointed out that his proposal to enshrine in canon law the deliberative role of the faithful “does not detract from the position of the pastor, whose vote remains decisive”.

The idea, however,, has the merit that it underlines “that the deliberation derives from all the members of the community”, and that it takes away the “clear separation between pastor and faithful… at the culminating moment of the process of pastoral discernment in which a deliberation is taken” by the pastor only, and not the faithful, Coccopalmerio said.

Only the “full unity between pastor and faithful” in the new proposal “seems adequate to implement a satisfactory synodality”, the cardinal concluded.

Next on Novena:

Pope’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ takes cues on reform, lay leadership from German Church’s ‘synodal path’

German bishop warns “truths of our faith cannot be rigid and immovable”

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