Ontology of Synodality


I. Synodality, Conciliarity, Collegiality


1. The Terminological “Impasse” and the Underlying Misunderstanding
It is not rare for canon law only to recognize as an authentic expression of collegiality (or synodality) the activity of bishops within traditional “collegial” structures (ecumenical and particular councils) and modern structures (synod of bishops, bishops conferences), or still more rigorously, only in those activities which lead to a deliberative vote.
On the basis of this latter reduction, many deny that the synod of bishops, the college of cardinals, and at least for a large part of their activity, the conferences of bishops, are authentic expressions of “collegiality,” at least insofar as these organs express themselves or are required to express themselves only through a consultative vote.
The attribution or non-attribution of the term “collegiality” to these institutions, or to a part of their activity, and consequently the greater or lesser ecclesiological significance that is attributed to them, is an indication of the terminological and conceptual confusion that exists within canonical theory.
For a correct approach to the problem of synodality, one cannot fail to consider the existence of a double non-identity: that between synodality and conciliar activity, and that between synodality and the participation of the faithful in the life of the Church.
Conducting an analysis on the nature of synodality one must accept the hypothesis that it is realized not only on the episcopal or perhaps presbyteral level, but also on the level of the laity. However, since this hypothesis theoretically intersects with the problem of the difference existing between synodality and participation, it is necessary to divide the questions. 1 Here we shall treat only the problem of episcopal synodality.
Already at this level the problem is complex, which is visibly demonstrated by the terminological impasse in which ecclesiology and canon law have been entangled since the Council.
To clarify the underlying question, it could be very useful to substitute the term “collegiality” with that of “synodality,” much less compromised from the juridical and theological point of view. The Greek term “synodos,” which in its Latin transcription (“synodus”) was always used as a perfectly equivalent synonym of “concilium” (with which it was translated), has the merit above all of terminologically including, among the institutions of a “collegial” character, also the synod of bishops and the diocesan synod.
The substitution of “synodality” for “collegiality,” although not required for substantial reasons, enables us to avoid, at least terminologically, the misunderstanding according to which “collegiality” is identified with the activity of bishops within their several “collegial” structures. Since it is not tied to reductive historical-doctrinal preconceptions, the term “synodality” permits us to approach the problem of “collegiality” without conceptually tying it to those juridical-institutional forms in which it can be expressed.

2. The Doctrinal Embarrassment of Vatican II and the First Clarifications
That Vatican II did not succeed in dealing with the problem of synodality in a doctrinally complete way – if only for the fact that it treated synodality solely on the level of the universal Church without dealing with the issue on the level of the particular Church – is very probably due to the fact that it was not able to develop an explicit theological discourse on the Church based on the central category ofcommunio, which ties together all of ecclesiology like a tenuous filigree. 2
A symptom of this doctrinal embarrassment is the lack of the use of abstract nouns, such as “synodality,” “conciliarity,” 3 “collegiality,” which would inevitably have required the Council to give a theoretical definition of the contents. The Council has avoided even using the adjectives “synodal” and “conciliar,” restricting – not without parsimony – its lexicon to the adjective “collegial.”
The origin of the doctrinal equivocation generated by the term “collegiality” undoubtedly goes back to the use made by Vatican II of the originally juridical notion of “collegium” to express the ecclesiological reality of the hierarchical communion constituted by the Apostles with Peter and by the bishops with the Pope. By using also the adjective “collegial,” whose juridical significance is likewise unavoidable, the Council has aggravated the misunderstanding.
Dealing with the problem of the “collegial” activity of the “college” of bishops by means of the abstract term of collegiality, canonical theory has easily guaranteed a reduced sense of the notion expressed by it. In fact, there has frequently occurred a “reductio ad unum” between the dimension of collective responsibility inherent in the nature and specific mode of operation of the episcopal ministry, and the institutional modality through which the bishops can realize their mission in the Church in a synodal way. This reduction assumes that collegiality is only authentic to the measure in which it is realized through collegial acts (and in particular in the form of a deliberative vote) posed within collegial decision-making structures, whether traditional (such as councils), or more recent (such as the synod of bishops and the conferences of bishops).
Interpreting Lumen gentium, which intentionally uses the term “collegium” alternatively with others (such as “coetus,” “corpus,” “ordus”), the Nota explicative praevia n. 1 attempts in vain to explain that the “ordo episcoporum” cannot be identified with the juridical institution of a college, maintaining that the college of bishops does not rigorously realize the notion of college according to the understanding of it proper to the general theory of law, by reason of the fact that it is not ruled by the principle of the juridical parity of its members.
In reality, the general theory of law and juridical practice certify, both doctrinally and historically, the existence of colleges which are hierarchically structured and in which the principle of juridical parity does not apply. 4 The most eloquent modern example is that of the Security Council of the UN, in which only two members, the United States and the Soviet Union, enjoy the right to a veto, which represents the most discriminatory form of the use of collective power, because of its rigorously hierarchical nature.
In reality, that which distinguishes the structure of the college of bishops from the juridical institution of a college as developed by the general theory of law is the fact that, contrary to the general institution of a college, the college of bishops works also and above all outside of the institutional collegial framework through which its activity is sometimes regulated (ecumenical council) and within which the bishops are called to express themselves (with a deliberative vote) through a truly collegial act. The episcopate spread throughout the world does not cease theologically and canonically to be the college of bishops and to act in a synodal manner, even when they are not united in a council. The individual bishops do not cease to act formally as members of the college even when they act individually.
Actually, not all the acts through which “synodality” is expressed have collegial character in the technical and juridical sense. Indeed, from the juridical perspective, the acts done by bishops in the exercise of their ministry are rarely truly collegial acts.
In the technical and juridical sense, an act is collegial only when the will of the individual member loses its juridical autonomy, so as to be integrated into the one act of will expressed by the college as one juridical subject. It follows that the will of the college is not identified, from the formal point of view, even with the will of the majority.
The collegial act is different from the parallel act, as it is realized for example in the exercise of the ordinary magisterium of bishops spread throughout the world, or in certain decisions of the conferences of bishops. In the parallel act, the will of each member converges in the production of a plurality of results which are distinct from the formal point of view, but equal among themselves from the material point of view. In the parallel act, each bishop remains the autonomously responsible subject of his individual act. 5
The collegial act is different from the collective act, whose result is not only one, but is one for all, even if the individual person remains autonomously responsible for his own act, as in Eucharistic concelebration. Here the one consecration of the species is not the product of the will of the majority or of the college as a unique juridical subject, but of each individual concelebrant. 6
Occasionally Vatican II has also used the adverb “coniunctim” to indicate the fact that an act in a college can sometimes by completed collegially, in a technical sense, or only in parallel form. The Council has surprisingly used this adverb with regard to conferences of bishops. This was both to avoid taking a position on their synodal character since it is an institution of the particular Churches and not of the universal Church as such, as well as to take account of the fact that bishops can manifest their will according to different juridical forms: that of the collegial act or that of the parallel act. 7

3. The Confirmation of the Historical Analysis
If it were necessary to identify episcopal “synodality” with the conciliar activity of bishops, one would have to conclude, on the basis of historical findings, that “synodality” is an extraordinary, if not indeed a subsidiary phenomenon in the exercise of the episcopal ministry, both at the level of the universal as well as the particular Church.
Actually, the universal Church has celebrated only some twenty ecumenical or general councils in the twenty centuries of its history. Above all, there were long periods in which the activity of ecumenical councils remained completely paralyzed, as in the two and a half centuries between the Fourth Constantinopolitan (869) and the First Lateran Council (1123) and in the three centuries which separate the Council of Trent from Vatican I.
An even more negative result, proportionally, comes from an analysis of the conciliar activity of the particular Churches, on the basis of provincial councils. Among the different forms of particular councils, this is the institution that has remained not only most constant in its activity, but also substantially identical from the formal perspective from its birth in the third and fourth century until today. 8
The frequency of provincial councils (or minor councils in general), even if relatively intense between the First and Second Nicene Councils (325-787), was much less in any case than the synodal consciousness of the Church of that period, as expressed in can. 5 of the First Council of Nicea, which prescribed the convocation of two provincial councils each year. Evidently, in the real evaluation of the conciliar practice of this period, it is necessary to keep in mind two things. The first is the fact that legislative production, being of a predominantly conciliar origin (that is, not from decretals, as in the following period), should have stimulated the frequency of councils in an optimal way. Secondly, legislation did not yet have the pretense – as it would in the second millennium – of regulating the life of the Church in detail, which has rendered the convoking of councils less urgent and indispensable.
In fact, the provincial conciliar activity was almost completely extinguished, together with ecumenical conciliar activity, in the centuries on either side of the millennium. Its revitalization occurred on more realistic foundations due to the work of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), with the prescription of can. 6 calling for the convocation of a provincial council at least once a year. However, even in this period – which goes from the Gregorian Reform to the exile in Avignon (1305) and which very probably marks, despite the strong process of papal centralization, the golden period of all conciliar activity in the history of the Church in the West – their actual concrete frequency did not exceed 5% of the legislative requirements, if one takes account of the number of existing provinces.
Contrary to what might have been expected, the frequency of provincial councils in the centuries of conciliarism, marked by an ecclesiological consciousness that was more corporate than authentically synodal, was minimal. 9
From Trent to Vatican I, provincial conciliar activity suffered a grave deviation. In fact, if one leaves out some jumps, found in the first half century after Trent – due primarily to the application of the reforms of the Council – and also found after the liberal Revolution of 1848, especially in non-European Churches (as in the USA and in mission territory), it can be seen that between 1600 and 1850 there were two and a half centuries of total paralysis. The deviation is that much graver since, in ascertaining the lesser synodal sensibility of the Church in this period, canonical legislation had already substantially reduced the frequency with which provincial councils were required. In fact, already with the Council of Constance the celebration of only one council was called for every three years, whereas the Code of 1917 (can. 283) prescribes a council only every twenty years.
Keeping as a point of reference the legislative prescriptions and the number of ecclesiastical provinces (which have almost quadrupled since Trent, mostly in the last century and during the pontificate of Pius XII), one must note that provincial conciliar activity did not exceed 2.5-3% of that which was required by legislation. This means that during this entire period, instead of a provincial council every three years in each individual province, there was only one provincial council celebrated in the entire Latin Church every year.
This historical analysis also leads us to conclude, at least post factum, that synodality cannot be made to coincide with conciliar activity, unless one is willing to recognize that the Church has in fact forgotten her own proper synodal structure during long periods of her history.

II. The Synodal Dimension of Episcopal Ministry

1. The Dynamics of the Reciprocal Immanence of its Constitutive Elements as the Essential Nucleus of the “Communio
In “synodality,” in so far as it is an element intrinsic to the nature and specific mode of exercise of the episcopal ministry, the ecclesiological principle of “communio” – which encompasses the entire mystical-institutional reality of the Church – emerges according to a particular structure.
The criterion of communio, in fact, first of all determines the relationship of the faithful with God and the other faithful (“communio cum Deo et hominibus”), giving a new ontological dimension to the faithful.
It assumes further significance in the particular hierarchical relationship existing between the bishops and the Pope (in addition to that between the presbyters and the bishop). As a result, bishops (and presbyters) receive the legitimacy to exercise their ministry, “ad validitatem” or “ad liceitatem,” only in the measure in which they accept the “communio hierarchica” with the Pope (or with the bishop).
The principle of “communio” regulates finally both the constitutional relationship between the universal and the particular Church, as well as the ecumenical relationship of the separated churches or ecclesial communities with the Church of Christ, which alone is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and which subsists in the Roman Catholic Church.
This last eminently structural level of the “communio” has been defined for the first time in its fullness by LG 23, 1, in the formula according to which the universal Church is realized in and from the particular Churches (“in quibus et ex quibus una et unica ecclesia catholica exsistit”). 10 The universal Church, although having a proper ministerial expression in the college of bishops and in the Pope (which expression has its roots, in any case, in the particular Church, since the bishops and also the Pope have their “locus theologicus” in the particular Church), does not exist as an autonomous reality, but only in so far as it is concretely and historically realized in the particular Churches and emerges from them as their global outcome.
The universal Church, which is realized in each individual particular Church, renders present all the particular Churches of which she is constituted. 11 The one Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church on account of the fact that in her, the immanence between the universal and particular is so perfect as to realize the fullness of communion. This is true by definition, if not always historically.
The “communio” is “plena” only in the measure in which the universal Church is realized not as an abstract idea, according to the tendency of the Orthodox model of Platonic extraction (“universalia ante res”), but as an historically existing reality composed concretely of all the particular Churches (“universalia in rebus”). It is “plena,” furthermore, only to the measure in which the particular Church exists, not so much as an autonomous reality, which according to the tendency of the Protestant model can be nominalistically aggregated (“universalia post res”) with the other particular Churches on a federative basis, but rather as a reality in which the totality of all the particular Churches is present, due to the mediation of the universal Church which is realized in her.
The principle of reciprocal immanence of the constitutive elements of the constitutional structure of the Church, which comes out in a paradigmatic way in the immanence of the universal in the particular and of the particular in the universal, forms the essence itself of the notion of “communio.” LG 23, 1, has grasped this dynamic with surprising lucidity on the level of the relationship between the universal and the particular Church. It is a dynamic which is repeated on all the levels of the ecclesial structure, in addition to that of the “communio Ecclesiarum.” It occurs on the level of the “communio hierarchica” or “ministeriorum,” in which the Pope expresses the entire college and the college includes the Pope, and on the level of the “communio fidelium,” that is, of Christian anthropology. 12
The faithful, in fact, is the person whose identity is determined by his belonging to the people of God, the Mystical Body of the Church. Therefore, he is determined by the fact that all the other faithful, through the mediation of his belonging to the Mystical Body, are really immanent in his person. Thus it would not be exact to conceive the members of the faithful as individual entities, opposed to a collective reality, as occurs instead at the natural level of human society, where the relationship of the individual and the collectivity – which tends to be conflictory on account of original sin – can be transcended only in an extrinsic way through a juridical order which limits the liberty of each person, not only in fact, but also structurally.

2. The Reciprocal Immanence Between the Personal and the Synodal Dimension of the Episcopal Ministry
The synodal dimension, connatural to the episcopal ministry, is also determined by the principle of “communio.” Actually, synodality is not opposed to the personal dimension, from which it is formally distinct, but is immanent to it, because every bishop is ontologically determined by the fact that the other bishops also possess the same unique sacrament of Orders. The oneness of the sacrament in the plurality of its personal realizations is the foundation of the structure of the ministry that is not only personal, but also synodal.
It follows that synodality does not tend to restrict the personal exercise of the episcopal ministry, but to confer a vaster extension to it. This is because it develops the ontological relationship with other ministries which it already possesses, enlarging it beyond the institutional, jurisdictional or territorial limits in which the bishop is individually inserted.
Analogously to that which was affirmed with regard to the supernatural anthropological dimension of the faithful, it would be incorrect to treat the problem of synodality, as a dimension of the episcopal ministry, on the basis of natural secular institutional models. This operation would inevitably lead to the irremediable antimony existing between the individual and the collective principle underlying every human and civil collegial institution. The discourse, to be rigorously theological, must therefore avoid taking rise either from the scepticism with which the modern democratic consciousness judges the monocratic exercise of power, or from the optimism with which the sociological sciences, or the technocratic model, assume that the administration of the group or the coordination or division of power is the only form of government possible in a society with social, economic and political connections that are ever more complex. 13
The episcopal ministry or office, in fact, does not find any parallel in the monocratic or democratic political systems, whose constitutions, even when they have recourse to natural law, are based on the delegation of power and not on the institution of office. In the ecclesial constitution, on the contrary, the episcopal ministry or office, on the one hand, is beyond the disposition of the Church; on the other hand, it is defined by the fact that the potestas sacra with which the titular subject is invested is not delegated. It is entrusted to the bishops not by the Church, but by Christ, although through a sacramental mediation.
Two dimensions can be isolated in the episcopal ministry, from the systematic point of view: the personal and the synodal. These are formally diverse, but not adequately distinct, since the synodal dimension is present in the personal, and the personal dimension remains present and operative in the synodal. This complex structure of reciprocal immanence derives from the fact that the synodal dimension, already present in the personal, develops and is made explicit not on the basis of extrinsic or chance elements, but from ecclesiologically necessary elements, inherent in the nature of the episcopal ministry.
In civil society, the plurality of offices on which the principle of division and collaboration of powers is based, is not necessary in itself, since the choice between a monocratic and democratic regime is not imposed by a necessity of natural law. In the ecclesial constitution, on the other hand, the majority of offices are ontologically necessary. It is not the material fact of the plurality of bishops as such, but the fact that it is an indispensably necessary element of the constitution of the Church which generates a double dimension in the episcopal ministry. In fact, it is not possible to explain the pluralistic structure of the Church on the basis of philosophical or historical considerations, and still less on the sole basis of practical considerations. The unity and plurality of the Church can be known only by faith, and can be rendered theologically plausible as an historical and institutional reflection of the unity and plurality of the Trinitarian mystery. 14

3. The Sacramental Root of this Reciprocal Immanence
The sacramental origin of the personal dimension of the episcopal ministry confers on the bishop a capacity of representation radically different from the representation proper to a public or civil juridical institution, for two reasons. On the one hand, this is because sacramental representation establishes a relation of partial correspondence between the minister and Christ who acts “ex opere operato” in the sacrament. On the other hand, because, in contrast to a secular juridical model, sacramental representation cannot be realized by a moral or juridical person, but only by a physical person.
For this reason, for example, theology has never affirmed that the college of bishops or an ecumenical council represent Christ, even though they hold the supreme and full power in the universal Church. Only the bishop represents Christ sacramentally – and therefore personally – as invisible head of the Church. A proof of this is the fact that Eucharistic concelebration is not an act of the college as such, but only a collective act in which the one consecration of the species is caused individually by the individual ministers.
The college of bishops, on the other hand, represents the Church. However, in contrast with the individual bishops in their representation of Christ, it does so in a total rather than partial way.
The synodal dimension of the ecclesial ministry is based on a phenomenon of representation of an ecclesiological nature, which presupposes, however, the sacrament of Orders. It is in virtue of the sacrament of Orders that the bishop represents his own particular Church within the universal Church, and the universal within the particular. In this sense, ecclesiological representation also has a sacramental root. This explains further why the distinction between the personal and synodal dimension is not adequate. However, the element which generates ecclesiological representation is primarily the necessarily pluralistic structure of the Church. Constitutionally, the Church is a pluralistic rather than a monistic reality: it is a “communio Ecclesiarum.”
This pluralism does not depend, as we have seen, on the material fact that a plurality of bishops and of particular Churches historically exist in the Church, but on the fact that the Church of Christ, in her universal dimension, is necessarily realized in and from the particular Churches. The specific basis of synodality with respect to the personal dimension of the episcopal ministry is the existence of the “communio Ecclesiarum,” as an ecclesiologically necessary reality.
The pluralist dimension, in its turn, is not added to the particular Church, but is already present in her, for two different yet related reasons. First of all, this is because all the other particular Churches are present in any particular Church through the mediation of the universal Church (formed from all the Churches) which is realized in them. It follows that on the level of the relationship of the universal and particular Church, an adequate distinction cannot be made between unity (particular Church) and plurality (universal Church), which corresponds to the distinction between the personal and the synodal elements of the episcopal ministry.
Secondly this is because the particular Church already has in itself a synodal component. In fact, the particular Church is not only constituted by the bishop, even if he is the principle and foundation of her unity (LG 23, 1), but by the bishop with his presbyterium (in addition to the portion of the people of God belonging to it; can. 369). The episcopal ministry is already synodally constituted also from the point of view of its personal dimension, because it does not exist without presbyters. The existence of the presbyters around the bishop does not derive solely from functional reasons, as if it were only because the bishop by himself is not able to fulfill all the tasks pertaining to his office, but from ecclesiological reasons. A monistic structure of the particular Church, formed by the bishop alone without the presbyterium, would not be able to realize in itself the synodal structure of the universal Church. The universal Church can be realized in the particular Church only because the synodal structure of the presbyterium exists in her, of which the bishop is head. Evidently, the synodal structure of the particular Church is only analogous to that of the universal Church, because the relationship of bishop to presbyters is different from the relationship between the Pope and the bishops. Otherwise there would be an infinite regression.

4. Two Different Modalities for the Realization of Apostolicity
The differentiation between the personal and the synodal element of the episcopal ministry is realized according to two different modalities according to which the apostolic succession takes place: through the distinct logical structure of transmission and communication proper to both Sacrament and Word.
From the formal point of view, apostolicity is realized in the form of personal succession through the Sacrament. In the synodal form it is realized through the Word, whose binding force is institutionally translated as “iuris dictio,” or jurisdiction.
The structural logic of the communication of the sacramental sign is different from that of spoken language. However, this distinction is inadequate, because both have a symbolic character, and because both are immanent in each other. In fact, the Sacrament always includes the Word and the Word has a sacramental effect. The Sacrament makes the efficacy of the Word concrete, and the Word tends necessarily towards the realization of the sacramental sign, giving it a salvific significance. 15 Word and Sacrament are the two elements through which salvation is communicated and transmitted. Formally diverse but inadequately distinguished, each has its own structural dynamics, and they stand to each other in a relation of reciprocal dependency in the transmission of salvation.
In the ordinary economy of salvation, which is the ecclesial economy, the Sacrament – which always also includes the Word – is necessary for the constitution of the Church to be realized. The Word by itself, on the contrary, is not sufficient. This explains why Vatican II attributes the qualification of “ecclesial” only to those Christian communities which conserve at least the sacrament of Baptism. Outside of Baptism there only exists a regime of Christian religion, in the measure in which individuals are inspired by the message of Christ, deprived, however, of the salvific value proper to ecclesiality.
The fact that the Sacrament also includes the Word – from which the symbolic sign receives the qualification of salvific sign – explains why the sacra potestas,that is, the legitimation to celebrate the sacraments and to preach the Word with authority – up to the point of issuing juridically binding norms of disciplinary behavior – is transmitted in its totality through the sacrament of Orders. When it is not a matter of transmitting the sacra potestas in order to guarantee the continuation of the apostolic succession, but of exercising it in the daily life of the Church, it operates according to the structural logic of communication proper to the sacramental sign and to the Word, which, in the juridical language of the second half of the twelfth century, took on the names of the power of Orders and the power of jurisdiction. 16 Orders and jurisdiction are not two distinct parts of thesacra potestas with different contents, but only two formally different functions of the same potestas which always operates in its totality, both in Orders and in jurisdiction. 17
Since the symbolic sign through which it is expressed is always the same and universally maintains the same significance, the sacra potestas operative in the sacrament of Orders is formally and materially the same for all bishops. When it operates, however, according to the structural logic of the Word, it can assume a formally distinct value, although still remaining everywhere identical in its content.
Contrary to the sacramental sign, the Word is structurally connected to the capacity of man to express himself through the logical-formal instrument of the judgment. It can be enunciated not only individually by an individual physical person, but also by a plurality of persons in common, who are thus able to confer a formally binding authority that is more universal.
In contrast with the symbolic sacramental sign, a judgment can be integrated into the dynamics specific to parallel acts and truly collegial acts, transforming itself into a doctrinal or disciplinary decision of the entire college of bishops.
From the point of view of its material content, the Word may be identical when it is pronounced by a single bishop or by the entire college of bishops. It can, however, assume different grades of universality and thus of formal authority. This explains why the global responsibility for the proclamation of the Word belongs “in solidum” to the entire college of bishops, in which the supreme and universal expression of synodality is realized.
The Sacrament confers on the bishop all the power of Orders, that is, the possibility of rendering the entire “sacra potestas” always and everywhere operative, according to the structural logic of the symbolic sign. The “missio canonica,” instead, determines the territorial or personal area, within which the individual bishop can use his “sacra potestas” authoritatively according to the logic of the communication of the Word.
The individual bishop, who can always validly consecrate in the entire universal Church, can preach the contents of the Word authoritatively and derive from it a juridically binding disciplinary order only for his own particular Church.
However, although not enjoying a true power of jurisdiction in the entire universal Church, every bishop is invested with a responsibility and a solicitude with regard to her (LG 23, 2). This responsibility is inherent in the episcopal ministry, both because Sacrament and Word, in their content, are common and equal for all bishops, and because the particular Church is a constitutive part of the universal Church. 18 Exercising the sacra potestas in his particular Church, according to the personal modality of the ministry, the bishop also constructs the universal Church and assumes thereby a responsibility which already has a synodal dimension in itself.
However, in order to be able to exercise the sacra potestasin solidum,” in so far as it expresses the Word, with a juridically binding force for the entire universal Church, the bishop must be inserted in the (synodal) structures prescribed by the universal Church, accepting the juridical norms dictated by the “communio hierarchica.”
The apostolic succession along the line of the Word is fully realized only as a “collective” succession of all bishops “per modum non aequalitatis sed proportionalitatis” (Nexp. 1), with regard to the formulation of the judgment on the truth of the faith and on the authenticity of ecclesial discipline. This means that in virtue of the sacra potestas, exercised according to the modality of the Word or jurisdiction, the college of bishops also has the authority to formulate the final judgment on the authenticity of the sacraments and thus on the licitness or validity of their use.
The dogmatic affirmation according to which the college of bishops and the Pope personally can exercise the full and supreme potestas in the universal Church, in relation to the power of Orders and jurisdiction, has a different meaning for the college and for the Pope.
For the college, the affirmation has a solely disjunctive value, since it exercises the sacra potestas, according to the modality of the sacramental sign, solely through the individual bishops. The college as such cannot exercise the power of Orders either with a truly collegial act or with a parallel act. In this sense, the “sacra potestas” of the college is full and supreme only materially, not being different in content from that of every member of the college. It is not full and supreme in a formal sense, since the power of Orders of each individual bishop, in itself universal, does not acquire a superior efficacy by the fact of being exercised by all the bishops.
For the Pope, on the contrary, the same affirmation does not have a disjunctive value, since he possesses all the power of Orders and all the power of jurisdiction, both from a material and formal point of view. The bishop of Rome is the one bishop who has the capacity to exercise the sacra potestas according to the expressive modality of the Word with all the extension of judgment and with all the formal binding force inherent in it.
The theological justification of this fact is one of the nodal points of all of ecclesiology. If it is easy to base the hierarchical structure of the particular Church on the model of the hierarchical structure of the Eucharist, it is difficult to go back from the Eucharist to the hierarchical structure of the universal Church, since the Eucharist is always realized in the same way in all the particular Churches, including the Church of Rome.
The voluntaristic solution, which permits the justification of the existence of the primacy of Peter, making direct recourse to the will of Christ certified by the New Testament, offers the dogmatic guarantee of the fact in itself, but does not give the reasons for which Christ has established it. Even the model of the Trinity offers only an analogical consideration to justify the hierarchical structure of the universal Church, as well as her unity and plurality.
The difficulty of giving a systematic justification that is intrinsic to the “nexus mysteriorum” explains why Orthodox theology can lead to a synodally joint and acephalous ecclesiological solution, and can affirm that the hierarchical subordination of one bishop to another has a character that is only historical and human. 19

III. The Principal Institutional Forms of Synodality

1. From the Ecumenical Council to the Conferences of Bishops
The principle of the “communio hierarchica,” which determines the structure of the college of bishops, and that of the “communio Ecclesiarum,” have been historically translated according to different institutional synodal forms. As the communion of the particular Churches among themselves is derived from the constitutive relationship of communion which each of them enjoys with the Church of Rome, so the relationship of communion of the bishops between themselves is derived from the constitutive relationship of communion which each individual bishop holds with the Pope as head of the college.
This means that, in the concrete exercise of the sacra potestas, according to the formal expression of the Word, the synodality inherent in the episcopal ministry can express itself only in the measure in which it includes, directly or indirectly, also the head of the college of bishops. The universal or less universal value of the binding force of doctrinal or disciplinary decisions depends on the direct or indirect function that belongs to the Pope as head of the college.
On the other hand, within the direct function belonging to the head of the college, the exercise of synodality can assume a double form: that in which the Pope is the constitutive element for the exercise of the synodality of the college as such, and that in which the Pope makes explicit the synodality inherent in his personal ministry, not with the entire college, but only with the aid of some bishops convoked in the synod of bishops. Both in the first and in the second case, the binding force of the exercise of synodality is universal. The difference, however, lies in the fact that whereas in the first case the operating subject is the entire college as such, in the second case of the synod, the operating subject is the head of the college. The college is active only indirectly, through its head and a part of the bishops which represent it according to an ecclesiological relationship that is not total. Therefore this rests on a strongly sociological basis.
a) The first juridical structure in which the synodality of the college of bishops is expressed is that in which the head of the college is also a member of the voting body. This coincides in fact with the juridical structure of the ecumenical council, or of a council by “letter,” even if in this latter expression, synodality is reduced solely to the formal dimension, deprived of the contents emerging from the discussion. The council is the structure which institutionalizes the synodal dimension of the college of bishops in the most complete way.
All the bishops enjoy a deliberative vote. However, the Pope, who can preside “iure proprio,” does not formally vote, but approves the decrees. This juridical solution connotes the fact that, since the “vote” of the Pope is constitutive of the collegial act, this cannot be determined by the majority of the bishops, but by their convergence of judgment with the head of the college. It also means that without the head, the council does not represent the college of bishops. In fact, in case of vacancy in the see of Rome, the council is suspended (can. 340). 20
b) The second juridical structure is that in which the head of the college of bishops is not a member of the voting body. The vote of the bishops is consultative, since the college is not formally expressed as such, but only through the Pope. The separation of the head of the voting college (as in the synod of bishops and in the consistory) imprints a corporative connotation to the exercise of synodality. The bishops represent themselves and not the entire Church except according to a strongly sociological dimension. 21
A first variation of this model is that of the consistory, when it is convoked not to advise the Pope, but to celebrate an event or to receive a papal decision (can. 353 § 2 in fine). 22 Synodality is expressed more on a sacramental basis than in the exercise of the “sacra potestas” according to the modality of the Word.
A second variation is that of the consistory convoked for the election of the Pope. Since there is no head of the college, one cannot rigorously speak of synodality (if this is the expression of the “communio hierarchica”), but only of a corporate structure with a limited scope, which, however, has its foundation in the “horizontal” relation of communion existing between the bishops who are cardinals. In the measure in which they respect the procedure of election fixed by papal law, they operate in a position of virtual hierarchical communion and thus of communion with the universal Church. Actually, this is a structure originally proper to the Church of Rome, which has progressively assumed a universal character.
c) The third juridical structure is that in which the head of the college of bishops is not part of the voting body. This occurs in the particular councils and episcopal conferences, where bishops express themselves with a deliberative vote due to the “potestas propria,” inherent in their office, and not on the basis of a “potestas delegata,” as occurs instead in the synod of bishops for the cases in which the Pope gives a deliberative power to the synod (can. 343). 23
The “recognitio” of the decrees (can. 446 and 456) on the part of the head of the college of bishops has a different meaning from the “confirmatio” (can. 341 § 1) of the decrees of an ecumenical council, since it does not affect the nature of the decision, and thus it does not confer a universal value on them. Despite papal control, the decision remains the expression of episcopal synodality. Since it does not intrinsically include a decision-making participation of the Pope, it possesses only a particular character.
A first purely formal variant is that in which the Pope personally assists in the work of a particular council. A second variant is that in which the Pope celebrates a particular council, not as head of the college of bishops, but only as metropolitan or patriarch of the West. Its decrees would acquire a universal validity only in virtue of a phenomenon of reception, or due to an act of primacy. In judging the synodal value of all of these juridical structures, it is necessary not only to take account of their universal or particular expressive value, but also of the ecclesiological function assumed by their deliberative or consultative vote.

2. The Function of the Deliberative and Consultative Vote in the Exercise of Synodality
The juridical institutions of the deliberative and consultative vote play a different role in the juridical order of the Church – at least in theory if not always in practice – than that which is proper to the general theory of law. 24 Evaluated according to the logic of civil constitutional systems, where the central problem is that of the division of power, the deliberative and consultative vote can easily be misunderstood in their significance.
Evidently, even if the constitutional problem is not posed in the Church in terms of the division of power, since the sacra potestas is indivisible, it is still possible to fix, extend or restrict the competencies of the episcopal ministry (and of the other ministries or offices) – amply attested to in the course of history – by having recourse, among other things, also to the institutions of the deliberative and consultative vote. However, the nucleus of the question remains distinct from that of civil law. On the one hand, this is because the episcopal ministry has a necessary aspect from the point of view of competencies. On the other hand, it is because – at least according to the ecclesiological consciousness at which the modern Church has arrived – in principle no member of the faithful should be excluded from a global co-responsibility for the building up of the Church. This also includes, therefore, the dynamism of the preparation of decisions, even when these decisions rest finally with the bishops.
The position of the bishops at an ecumenical council is juridically expressed by a deliberative vote. The voting in itself, however, serves not so much to decide as to ascertain which bishops, and which particular Churches represented by them, have reached a judgment of communion on faith and discipline. More than a discretionary fact of power, this is a matter, at least on the level of fundamental questions, of an act of ascertainment. The common judgment of a council, for that matter, does not come in itself from the judgment of the majority, as in a parliament, but from the convergence of the bishops with the Pope. Since it is a synodal fact rather than a parliamentary majority act, the connatural tendency for the decision is that of reaching at least moral unanimity.
The deliberative vote of the bishops at the council is not deliberative according to the meaning proper to the general theory of law, because its formal binding force does not derive as such from the discretionary nature of the human will. It is deliberative in the sense that the testimony of the bishops with regard to their faith and the faith of their particular Churches is inappellable. Actually, faith is not a fact that can be defined in a voluntaristic way, nor is it a fact which can be testified to by representation. This explains, for example, why the representative of a bishop at a council does not enjoy a deliberative vote, but at most only a consultative vote. 25 No one, in fact, can be represented in faith, since salvation is an eminently personal act.
The deliberative character of the vote of the bishop coincides thus with the necessary nature of his personal witness of faith. This evidently does not exclude the fact that in a council, as in all other sectors of the life of the Church, the actual operation may take place according to a logic closer to that of the division of power, than that inherent in the nature of synodality. This danger is that much greater in proportion as it is difficult to establish the connection of concrete problems with the sacramental element and the Word.
With the consultative vote, on the other hand, the juridical order of the Church expresses, in theory, although in an approximate way and with different degrees of efficacy, the position of all the other members of the faithful (laity and clerics) who are structurally called to contribute to the formulation of the judgment of faith of those who have the responsibility to express it as the common judgment that is binding for all.
The difference of this from the way in which the consultative vote is understood according to the general theory of law is given by the fact that in the Church, the consultative vote should not express (and in itself does not express) an institutional form of the limitation of power, decided by those who possess a deliberative vote. On the contrary, it is a necessity inherent in the dynamics of communion. This depends on the fact that the particular Church (to give only one example) is not constituted only by the bishop with his presbyterium, but also by a portion of the People of God.
Therefore, it is necessary to keep in mind the fact that the common priesthood of all the faithful is primary with respect to the ministerial priesthood, in the sense that the latter exists only for the sake of the former. Therefore, it must keep it in mind in the formation of its own judgment, according to the consultative modalities which can historically change. 26
The relationship of immanence to that portion of the People of God from whom the particular Church is formed, is thus constitutive for the process from which the doctrinal and disciplinary judgment of the bishop should be formed. The sensus fidei and the charism of all the faithful should flow into it. However, the judgment of the faithful – not measurable with the mathematical criteria of a numerical majority – is not constituted as a common judgment valid for all, until the bishop has pronounced his testimony and his word.
This structural relationship of immanence of the bishop to his particular Church can be institutionally expressed by the institution of the consultative vote, but it does not coincide with it. This is not only because there exist other possibilities for manifesting it theoretically and practically, but above all because it does not represent a compromise between an authoritarian and a democratic practice, as occurs in civil juridical orders.
Although assuming different values (even if it remains identical from the formal perspective), according to whether it is exercised by presbyters with regard to the bishop or by members of the laity with regard to the presbyters and the bishop, the consultative vote assumes a binding force which derives from the intrinsic nature of the communion, determined by the principle of the reciprocal immanence of the elements.
In so far as it is a possible juridical expression of a dynamism inherent in the constitutional nature of the Church, the consultative vote acquires a significance not dissimilar to that of the deliberative vote, both because it institutionally expresses a relationship of necessary reciprocity, but also because it does not express a juridical position of power, but a testimony of faith, whose binding force cannot be adequately measured and limited in juridical terms. In fact, the truth of faith can emerge with an evidence that is intrinsically binding even from the testimony of a simple member of the faithful, which pastors must take account of, unless they are to be gravely lacking in their ministerial function. 27
At the level of the universal Church, the consultative vote can be applied to express the relation of synodality inherent in the primatial ministry of the Pope with regard to the other bishops. As a personal subject through which the college of bishops becomes operative, the Pope, although remaining the only one responsible for his act, is determined by the synodal relationship which ties him to the other bishops, both in virtue of the fact that he is invested with the same Sacrament and the same Word, as well as due to the fact that the Church Rome, of which he is the bishop, belongs in a constitutive way to the “communio Ecclesiarum.”
This relationship of ontological dependence can be made juridically explicit through a consultative vote of a part of the bishops of the college. However, it would necessarily be transformed into a deliberative vote in the case in which all the bishops were interrogated, since in this case the bishops with the Pope would represent the college in its totality, and the operating subject would synodally be the college as such.
Whereas the relation of the college to the Pope is expressed from the point of view of the collegial act through a deliberative vote, the relationship of Pope to college can be expressed through a consultative vote of a part of the bishops. The consultative character of the vote of the synod of bishops does not depend on the fact that it is not a collegial act in the technical-juridical sense. In fact, even the consultative vote, in that it is a vote of the synod and not only of a majority, is a technically collegial act. Its consultative character depends instead on the fact that it does not ecclesiologically represent the college as a totality (even while operating on the basis of their “potestas propria,” since the bishops by their nature must be of aid to the Pope), and therefore it does not express the testimony of all the other bishops.
It follows that the consultative vote, although it is a clear (even if not rigorously necessary) expression of synodality, is as such reformable by the deliberative vote of an ecumenical council, unless of course it has already been assumed as an irreformable primatial act of the head of the college.

IV. Conclusions

In conclusion, it can be affirmed that synodality is a dimension inherent in the nature of the episcopal ministry. It emerges in its ontological structure from the principle of communio, which postulates the immanence of the universal in the particular and of the particular in the universal. It is determined by the fact that all the bishops participate in the same grade of the sacrament of Orders, which also includes the Word, and from the fact that the Church of Christ is realized with a particular and a universal dimension.
In the exercise of the sacra potestas, synodality is sacramentally expressed above all in concelebration, but it assumes all its expressive capacities only when it operates through the structural logic of the communication of the Word, that is, of the so-called power of jurisdiction.

Only the Word – in contrast to the sacramental dimension – is capable of assuming a more universal binding force than the personal pronouncement of an individual bishop or a pronouncement expressed synodally by a group of bishops. This comes from the possibility for such a pronouncement to be integrated in fact (as in parallel acts) or by law (as in collegial acts) with a doctrinal or disciplinary judgment of the college, whether it is expressed through its head, or through the totality of its members with the Pope.




* First published: “Ontologia della sinodalità,” in: Pastor bonus in Populo. Figura, ruolo e funzioni del vescovo nella Chiesa, ed. by A. Autiero and O. Carena, Rome 1990, pp. 303-329.

1  For a first approach to the problems posed by participation, we refer the reader to our studies: “Synodality,” in: Nuovo Dizionario di Teologia, ed. by G. Barbaglio and S. Dianich, Rome 1982³, pp. 1466-1495; “I laici nel nuovo Codice di Diritto Canonico,” La Scuola Cattolica 112 (1984), 194-218.

2  Cf. O. Saier, Die Communio in der Lehre des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils (Munich 1973); cf., however, the observations in this regard by G. Alberigo, “Istituzioni per la comunione tra l’episcopato universale e il vescovo di Roma,” in: Id. (ed.), L’Ecclesiologia del Vaticano II: Dinamismi e Prospettive (Bologna 1981), pp. 233-242, esp. note 11.

3  In the use made by canonical theory of this term, the equivocation has been introduced according to which collegiality would require the permanence of an ecumenical council; cf., for example, Y. Congar, “Konziliare Struktur oder konziliare Regierungsform der Kirche,” Concilium 19 (1983), 501-506; G. Alberigo, “Istituzioni per la comunione,” loc. cit., pp. 235-262.

4  Cf. W. Aymans, Das synodale Element in der Kirchenverfassung, (Munich 1970), pp. 196-201.

5  Cf. W. Aymans, Kollegium und kollegialer Akt im kanonischen Recht (Munich 1969), pp. 88-91.

6  Cf. K. Mörsdorf, “Munus regendi et potestas iurisdictionis,” in: Acta Conventus Internationalis Canonistarum Romae diebus 20-25 maii 1968 celebrati (Vatican City 1970), pp. 199-211.

7  Cf. CD 38, 1; can. 447.

8  For an analysis of real synodal activity conducted in the course of history, cf. E. Corecco, La formazione della Chiesa cattolica negli Stati Uniti d’America attraverso l’attività sinodale (Brescia 1970), pp. 41-84, with tables in the appendix; cf. also S. C. Bonicelli, I concili particolari da Graziano al Concilio di Trento (Brescia 1971).

9  Cf. P. de Vooght, “Le conciliarisme aux conciles de Constance et de Bâle,” in: Le concile et les conciles (Paris 1960), pp. 179-180; G. Alberigo, Lo sviluppo della dottrina sui poteri nella Chiesa universale. Momenti essenziali tra il XVI e il XIX secolo (Rome/Freiburg/Basel/Barcelona/Vienna 1964), p. 12.

10  Cf. W. Aymans, Das synodale Element, loc. cit., pp. 318-324.

11  Cf. the discourse of John Paul II of December 21, 1984 to the Cardinals and to the Roman Curia, in which he affirms: “In fact, there is an ontological relationship of mutual inclusion between the individual particular Churches. Every particular Church, in so far as she is a realization of the one Church of Christ, is present in some way in all the particular Churches, in which and from which the one and only Catholic Church has her existence (LG 23)” (“V’è infatti tra le singole Chiese particolari un rapporto ontologico di vicendevole inclusione: ogni Chiesa particolare, in quanto realizzazione dell’unica Chiesa di Cristo, è in qualche modo presente in tutte le Chiese particolari, nelle quali e dalle quali ha la sua esistenza la Chiesa cattolica, una ed unica [LG 23]”), La Traccia – L’insegnamento di Giovanni Paolo II, 11, (1985), pp. 1429-1435.

12  The relationship of reciprocal immanence is also realized, for example, between the Word and the sacraments, between the ministerial and common priesthood, and between the duty and the rights of the faithful in the Church; cf. E. Corecco, “Il catalogo dei doveri-diritti del fedele nel CIC,” in: Atti del V Colloquio Giuridico dell’Università Lateranense of 1984 (in process of publication).

13  Cf. D. Pirson, “Personalität und Kollegialität des kirchlichen Amtes,” ZevKR 19 (1974), 337-355.

14  Cf. M. Philipson, “La Santissima Trinità e la Chiesa,” in: La Chiesa del Vaticano II, ed. by G. Baraúna (Florence 1965), pp. 327-350; E. Zoghby, “Unità e diversità della Chiesa,” in ibid., pp. 522-540.

15  G. Söhngen, in his book Symbol und Wirklichkeit im Kultmysterium (Bonn 1937), p. 18, has expressed the problem with this significant formulation: “Vom Worte wird das Sakrament mit der Fülle mächtiger Geistlichkeit und vom Sakrament wird das Wort mit der Fülle geistlicher Wirklichkeit erfüllt.” The determination with which J. Beyer opposes the usage of the term “Sacrament” in the singular instead of the plural, when it is a matter of denoting the entire sacramental reality as such, seems superfluous. Cf. “Il nuovo codice di diritto canonico,” La Scuola Cattolica 112 (1984), 131 n. 21.

16  Cf. K. Mörsdorf, “Die Entwicklung der Zweigliedrigkeit der kirchlichen Hierarchie,” MThZ 3 (1952), 1-16; A. -M. Stickler, “Die Zweigliedrigkeit der Kirchengewalt bei Laurentius Hispanus,” in Ius Sacrum, Klaus Mörsdorf zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. by A. Scheuermann and G. May (Munich/Paderborn/Vienna 1969), pp. 181-206.

17  Cf. E. Corecco, “Natura e struttura della “Sacra potestas” nella dottrina e nel nuovo Codice di Diritto Canonico,” Communio 75 (1984), 24-52.

18  On the problem of the relationship of the universal and particular Church, cf. J. Ratzinger, “Probleme und Hoffnungen des anglikanisch-katholischen Dialogs,” IKZ Communio 12 (1983), 244-259.

19  Cf., for example, V. Pospischil, Der Patriarch in der Serbisch-Orthodoxen Kirche (Vienna, 1966); R. Potz, Patriarch und Synode in Konstantinopel (Vienna 1971).

20  For the problem of the reception of Vatican II in the Code with regard to ecumenical councils, cf. the issue of Concilium 19 (1983). If it is true that the Code has preferred the hierarchical formulations of the Nexp. to the more open formulations of LG, and has put the ecumenical council in a systematic position of secondary importance (even with respect to the Code of 1917), the affirmation does not seem to be as plausible, however, according to which the Code has attributed a substantial and systematic priority to the college of bishops over the ecumenical council. The subject of the “plena, suprema, universalis potestas” is not the council as such, in fact, but the college of bishops, even during the celebration of a council.

21  Even if the problem of possible limits imposed by collegiality on the primacy has not yet found concrete responses, the hypothesis of attributing to a permanent synod of bishops the legitimacy to represent the entire college does not seem to be plausible, since no one in the Church (and thus not even the bishops) can have himself represented in the act of giving witness to his own faith. Both the compromise formula of can. 343, by which the Pope can attribute a deliberative vote to the synod, as well as the hypothesis of admitting an appeal from a possible permanent synod to a council, are juridical surrogates useful perhaps to encourage a more intense synodal practice at the level of the universal Church, but not capable of theoretically resolving the problem of the limits provoked by the principle of collegiality over the primacy. On these questions, cf., for example, the projected statutes for a new synod of bishops developed by G. Alberigo, “Appunti per organi collegiali nella Chiesa cattolica,” in: L’ecclesiologia del Vaticano II, loc. cit., pp. 262-266, with the counter-observations made by J. Lécuyer, pp. 267-270.

22  It is interesting to note that for both of these cases, can. 353 § 1 uses the expression “collegiali actione.”

23   In contrast to W. Bertrams, “De Synodi Episcoporum potestate cooperandi in exercitio potestatis primatialis,” in: Quaestiones Fundamentales Iuris Canonici, Rome 1969, esp. pp. 501-507, we hold that even maintaining the thesis that there is one subject of power in the Church (the college of bishops as such), it is possible to attribute to the synod a character that is solely consultative (even due to a “potestas” that is proper and not merely delegated). Also in this case, the synod does not represent the college in its totality, since the bishops cannot have themselves represented in the witness of their faith. On all these problems we refer the reader globally to the very accurate analysis contained in the large monograph by G. P. Milano, Il Sinodo dei Vescovi (1985), in process of publication.

24  On this entire question, cf. E. Corecco, “Parlamento ecclesiale o diaconia sinodale?,” Strumento Internazionale per un Lavoro Teologico: Communio 1 (1972), 32-44.

25  The new Code does not express itself on this problem, but there is no reason to hold that the consciousness of the Church has changed on this point. Can. 224 § 2 of the Code of 1917, although it did not recognize any right to a vote for a representative of a bishop, attributes to them at least the right of putting their signature (as a witness) on the conciliar decrees.

26  The consultative vote of the laity should not be misunderstood as a simple “aid” given to the ordained ministers, as does A. Acerbi in “L’ecclesiologia sottesa alle istituzioni ecclesiali post-conciliari,” in: L’Ecclesiologia del Vaticano II, loc. cit., pp. 226-228. The function of the common priesthood and the “sensus fidei” is not that of aiding the ministerial priesthood, but of expressing their own testimony and their own opinion on faith and ecclesial discipline.

27  It is sufficient to recall the text of LG 12 in which it is affirmed that “those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and proper use of these gifts, through their office not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good (cf. 1 Th 5:12 and 19-21),” in order to realize the juridical significance of charisms and thus of the duty of the pastors, which can also be juridically exacted.