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The permanent secretariat for the Synod of Bishops in Rome announced Wednesday that the Vatican will allow for an increased number of lay voters during the upcoming “synod on synodality” assembly to be help in Rome this October, with a preference for “young” participants and at least an equal number of men and women.

Participants at the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family. Credit: ©Mazur/

The changes to the body’s membership come ahead of the Synod of Bishops’ 16th ordinary general assembly, due to be held in October.  That meeting will be the first of two assemblies forming the culmination of the worldwide synodal process inaugurated by Pope Francis in 2021.

But while media have widely reported that the 2023 synod will be the first time laity are invited to vote in the synod’s consultative body, lay religious — non-clerics — have been permitted to vote in previous synodal assemblies.

What’s changed?

According to the changes, published by the secretariat on April 26, membership of the synodal body will be widened in October to include voting lay members, including women religious as well as men and women from different parts of the world.

In October, 70 lay people will attend the meeting, chosen by Pope Francis from a list of 140 proposed candidates submitted by the synod’s continental organizers around the world. 

According to the synodal secretariat, the proposed candidates list should be made up of at least half women, and with an emphasis on “the presence of young people.” Preference is also supposed to be given to those with previous participation in the synodal process at different levels.

Five men and five women religious will also be chosen by the Union of Superiors General to attend and represent the Church’s institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, along with bishops elected to represent episcopal conferences around the world and officials chosen from Vatican curial departments,

While many media reports have claimed this will be the first time lay people have the ability to vote in a session of the synod of bishops, synodal assemblies in 2015 and 2018 included the voting participation of lay male members of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life. 

Under the previous norms for synodal participation, in addition to the elected and appointed bishop members, the Union of Superiors General of religious institutes sent 10 male delegates to participate in the assemblies. 

While these were meant to be clerical members, and expected to be ordained at least as priests, in 2015 the union elected Brother Hervé Janson, superior general of the Little Brothers of Jesus, to attend the synod on the family — he was admitted as a full voting member, despite being a layman. Brothers again were afforded voting rights at the 2018 synod on youth and young people.

But the October session will be the first occasion on which non-religious laity and women religious will be admitted as voting members of the body, rather than as auditors.

Another change is that, for the first time, countries too small to have their own episcopal conference will now be invited to send a bishop.


How many people are coming to the synod?

The short answer is, no one knows, yet.

According to Cardinal Mario Greach, who heads the permanent secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, the expected size of the synodal assembly will be around 370. And he has said he expects lay people to make up more than a fifth of the voting body.

But, in addition to the enumerated representatives proposed by bishops’ conferences — each of whom must be personally approved by the pope — suggested lay members, and those from religious orders, Pope Francis will also issue his own personal invitations to officials form curial departments and others he chooses from around the world.

So, the final synodal numbers won’t be known until the pope says he’s invited everyone he wants to have there, and approved all the proposed members himself.

What is the synod, exactly?

The word “synod” means “coming together,” or “journeying together,” and has a very ancient place in the life of the Church. In the Eastern Catholic Churches (who will be sending their own representatives), a synod refers to a kind of governing council of bishops, who share in the leadership responsibility of a Christian Church. But in the West, the term has a broader meaning. 

Although synods have been called in the Church for centuries, the process has had a renewed emphasis since Vatican Council II. Pope St. Paul VI created the permanent secretariat for the Synod of Bishops in Rome as a way of carrying on the global collaboration of bishops after the council.

The nature of a synod, outside of the Eastern Catholic Churches, is consultative — despite numerous media reports describing the body as “deliberative,” it does not actually have the power to enact any measures or settle any questions. 

Synods are convoked by an authority, at the diocesan level by the bishop and at the universal level by the pope, to advise him on a particular issue or question.

The Code of Canon Law defines the synod of bishops as “a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world” “to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel.”

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What the synod cannot do is teach or legislate on its own authority. 

“It is for the synod of bishops to discuss the questions for consideration and express its wishes but not to resolve them or issue decrees about them,” the law says, “unless in certain cases the Roman Pontiff has endowed it with deliberative power.” But even in those cases, it is the pope who “ratifies the decisions of the synod.”

In 2015, Pope Francis re-emphasized that a synod “is neither a convention, nor a parlor, nor a parliament or senate,” though even the synod’s own participants have at times appeared to frame it in those terms.

In 2021, when the global synodal process was inaugurated, Dr. Myriam Wijlens, an expert consultor to the synod’s permanent secretariat in the Vatican, called for a methodology of “receptive ecumenism” which, she said, approaches dialogue with the question “where are we [the Church] weak and where can we learn from the others.”

Wijlens went on to praise the Church of England’s model of a permanent general synod, with distinct quasi-parliamentary chambers for the laity, clergy, and episcopacy. Although that institution has led to fierce internal disagreements and institutional deadlock on a range of teaching issues within the CofE, Wijlens suggested it could be a point of positive reference for the Catholic Church’s global synodal process.

The synodal secretariat’s own documents have also made repeated references to the synodal process as articulating the sensus fidei, a term which can refer to a kind of universal - and somewhat authoritative - recognition of truth among the baptized. 

However, the use of that term has been disputed by many experts, theologians, and bishops, who have noted that the synodal process has deliberately created space for participants to voice points of view which go against Church teaching.

And despite the synod’s relator general stating that the synod on synodality “is not meant to change doctrine, but attitudes,” Cardinal Robert McElroy has insisted that the synodal process would be responsible for deciding “how to address the exclusion of divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. Catholics…on the issue of participation in the Eucharist,” and addressing “the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood,” even though Pope Francis has clearly addressed such topics. 

Despite these calls, in a 2018 treatise on synodality approved by Pope Francis and the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the International Theological Commission said that the exercise of authentic authority in any synodal process belongs to the bishops, properly the one who convokes a synod, and is “a specific gift of the Spirit of Christ the Head for the upbuilding of the entire Body, not a delegated and representative function of the people.”

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Still a synod ‘of bishops’?

Despite the expectation that lay people will make up more than 20% of the assembly in October, the synodal secretariat has been at pains to emphasize that their presence will not change the fundamentally episcopal nature of the synod.

In announcing the changes to the assembly on Tuesday, the synodal secretariat stressed “the Holy Father’s decision to maintain the specifically episcopal nature of the assembly convened in Rome, while at the same time not limiting its composition to bishops alone.”

That statement followed a letter sent to the world’s bishops earlier this year by the secretariat, which insisted that “there is no exercise of ecclesial synodality without exercise of episcopal collegiality.”

That same letter appeared to respond to growing concerns that, as typified by statements like Cardinal McElroy’s, the synodal process had become a mechanism for challenging or changing Church doctrine and ecclesiology.

On the contrary, the letter stated, the “sole theme” for discussion in October would be the nature of synodality in the life of the Church. “Other themes cannot be surreptitiously introduced, thereby exploiting the Assembly and disregarding the consultation of the People of God,” the letter said.

The Vatican’s emphasis on the central role of bishops, and on the nature of the synodal assembly as an exercise in authentic episcopal discernment and collegiality under the pope, follows vocal criticism from some quarters of the Church’s senior ranks.

In a posthumously published article in January, Cardinal George Pell said the synodal process had become a “toxic nightmare” and called the continental phase working document issued by the secretariat “one of the most incoherent documents ever sent out from Rome.”

Former Vatican doctrinal chief Cardinal Gerhard Müller, meanwhile,has described the synodal process as a “democratization, a de facto Protestantization” of the Church.

According to the announcement from the synodal secretariat on Tuesday, “the specifically episcopal nature of the synodal assembly is not affected, but rather is confirmed” by the fact that bishops will still make up more than three-quarters of the consultative body, and that the lay members are “not elected by some demos or coetus, whose representation they would take on, but are appointed by the Holy Father.”

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