VATICAN CITY (RNS) — When the 450 bishops, priests, nuns and lay Catholics who participated in October’s nearly monthlong Synod on Synodality finished their work and made their recommendations in a closing report, they had not called for women to be ordained or the doctrine on homosexuality to be overhauled as many hoped and others feared.
It turned out that the synod was indeed mainly about synodality itself, which under Pope Francis means an openness to dialogue, with a focus on lay involvement and collegiality. As for changes to church governance, the most immediate action item seemed to be for bishops who didn’t already have a council of lay people institute one.
Kim Daniels, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, who was on the synod’s communications commission, said the synod made a priority of “co-responsibility and the involvement of lay people,” adding, “in particular of lay women.”
But when a church’s codes revolve so tightly around its hierarchy of popes, cardinals and bishops, inviting lay people into the everyday management of the church is in some cases a matter of church law more than custom. In their report, the synod’s participants called for “a wider revision of the Code of Canon Law” to clear the way for prelates to act with more synodality.
Many proposals put forward in the synod report are already achievable in canon law, according to Sister Sharon Euart, a canon lawyer and executive director of the Center for Religious Studies. “The canons do need to be reviewed and updated if necessary, but they also call for a fuller implementation of what is already included in the canons,” she said.
One example is pastoral councils, which are popular and already present in some three-quarters of dioceses in the United States, according to church data, though their presence varies in other parts of the world.
In canon law, pastoral councils are not required but are “very much recommended,” Euart said.
But for lay advisers to take a bigger role in their local church or diocesan decisions, some further change to canon law may be required. Geraldina Boni, a professor of canon law at the University of Bologna and author of the book ‘Law in the History of the Church’, said in an email interview that while lay people may now “offer a valuable help to bishops,” mentions of pastoral councils in canon law should not be misinterpreted to mean they are a power-wielding entity.
Another forum where lay Catholics might have a bigger voice are bishops’ conferences. In themselves, these meetings of a country’s prelates are examples of local control. But the synod participants requested “further study” of the “doctrinal and juridical nature” of bishops’ conferences, asking whether canons could be revised to allow lay people to participate in these bodies. As an example they pointed to the Plenary Council that took place in Australia with ample participation by lay Catholics.
According to Euart, “the canons are very broad” in their rules about bishops’ conferences, giving each conference latitude to establish its own statutes. While only bishops may vote, there is nothing in canon law preventing lay people from filling administrative roles, such as the general secretary.
“Some decision-making roles in the church that have traditionally been held by clerics, but do not require holy orders, should be open to everyone,” Euart said.
Currently, the rules about lay participation in bishops’ conferences vary widely, from the United States, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statutes say the general secretary should be a priest, even if canon law does not require it, to Germany, where church leaders have created a synodal committee that allows lay people to have a say at the diocesan level in parallel with bishops’ conferences.