Synodality and decision-making: The whole community

Professor Rafael Luciani discusses the fundamentals of synodality-inspired decision-making in the Church.

Francis’s deepening of the synodal path advances our reflection on the ways in which all the faithful participate and to what extent they are incorporated in decision-making, as well as in the ministerial dimension of the Church.

Remember, too, the call made by Aparecida, namely, that all the faithful must participate in discernment, decision-taking, planning, and implementation (Aparecida 371).

In defining a synodal Church, the International Theological Commission follows this principle and provides us with two basic interpretive keys: 1. “In the synodal Church the whole community, in the free and rich diversity of its members, is called together to pray, listen, analyse, dialogue, discern and offer advice on taking pastoral decisions which correspond as closely as possible to God’s will.”

2. “A synodal Church is a Church of participation and co-responsibility. In exercising synodality, it is called to allow for the participation of all, according to each one’s calling, with the authority conferred by Christ on the College of Bishops headed by the Pope. Participation is based on the fact that all the faithful are qualified and are called to serve one another through the gifts they have all received from the Holy Spirit.”

Ultimately, what is at stake is the very model of Church that we can adopt. The ecclesiological model is decisive for conceiving the subjects and their modalities of participation, as well as for determining the role of ordained ministers in the decision-making and decision-taking processes.

If the Church is understood as being basically a missionary disciple, then “the totality of the people of God is the subject” of all the processes that must be discerned so that the Church can fulfill its mission.

As already stated, all the activities are oriented so that the “whole community makes pastoral decisions”. This supposes that if “synodality is the form that allows for the recognition of multiple subjectivities, all of which are necessary to fulfill the Church’s mission, though in different ways”, then no one can be excluded from the call to participate.


 Such participation necessarily involves, however, the recovery of a model of ministerial Church that can “activate in synodal synergy the ministries and charisms” that are present in ecclesial life for discerning its mission today.

A ministerial Church bases its relationships on charisms and gifts rather than on order and power. Hence, the processes for elaborating and making decisions should be conceived of in terms of horizontality and circularity.

Consequently, synodality cannot be limited to the convening of events, such as episcopal conferences or the celebration of synods. Synods are just one form of synodal event and structure. What is called for is the synodalisation of the whole Church because that is the pre-eminently ecclesial way of proceeding, and as such, it is a transversal lynchpin that, growing out of a fraternal ambience (affectus), gradually produces the bond that translates into decisions, which must then be institutionally and canonically formalised (effectus).

Synodality, therefore, requires “implementation in the local Church and on every level of the circular relationship linking pastoral ministry, lay participation and co-responsibility, and the impulses coming from charismatic gifts, according to the dynamic circularity among ‘one,’ ‘some,’ and ‘all’”.


When this relationship exists, it presupposes that the specific function of the ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons will be well co-ordinated with the community in which they live and serve. This is made possible, according to Gilles Routhier, through dialogue, which is the mechanism that gives form to the whole synodal process through a series of actions or practices such as expressing opinions, listening, and taking counsel, and furthermore, by proceeding in this way, the whole community will be represented in the decision made by the authority.

We can speak, then, of a synodal way of proceeding characterised by several steps that include the following: Taking counsel in the Church, which means seeing the reality, gathering data, and listening to diverse opinions; Judging and evaluating what is gathered in this process; Applying what is judged good to the mission of the Church – in other words, acting; And all this followed by permanent evaluations and accountable procedures.

When we use this method, it obliges us to implement dynamics that, Routhier claims: “Favour complete dissemination of information, encourage the search for and serene expression of various points of view, support study that helps ideas mature, frame the interchange and deliberation that lead to decision-making, promote feedback in order to understand better the directions taken, etc. These procedures encourage meetings, exchanges, and dialogues, thus establishing ongoing relationships and interactions among persons”.

The synodal process of decision-making

Regarding the modalities of participation and the creation of bonds, “it is necessary to distinguish between the process of decision-making through a joint exercise of discernment, consultation, and co-operation, and the decision-taking that is within the competence of the Bishop, the guarantor of apostolicity and Catholicity. Working things out is a synodal task; decision is a ministerial responsibility”.

Importantly, these two moments of the process are not to be considered as separate but as mutually reinforcing. That is why the International Theological Commission speaks of the circularity that integrates sensus fidei, discernment and authority by virtue of the baptismal dignity and co-responsibility of all.

If this circularity is effective, then the decision-making process will not be very different from the process that precedes the final decision that is taken. The entire people of God is challenged by its fundamentally synodal calling.

The circularity of the sensus fidei with which all the faithful are endowed, the discernment carried out at the various levels on which synodality works, and the authority of those who exercise the pastoral ministry of unity and governance, all demonstrate the dynamic of synodality.

This circularity promotes the baptismal dignity and co-responsibility of all, [and it] makes the most of the presence in the people of God of charisms dispensed by the Holy Spirit. 


The challenge, then, is to ensure that the modalities of participation with which this circularity functions can incorporate and involve subjects who, until now, have been absent or considered only auxiliary, and to produce binding decisions.

For this to happen, it is necessary to recognise the normative and reciprocal character of the vocation of every ecclesial subject in relation to the subject’s interaction with the rest. Once again, the problem we are facing is not merely methodological and functional; it is the problem of an ecclesiological model.

The Council reminds us that the Word of God has been entrusted to “the entire people of God united with their shepherds” (Dei Verbum 10) and that, because of this union, which is normative, they must “form one single consensus” (fidelium conspiratio).


That is why the International Theological Commission maintains that this circularity and the decisions arising from this circularity are binding on all and that its aim is to reach agreement “on discerning the truth and on the missionary path to take”.

Such agreement translates into decision, but not the reverse. The Commission states: “Synodality as an essential dimension of the Church is expressed on the level of the universal Church in the dynamic circularity of the consensus fidelium, episcopal collegiality and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. On this basis, the Church is asked from time to time to respond – in fidelity to the depositum fidei and in creative openness to the voice of the Spirit – to particular circumstances and challenges; she is called to set in motion a process of listening to all the subjects who together form the people of God in order to agree in discerning the truth and on the missionary path to take”.

The mechanisms and procedures of consultation cannot be the only factors, or even the most important factors, for arriving at decisions in a synodal process, and neither can the views of isolated individuals.

Rather, as we have insisted, dialogue and communal discernment are the essential elements in preparing to make decisions based on the practices of convergence and consensus building. The binding force is found in this aspect of the decision-making process.

Indeed, this element is what makes the process authentically synodal: when it is lacking, decision-taking can easily revert to the pyramidal ecclesial model that needs to be overcome. A concrete example of this can be found in the relationship between the consultative vote and the deliberative vote.

The consultative vote is a constituent part of the process that gives rise to the consensus fidelium; it represents the reciprocal relationship among laity, priests, and bishops without which no consensus could be formulated.

In this sense, it must be binding. In other words, the deliberative vote of the bishops must be made within the people of God, because it is the decisive testimony and final articulation of the process that begins with the consultative vote of all the faithful and in interaction with them.

Thus, the deliberative vote must express the sentire cum ecclesia and not simply the views of the hierarchy, as if they could subsist outside the communio fidelium. For this reason, the decision-taking of the many (episcopal collegiality) and the one (primacy) cannot be separated from the decision-making of all (the faithful, who include the bishops and the Pope).

Certainly, the consultation procedures are indispensable for making a more considered judgment about what should be discussed, but the participation of all in the mission of the Church goes far beyond that.

The reason why all must participate, as we have explained, is that the discernment, decision-taking, planning, and implementation (Aparecida 371) required for this mission are, in conscience, the responsibility of all and not just a few, and as such they must find adequate modalities and structures.


The challenge today is clear: the reform of mentalities must be linked to the reform of structures; what is more, a true synodalisation of the whole Church can be carried out only in conjunction with an organic revision of the Code of Canon Law.

It is useful here to recall the words of Cardinal Suenens when evaluating the Council: “The future of the new canon law will depend on how the principle of subsidiarity is applied…. The principle was reaffirmed at the first Synod of Bishops and has been considered theoretically solid. The success of the new code will depend on the extent to which it is inspired by the spirit of Vatican II and translates into legislation the theology of the Church we evoked at the start”.

We must recognise, then, that such a task always poses the question of the alignment of the Council’s ecclesiology and the Code of Canon Law and that needs, therefore, to bring together theologians and canon lawyers. Even so, after the Council, theologians were more preoccupied with studying the new ecclesiology and much less with its implications for creating new structures.

Similarly, canon lawyers centred their reflection more on the theological foundations of the new Code, and less on how the new ecclesiology would demand a non-clericalist institutional model of the Church based on the theological-structural implications of the normative character of chapter 2 of Lumen Gentium (On the People of God), as proposed by the Council fathers.


We conclude this section by agreeing with the challenge posed by Severino Dianich regarding the need of a reform of the current Code in relation to synodality: “The problem is that of the consequences to be drawn on the level of regulations, so that the subject of the fundamental activity of the Church, evangelisation, is also a determining subject for various components of the internal life of the community.

“The current normativity, between the attribution to all the faithful of the task of evangelisation—the principal source of the very existence of the Church – and their call to an active participation in the Eucharistic liturgy – which is the culmination of the life of the Church (SC 14) – does not give the lay faithful any specific role capable of determining the life of the community….The [lay] faithful do not have any instance in which, by expressing their own deliberative vote, something could be collegially decided”.

Part of the problem is that the reform of the 1917 Code was concluded in 1983, in a phase of the reception of the Council that had not fully received the model of Church as people of God walking in communion, a Church of churches.

Such a reception had yet to be fully realised. Synodality, as a deepening and advancement of the Council’s ecclesiology, and as a new ecclesial hermeneutic, offers a way to do that: its scope should be the synodalisation of the whole Church.

This extract is from Synodality – A New Way of Proceeding In The Church by Rafael Luciani and published by Paulist Press. Republished here with permission.

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