Reply to Fr. Murray on Lay Voters at Synods

In his article of 27 March 2023, Fr. Gerald E. Murray objects to a decision of Pope Francis in his 15 September 2018 document Episcopalis Communio. Murray’s main objection is that lay men and women are permitted to vote in a Synod of Bishops, which includes the Synod on Synodality, presently underway. Fr. Murray’s objection ignores the institution of this rule in 2018, and treats a 10 March 2023 interview with journalist Elisabetta Pique of La Nacion as if the Pope newly established this rule of lay voters at that time. Instead, the earlier 15 Sept 2018 document Episcopalis Communio clearly permits voting by non-Bishops, including the laity. Two paragraphs on this point in EC are crucial:

8. The Synod of Bishops, which is “in some manner the image” of an Ecumenical Council and reflects its “spirit and method”, is composed of Bishops. Nevertheless, as also happened at the Council, certain others who are not Bishops may be summoned to the Synod Assembly; their role is determined in each case by the Roman Pontiff. In this connection, special consideration must be given to the contribution that can be offered by members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. [Episcopalis Communio 8]

Note the assertion that the participation of “certain others who are not Bishops” has been an established practice in past Ecumenical Councils. (So certainly non-Bishops can participate in a lesser gathering, such as a Synod.) Then the sentence continues, asserting that the role of these others is determined by the Roman Pontiff. Then the document declares that “in this connection”, i.e. as related to the participation of non-Bishops, “members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life” deserve special consideration. While a religious can be ordained, these “members” are generally lay (non-ordained) men and women. Some institutes of consecrated life are secular, not requiring vows. Societies of Apostolic Life are substantially different from religious institutes of consecrated life, and largely consist of lay persons in an active ministry, living in the secular world.

The above quoted paragraph clearly envisions lay persons as possible voting members of a Synod. They cannot automatically vote, as the participating Bishops can. However, their role is discussed in the paragraph on the voting members. And the text clearly asserts that the Pope can determine their role. Only in the next paragraph is there a discussion of “invited guests”, as opposed to voting members. Thus, the “members” are Bishops as well as others the Roman Pontiff determines to be among the Synod members, with the clear possibility of voting lay members. They can only vote if the Roman Pontiff determines that will be within their role. But as they are categorized as members, along with voting Bishops, this voting role is stated in this papal document as permissible within the Church at a Synod of Bishops.

Besides the members, certain invited guests without voting rights may attend the Synod Assembly. These include Experts (Periti), who help with the redaction of documents; Auditors (Auditores), who have particular competence regarding the issues under discussion; Fraternal Delegates from Churches and Ecclesial Communities not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. To these may be added further special guests (Invitati Speciales), chosen because of their acknowledged authority. [Episcopalis Communio 8]

Only in the second paragraph above does the document consider the non-voting “invited guests”, who are not categorized as being among the members of the Synod, specifically because these guests cannot vote. These invited guests can be clergy, or laity, or even non-Catholic Christians, who are members of other churches or religious communities (clearly referring to Orthodox Churches or Protestant denominations). These guests cannot vote, period. They are not members, like the “certain others who are not Bishops” but who are nevertheless called members of the Synod.

This term is very broad: “others who are not Bishops”. Since Bishops can be members, and non-Catholic Christians are included in the category of invited guests, what is left to the category of non-Bishop members are priests, deacons, religious, and lay persons in the Catholic Church. Nothing in the above text narrows the category of members to only clergy and religious. While “special consideration must be given” to religious (including non-vowed lay religious), the text does not limit non-Bishop members to clergy and religious.

And since their role as non-Bishop members is exclusively and authoritatively determined by the Roman Pontiff, he certainly can make them voting members. Only the invited guests are categorically non-voters at the Synod. So the document EC clearly permits lay voting members of the Synod. Then, as the document EC points out, even Ecumenical Councils have had non-Bishops who attended, having been summoned by the Roman Pontiff or the Ecumenical Council itself, such as the experts (periti) of Vatican II. And while they did not vote, they had much influence, reportedly even helping to write some of the documents which were later approved by the Roman Pontiff. And writing what becomes a teaching of an Ecumenical Council is a greater role than voting at a Synod of Bishops.

However, I must point out, first and foremost, that the Roman Pontiff has the full authority of Christ over both doctrine and discipline. When Peter opens, no one can close; when Peter closes, no one can open. Peter holds the Keys — the two Keys of authority over the Church, the one Key over doctrine and the other Key over discipline. So if the successor of Peter permits certain non-Bishops to vote, they are permitted to vote.

Then, finally, the voting of the Synod members, whether comprised entirely of Bishops or with some lay voting, is subject entirely to the authority of the Roman Pontiff. He is not obligated by a majority vote by the Bishops, and so he is not obligated by a majority vote that includes lay voters.

From this perspective, “the fact that the Synod ordinarily has only a consultative role does not diminish its importance. In the Church the purpose of any collegial body, whether consultative or deliberative, is always the search for truth or the good of the Church. When it is therefore a question involving the faith itself, the consensus ecclesiae is not determined by the tallying of votes, but is the outcome of the working of the Spirit, the soul of the one Church of Christ”. Therefore the vote of the Synod Fathers, “if morally unanimous, has a qualitative ecclesial weight which surpasses the merely formal aspect of the consultative vote”. [Episcopalis Communio7]

Therefore, when permission is given to lay members to vote, their vote cannot in any way harm or corrupt the teaching authority of the Church and its effectiveness in teaching truth. The Roman Pontiff is not obligated to abide by the majority vote, even if by Bishops alone. The consultative conclusions of a Synod, in regard to teachings or decisions of discipline, are “not determined by the tallying of votes”. The Pope can ignore lay votes, if these interfere in any way with the proper exercise of doctrine and discipline, just as any Pope can exercise the same and an even greater authority over an Ecumenical Council.

Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 14: “The 28th Canon of the Council of Chalcedon, by the very fact that it lacks the assent and approval of the Apostolic See, is admitted by all to be worthless. Rightly, therefore, has Leo X laid down in the 5th council of Lateran ‘that the Roman Pontiff alone, as having authority over all Councils, has full jurisdiction and power to summon, to transfer, to dissolve Councils, as is clear, not only from the testimony of Holy Writ, from the teaching of the Fathers and of the Roman Pontiffs, and from the decrees of the sacred canons, but from the teaching of the very Councils themselves.’ Indeed, Holy Writ attests that the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven were given to Peter alone, and that the power of binding and loosening was granted to the Apostles and to Peter; but there is nothing to show that the Apostles received supreme power without Peter, and against Peter. Such power they certainly did not receive from Jesus Christ.”

The 28th Canon of the valid Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon was rejected by the papal legates, who were priests, not Bishops. And this rejection stood, certainly with the confirmation of the Roman Pontiff, against the majority decision of all the Bishops gathered at that Ecumenical Council. So in no way can permitting lay persons to vote at a Synod of Bishops — a lesser gathering that is only consultative — in any way harm doctrine or discipline.

Consider the example of the the Second Council of Constantinople:

The emperor Justinian and Pope Vigilius decided to summon this council after the latter withdrew his “Judgment” condemning the “Three Chapters” of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret and Ibas. This “Judgment” had been issued on 11 April 548 but the bishops of the west and especially of Africa unanimously opposed it. The council was summoned by Justinian to Constantinople, although Vigilius would have preferred to convene it in Sicily or Italy so that western bishops might be present….

Since the Roman pontiff refused to take part in the council, because Justinian had summoned bishops in equal numbers from each of the five patriarchal Sees, so that there would be many more eastern than western bishops present, Eutychius, patriarch of Constantinople, presided. The decrees of the council were signed by 160 bishops, of whom 8 were Africans.

After carefully considering the matter for six months, Vigilius ,weighing up the persecutions of Justinian against his clergy and having sent a letter to Eutychius of Constantinople, approved the council, thus changing his mind “after the example of Augustine”.

Notice that Pope Vigilius wanted the Council to be held in Italy, but the emperor’s decision prevailed. Then the Pope refused to participate in the Council, because the emperor, a lay person, had chosen the number and location of the Bishops to be summoned to the Council. But finally, the Pope did approve of the Council. Now the emperor does not have formal authority over an Ecumenical Council. And the Roman Pontiff can dissolve such a Council, or nullify some or all of its decisions. So if the Bishops gather, at the summoning of the Catholic Christian Roman emperor, no harm is done. In the case of Constantinople II, Pope Vigilius, after due consideration and the repeated appeal from the Bishops to him for his authoritative decision, he approved the Council and its documents.

But the important point for the current consideration is that a lay person, the emperor, had great influence over an Ecumenical Council. But the approval of the Pope was still required. Similarly, in a Synod of Bishops in which the laity can vote, the approval of the Pope determines everything in the end. And whatever the Synod may decide, if indeed it is approved by the Roman Pontiff, has only the authority of the ordinary non-infallible papal magisterium:

If it is expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter. [EC, Article 18, n. 1]

But, as Pope Leo XIII taught, quoting the Ecumenical Council of Lateran V under Leo X, “the Roman Pontiff alone, as having authority over all Councils, has full jurisdiction and power to summon, to transfer, to dissolve Councils.” Therefore, the Roman Pontiff also has the same authority over lesser gatherings in the Church, whether of Bishops only, or of Bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and other laity. And if he can summon, transfer, or dissolve such gatherings, and can also nullify part of what the gathering decides (as in the case of Canon 28 above), then certainly the Roman Pontiff has full authority over whatever a Synod may write or vote. The Pope’s authority protects the conclusions and final documents of a Synod, since he is not obligated by the vote.

Then the indefectibility of the Church, and the charism of truth and never-failing faith of the Roman Pontiff absolutely protects decisions of the Roman Pontiff on doctrine and discipline, whether in regard to a Synod, an Ecumenical Council, or any other exercise of the Keys of Peter, from grave error. A non-infallible decision of a Synod, approved by the Pope, can only possibly err to a less than grave extent, since the approved decisions of the final document participate only in the ordinary papal magisterium, not his extraordinary infallible magisterium.

Fr. Gerald Murray’s Objections

In his article “Another Revolution in the Church”, Fr. Gerald E. Murray objects to lay voting in the Synod of Bishops, the current iteration of which is the “Synod on Synodality”.

Murray: “So now lay men and women will be voting members of the Synod of Bishops, on an equal footing with the bishops. With this revamping, the Synod of Bishops has ceased to exist, and a new de facto entity has come into existence, the Synod of Bishops and Laity. This new arrangement represents a revolution in the Church. The laity can now exercise an important function previously restricted to bishops (and by law to a few selected priests).”

Only some of the laity at the Synod (lay members, not lay invited guests) can vote with the Bishops. This does not put them on an equal footing with the Bishops, who can dispense all seven Sacraments, who are successors to the Apostles, and members of the Apostolic College with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, as their head. And since the voting and Synod itself are merely consultative, and in no way bind the Pope to approve the Synod decisions, these lay voters have no real authority over doctrine or discipline.

The idea that allowing some lay persons to vote with Bishops causes the Synod of Bishops to cease to exist is exaggeration to the extent of falsehood. And note the irony of applying such a claim to the Synod on Synodality, whose purpose is to consult with the laity as well as non-Bishop clergy and religious. If the purpose of the Synod itself is to consult the faithful in addition to the Bishops, having other clergy, religious and laity vote is fitting to the particular Synod. And a future Pope can easily change this rule, since the document in question, Episcopalis Communio, only allows lay voting members if the Pope happens to permit for that Synod. So this transient changeable permission in no way destroys or revolutionizes the Synod of Bishops.

Notice that Fr. Murray undermines his own position by complaining that non-Bishops are now supposedly on an “equal footing” to Bishops — but then he allows that some priests can vote because it is permitted by law. Since the Roman Pontiff has the authority to change Canon Law, and to issue dispensations from the Law, Murray’s argument that only certain non-Bishops are permitted by law is foolish. The authority of the Pope is above the authority of Canon Law (things that are per se of the law, and not merely direct expressions of doctrine). If it is permissible and even acceptable to Murray that non-Bishops vote because it is in the law, then why does he not accept the authority of EC and Pope Francis on the same point?

Fr. Murray then quotes EC — just as I quoted it above — and then he concludes: “Religious and laity who are not in holy orders can be summoned, but they cannot exercise the same role as bishops. This has been the consistent practice until now.” False. As explained at length above, that paragraph is on voting members, and it clearly permits lay religious and other non-Bishops to vote, with the permission of the Roman Pontiff. Consistent practice cannot contradict the authority of the Roman Pontiff. And the document cited by Murray essentially contradicts his own position. These religious and laity are not merely summoned, like the invited guests, instead they are also made voting members by the Roman Pontiff, as the text clearly implies.

Murray then cites and misinterprets Canon law — which makes the same statement as just discussed from EC.

Canon 346 §1 is clear on who make up the membership of this ecclesial institution: “A synod of bishops assembled in an ordinary general session consists of members of whom the greater part are bishops elected for each session by the conferences of bishops according to the method determined by the special law of the synod; others are designated by virtue of the same law; others are appointed directly by the Roman Pontiff; to these are added some members of clerical religious institutes elected according to the norm of the same special law.” [Note: “others” means “other bishops”] The only non-bishops who can become members of the synod are clerics who are members of religious orders. Until now.

The text states: “others are appointed directly by the Roman Pontiff; to these are added some members of clerical religious institutes….” These “others” include members of religious institutes, which certainly can include laity, as EC makes clear. Murray’s attempt to change the meaning of the Law by restricting “others” to Bishops contradicts the text of the Law and of EC.

Murray: “Pope Francis’ announcement that “all” who are named “participants” in the upcoming Synod on Synodality will have the vote, including lay men and women, alters the nature of the Synod of Bishops.”

Fr. Murray then claims that the assertion by Pope Francis that all participants in the Synod may vote alters the nature of the Synod of Bishops. First, by using the word “participants”, Pope Francis likely meant the members who participate most fully in the Synod by voting, excluding invited guests. But the Pope does have the authority to have no invited guests, and only have voting members at the Synod. Nothing requires invited non-voting guests. So the Pope can give permission to all participants to vote, either way. And as already discussed, this does not change the nature of the Synod, a consultative body the rules for which can be changed from Synod to Synod and Pope to Pope.

Murray: “In short, the Synod of Bishops had been a meeting in which selected shepherds of the Church gather together with the chief shepherd to discuss and explore what best needs to be done to fulfill their divinely given mission to sanctify, teach, and govern Christ’s flock. Now, we have a totally different assembly in which lay people who are not sacramentally conformed by holy orders to Christ the High Priest will be treated in law as equal to bishops. This is plain wrong”

Murray describes the Synod as if it were an Ecumenical Council. It is not. The purpose of the Synod is focused on one or a few topics, and is not as broad as Murray claims. And the Synod has no authority over the universal Church, unless the Pope approves its decisions, and he is not bound by the voting of Bishops, with or without lay voting. Then the authority is only that of the ordinary non-infallible papal Magisterium, and not the infallible extraordinary authority of an Ecumenical Council.

Then Fr. Murray continues his equivocation, of complaining that some voters are non-Bishops, but allowing ordained clergy in the next breath. In neither case are the non-bishops given a position “in law as equal to bishops”.

Fr. Murray: “This innovation must be resisted by the Church’s bishops. It conflicts with the dogmatic teaching of the Church on the nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in particular the nature of the episcopate.”

The above quote concludes Fr. Murray’s article. Note that the Roman Pontiff, even when exercising the Keys of Peter to the extent of non-infallible decisions of doctrine or discipline, is protected from grave error by the charism of truth and never-failing faith. Then, too, the body of Bishops has not objected to this permission for lay voting, first instituted in the 2018 document EC. And the body of Bishops, acting with the Pope, cannot go astray or lead astray, due to the indefectibility of the Church.

Finally, in no way does the permission for some lay persons to vote in a consultative body such as the Synod conflict with the nature of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, or the nature of the Episcopate.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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2 Responses to Reply to Fr. Murray on Lay Voters at Synods

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you very much for this detailed and most helpful critique of Fr. Murray’s article. The only point I would add is Fr. Murray’s attempt to cite canon
    canon 346.1 in the 1983 Code is also misguided because of what Episcopalis Communio says in art 27:

    “Art. 27: In the spirit of canon 20 of the Code of Canon Law and canon 1502 §2 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, upon promulgation and publication of the present Apostolic Constitution, all contrary provisions are duly abrogated, especially the following:
    1. those canons of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches that, in whole or in part, directly contradict any article of the present Apostolic Constitution”.

    It seems that Fr. Murray failed to take art. 27 of Episcopalis Communio into consideration. His attempt to cite canon 346.1 against the decision of the Roman Pontiff is without merit.

    Thank you again, Ron, for your article.

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