The Central Synod of Bishops

The Central Synod of Bishops represents the bishops of the Catholic Church through the world. It derives its authority from the mission bishops receive directly from Jesus Christ. The Central Synod of Bishops therefore exercises its authority in its own right, in parallel to the authority of the Pope and in close cooperation with it. See note 1 below.

The Central Synod of Bishops, under chairmanship of the Pope (see note 2 below), lays down the policies and strategies of the Catholic Church regarding relevant issues of the time. The Synod also determines the norms according to which office holders in the Church are impartially elected and/or selected. This applies to the college of cardinals, the election of bishops and archbishops of dioceses, and of experts appointed to international commissions. See note 3 below.

It is crucial that the autonomy of the Central Synod of Bishops should be safeguarded. See note 4 below. To achieve this: (i) more than 85% of its members should be elected by the national bishops conferences; (ii) the Synod should determine its own agenda; (iii) the Synod should publish its own reports and (iv) the functioning of the Central Synod between general assemblies should be overseen by an executive committee elected by the Synod members.


“The universal Church is not the sum total of the particular churches, and a particular church is not a division of the universal Church.The universal Church subsists in each particular church as the body of Christ is present, whole and undivided, in each Eucharistic celebration. The structure of the Church is consequently a union of communions in which the whole exists in each individual part . . . This communion of communions is sacramentalized in the college of bishops. Each bishop is the sacramental sign of the bond between the particular churches, for not only does the bishop function as mediator between Christ and the particular church, but the college of bishops functions as the visible bond between the particular churches.”
Prof Susan K. Wood SCL

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The Second Vatican Council envisaged a prominent role for the Synod of Bishops. But the present Synod does not meet the expectations of Vatican II. This failure has implications for the Church’s life and mission. The concentration of all decisive authority in the pope and curia undermines the significance of Vatican II teaching on collegiality-dialogue and participation in the exercise of authority in the Church.

[Ideal and Reality of the Synod of Bishops, T & T Clark 2012.] Dr Ignatius Aniekanabasi Edet


Its teaching on the collegiality of bishops was a major contribution of the Second Vatican Council. In an effort to complete the work of Vatican I and to balance an over-emphasis on papal primacy, the council sought to restore the proper relationship of bishops with their head . . . In more recent years, however, there appears to be a hesitation in some highly placed quarters, with regard to the collegiality of bishops. There are tendencies to restrict its significance, to weaken its structural expressions, and to question the very meaning of collegiality itself. It is as if the balance which the Second Vatican Council sought to restore in the Church is itself being questioned in the name of a re-emphasized papal centralism.  [Collegiality Put to the Test, CONCILIUM 1990, no 4]

James Provost & Knut Walf, Ed

NOTE 1. “Bishops chosen from the different parts of the world in a manner and according to a system determined or to be determined by the Roman Pontiff, will render to the Supreme Pastor a more effective auxiliary service in a council which shall be known by the special name of Synod of Bishops. This council, as it will be representative of the whole Catholic episcopate, will bear testimony to the participation of the bishops – through hierarchical communion – in the care of the universal Church.” Vatican Council II, Christus Dominus § 22.

NOTE 2. “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s sucessor, as its head . . .” Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium § 22.
Comment: However, the bishops have the right to freely express their opinions even if they oppose those of the Pope (see Gal 2,11-14), and the Synod may, on reflection, come to conclusions that differ from the original opinions of the Pope.

NOTE 3. Anindependent international electoral office will ensure that the norms of election/selection are properly put into practice.

NOTE 4. “Just as, in accordance with the Lord’s decree, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a unique apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s sucessor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united with each other.
Indeed, the very ancient discipline . . . of the holding of councils in order to settle conjointly all questions of major importance, in a decision rendered balanced and equitable by the discernment of many, points clearly to the collegiate character and structure of the episcopal order. The holding of councils in the course of centuries bears this out unmistakably.” Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium § 22.