My first immediate observation is that it is necessary to read the whole, and read each of its elements in the framework of the whole, and not to take out just this section or that section for one-sided approbation or equally one-sided derision. The text is a whole, and the vision it presents of a "synodal Church" is a whole. If it urges a "listening Church" it does so in a framework of hierarchical communion, with and under the bishop in the diocese, and, at the level of the universal Synod of Bishops, with and under Peter's successor. This requirement of communion does not give permission to that dissent that Pope Benedict memorably observed should be recognised for what it is. To suggest such would be to do Pope Francis a great disservice. The urge to "listen" is also about a style of action, not an idea that anything and everything that is said has value.
The section of the recent motu proprio reforming the sections of the Code of Canon Law relating to annulment of marriages (I link to the Italian text at the Vatican website, where there is, as yet, no English translation) that struck me most was the preamble. I was struck firstly by how it presented the office of the bishop towards the people of his diocese as being one with a juridical character. But I was then struck by the indication of an intention for the provisions that came later in the motu proprio to be provisions that empowered a bishop in this regard. So the bishop is discouraged from seeing the operation of his diocesan tribunal as a delegation of his office; it is rather a necessary collaboration of others that enables him to fulfil his office (cf his responsibility for appointing a judge). The part to be played by the episcopal conference is not one that should intrude on the bishops closeness to the people of his own diocese, but rather must respect the juridical office of the bishop in his own diocese.
I think this background gives an insight into the notion of "synodality" as exercised in the local diocese. Firstly, we have to read the reference to "healthy decentralisation" in the context from which it is cited, a passage in Evangelii Gaudium n.16:
Countless issues involving evangelization today might be discussed here, but I have chosen not to explore these many questions which call for further reflection and study. Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”.We are looking at the discernment of the situation of a local diocese and of activity in that diocese, not at putting Catholic teaching up for debate. If we also read carefully the reference in Pope Francis' address to the notion of "hierarchical communion", the exercise of synodality in the diocese depends upon the exercise by the bishop of his office in favour of communion, both within his own diocese and with the universal Church. The diocesan synod, and the activity of the other organs of communion in the diocese, will be truly synodal in nature in so far as the bishop fulfils his proper office towards them as the guardian of communion. In what he says about the way in which bishops should exercise their office, he clearly takes up the idea of closeness and proximity to the people that is apparent in the preamble to the motu proprio. I think, too, in talking about the way in which the organs of communion are called to operate in a diocese, Pope Francis does not envisage them as a kind of bureaucracy but as an immediate closeness to the real lives of the people. [And, as an aside, I wonder whether "listening" is really about surveys and responses to surveys .... a pastor who is close to his sheep, be he bishop or parish priest, "listens" as he exercises his office.]
Pope Francis' reference to episcopal conferences as being among "mediate instances" of the exercise of collegiality in the same sentence that he refers to an "integration and renewal of some of the aspects of the ancient ecclesiastical order" (which, if the motu proprio and Pope Francis' text itself gives any indication, possibly refers to the situation of metropolitan sees?) I find particularly interesting.
The idea of "synodality", particularly at a diocesan level and particularly in reference to the participation of the lay faithful, prompts another thought. Just as Pope Francis is suggesting that it is not for the Pope to take over the office of the bishop of the particular diocese but rather to respect the bishop's proper office with regard to his diocese; likewise the bishop or his priest co-worker cannot replace the office of the lay person in the Church, or vice versa. However badly the one is at fulfilling his calling, the other cannot step in and undo it. Rather, the call is that both should take on and fulfil their office in accordance with its demands. This respect for the different offices in the Church is, I suspect, a dimension of the notion of "synodality".
I haven't time to translate it, but below is the section of the address in which Pope Francis summarises the different levels of synodality in a Church that is "entirely synodal". One should not underestimate the reference to a "dynamism of communion" in the first sentence - "communion" here referring to an ecclesial reality which has been increasingly recognised in the teaching of Vatican II by those of the Communio school and others.
In una Chiesa sinodale, il Sinodo dei Vescovi è solo la più evidente manifestazione di un dinamismo di comunione che ispira tutte le decisioni ecclesiali.
Il primo livello di esercizio della sinodalità si realizza nelle Chiese particolari. Dopo aver richiamato la nobile istituzione del Sinodo diocesano, nel quale Presbiteri e Laici sono chiamati a collaborare con il Vescovo per il bene di tutta la comunità ecclesiale, il Codice di diritto canonico dedica ampio spazio a quelli che si è soliti chiamare gli "organismi di comunione" della Chiesa particolare: il Consiglio presbiterale, il Collegio dei Consultori, il Capitolo dei Canonici e il Consiglio pastorale. Soltanto nella misura in cui questi organismi rimangono connessi col "basso" e partono dalla gente, dai problemi di ogni giorno, può incominciare a prendere forma una Chiesa sinodale: tali strumenti, che qualche volta procedono con stanchezza, devono essere valorizzati come occasione di ascolto e condivisione.
Il secondo livello è quello delle Province e delle Regioni Ecclesiastiche, dei Concili Particolari e in modo speciale delle Conferenze Episcopali. Dobbiamo riflettere per realizzare ancor più, attraverso questi organismi, le istanze intermedie della collegialità, magari integrando e aggiornando alcuni aspetti dell'antico ordinamento ecclesiastico. L'auspicio del Concilio che tali organismi possano contribuire ad accrescere lo spirito della collegialità episcopale non si è ancora pienamente realizzato. Siamo a metà cammino, a parte del cammino. In una Chiesa sinodale, come ho già affermato, «non è opportuno che il Papa sostituisca gli Episcopati locali nel discernimento di tutte le problematiche che si prospettano nei loro territori. In questo senso, avverto la necessità di procedere in una salutare "decentralizzazione"».
L'ultimo livello è quello della Chiesa universale. Qui il Sinodo dei Vescovi, rappresentando l'episcopato cattolico, diventa espressione della collegialità episcopale all'interno di una Chiesa tutta sinodale. Due parole diverse: “collegialità episcopale” e “Chiesa tutta sinodale”. Esso manifesta la collegialitas affectiva, la quale può pure divenire in alcune circostanze "effettiva", che congiunge i Vescovi fra loro e con il Papa nella sollecitudine per il Popolo di Dio.