It is sensible to remind ourselves that the 2015 follow-up Synod on the Family will not bring together all the bishops. They will be selected by their bishops’ conferences. Therefore, the bishops we hope to see there may not be there at all.
They are chosen as follows. First, from the Code of Canon Law, on the Synod of Bishops:
Can. 346 §1. 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.
Next, from Pope Paul VI’s Motu Proprio letter Apostolica Sollecitudo of 1966:
The Bishops who will represent individual national Conferences are to be chosen in this manner:
a) one for each national episcopal Conference which has 25 members or less;
b) two for each national episcopal Conference of no more than 50 members;
c) three for each national episcopal Conference which has more than 100 members.
The episcopal Conferences which take in a number of nations will choose their representatives on the same basis.
In choosing those who are to represent the episcopal Conferences of one or a number of nations and the religious institutes in the Synod of Bishops, great attention should be paid not just to the general knowledge and wisdom of individuals, but also to their theoretical and practical knowledge of the matter which the Synod is to take up.
The Supreme Pontiff may, if he so chooses, increase the number of members of the Synod of Bishops by adding bishops, or religious to represent the religious institutes, or clerics who are experts, to the extent of fifteen percent of the total number of the members mentioned in articles V and VIII.
The 1980 Synod of Bishops, on the subject of The Christian Family, took place in what was, in England and Wales, an atmosphere churned up by the National Pastoral Congress, which had been held in Liverpool earlier that year. As a resident of that archdiocese at the time, with a number of contacts among those who had attended the Congress or subsequent meetings and talks, I remember in particular that we were upset and worried by all the conflicting views that were being put forward on the Church, Her teachings, and the Mass. Some of these views were clearly in error.
One reported encounter stands out, given the situation in which we find the Church today. A person attended a talk in which a prominent priest of the archdiocese was challenged by a member of his audience to say whether the Church’s teaching against contraception was true. “Yes”, he was reported to have said, “in theory and in abstract”. The extension being planted into people’s minds was, of course: “But in practice and in reality …”. Haven’t we heard similar things in recent days, still going strong after more than three decades!
Incidentally, the priest on that occasion went on to become a very highly-placed member of the E&W hierarchy.
But back to the 1980 Synod in Rome. Two of our bishops were elected to attend it. They were Cardinal Hume of Westminster, and Archbishop Worlock of Liverpool.
Some time after the Synod, I read that the two men had agreed that each would press the Synod for change on a specific area: one would concentrate on contraception, the other on divorce-remarriage. As we know, they did not prevail. The following year, Pope John Paul II reiterated the Church's teaching in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio.
Interestingly, it is in this document that we find the clarification of another issue which appears to have been misrepresented at the recent Synod. Here is a reminder (with my emphasis) of what FC says on the question of gradualness, or graduality as some Synod Fathers have recently called it:
Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. "And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations. In God's plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God's command with serene confidence in God's grace and in his or her own will."(95) On the same lines, it is part of the Church's pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm.
In conclusion, I repeat the important question, the great uncertainty: Whom will the conferences elect? We all know of some real heroes of the Faith amongst our bishops. If they are not chosen to attend, let us not be downcast. Let us pray and trust that the “God of Surprises” will visit the hearts of those who do attend. We may find ourselves astonished to learn that among the Fathers of the next Synod there are hitherto-unsuspected episcopal lions, inspired with courage and with loving zeal for the true guidance of souls.