ROME — As a general rule, it’s probably not good practice to cite Karl Marx as an authority on ecclesiastical matters, since he famously dismissed religion as the “opiate of the masses” and gave rise to officially atheistic systems all over the world.

Still, there’s a Marx quote from “Das Kapital” that seems remarkably apposite in light of Pope Francis’ looming Synods of Bishops on Synodality, set for this October and October 2024: “Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.”

In that spirit, changes made under Francis to both the membership and process of the synod — while in one sense simply extending earlier revisions over the years — nevertheless, taken together, suggest we’re looking at a new ecclesiastical animal.

What we’ll see the next two Octobers, in effect, will be the debut of a Synod with Bishops, no longer just a Synod of Bishops.

To be clear, the post-Vatican II Synod of Bishops as conceived by Pope Paul VI, now St. Pope Paul VI, was never exclusively a body of bishops, as is the general practice in Orthodox Christianity, where synods are usually the supreme authority of the church. The “Holy and Sacred Synod,” for example, which governs the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, is composed of the patriarch and 12 other hierarchs, representing the 12 original apostles.

The same practice is true of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome. The permanent synod of the Syro-Malabar Church based in India, for example, consists of the major archbishop and five other bishops, with four bishops also as substitute members.

In his 1965 apostolic letter creating the synod, “Apostolica Sollicito” (“Apostolic Solicitation”), Paul VI allowed for the participation of a restricted number of additional clerics and religious, so that the post-Vatican II synod has always included a handful of nonbishop participants.

The clear intent, however, was that the Synod of Bishops would become a miniature version of the ecumenical council, since by the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the number of Catholic bishops in the world (now well in excess of 5,000) made summoning all of them to Rome again impractical.

The idea was to act on Vatican II’s stress on collegiality, meaning the idea that all the bishops together form a “college,” which is responsible for leading the Church in concert with the pope. It was, in other words, conceived primarily as a vehicle for allowing the world’s bishops to play a more regular and structured role in governance.

Over the years, the Vatican’s version of the synod evolved to include a whole series of other participants, including women religious and laity, ecumenical partners, and invited experts. None, however, generally had the right to cast votes on the synod’s conclusions, and in general the operation remained a bishops’ show with others as mere advisers, in somewhat the same role as the “periti,” or theological experts, at Vatican II.

This time around, however, the stage is set for a different kind of assembly.

Bishops will still cast the majority of votes, five religious women along with five religious men will also have voting privileges, as will 70 nonbishop members, at least half of whom will be women and most of whom presumably will be laity.

In effect, and despite the repeated insistence of Francis and his advisers that a synod is definitely not a parliament, this Synod with (not of) Bishops will be the closest thing the Catholic Church has ever had to a legislative branch of government.

In terms of form supporting function, even the setting of this gathering reflects the idea that it’s something fundamentally new. Instead of meeting in the New Synod Hall constructed under Paul VI precisely to accommodate a limited summit of bishops, this time participants will gather in the much larger Audience Hall to accommodate the larger cast of characters and also to facilitate easier transitions between plenary sessions and small working groups.

The working document for the synod, technically called an “Instrumentum Laboris” (“Working Instrument”), also reflects awareness that something new is stirring.

One question proposed for discussion asks how the consultation involved in a synod “truly captures the manifestation of the sense of faith of the People of God living in a given Church?”, meaning not just the bishops; another asks participants to ponder the creation of permanent ecclesial bodies composed of more than just bishops, such as the “Ecclesial Conference for the Amazon Region” established in 2020 that includes not just bishops but also religious, laity, representatives of indigenous communities, and others.

Presumably, that could be a down payment on the creation of some similar body at the level of the universal Church — either a further-transformed synod, or some entirely new institution. In any event, it certainly wouldn’t just be a gentleman’s club for members of the episcopacy.

Critics, naturally, will style all this as a worrying erosion of the unique teaching and governing authority invested in the episcopal office, while supporters likely will tout it as a long-overdue injection of democracy into what, in their eyes, all too often remains an all-male oligarchy.

As ever, settling that debate will require seeing how things play out. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, a leader of the synod and a key papal ally, has insisted that what’s underway is “an important change, but not a revolution.”

Make no mistake, however: What we’re about to witness this October isn’t a remembrance of things past, but a step into a different, somewhat less episcopally dominated, kind of future.