DPC LogoSmallThe Role of the Parish Council in the Church of the 21st Century

Keynote Address at the Parish Council Leadership Forum, Part of the Initiative, “The Church and the 21st Century: From Crisis to Renewal,” Welch Dining Room, Lyons Hall, Boston College, June 22, 2003

By Mark F. Fischer, St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California

Part I: Pastoral Councils as a Vatican II Success Story

My topic today is “The Role of the Parish Council in the Church of the 21st Century.” But to understand councils in the present century, we have to consider how they arose in the last century. In 1965, the Vatican II Decree on Bishops recommended pastoral councils at the diocesan level. In 1973, this “pastoral council” idea was extended to parishes, and we first began to speak of parish “pastoral” councils. Then, in 1983, parish and diocesan pastoral councils were written into Canon Law. The council has the explicit task of investigating pastoral matters, reflecting on them, and recommending conclusions to a pastor – what today we would call pastoral planning. So the councils of the 21st century are rooted in developments that began with Vatican II.

The idea of pastoral councils has proven enormously successful. Today, almost forty years after Vatican II, they exist in the vast majority of parishes in the U.S.#1 Year 2000 statistics from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate show that 82 percent of 19,181 parishes have parish pastoral councils. That means that councils exist in more than 15,000 U.S. parishes. Parish pastoral councillors belong to a group of U.S. Catholics that is probably 150,000 members strong.

One of the reasons why pastoral councils are successful is that they have the backing of the U.S. bishops. A 1995 survey of 98 out of 175 dioceses measured the bishops’ support of councils in four ways.#2 Ninety percent of U.S. bishops publish guidelines for councils, the survey found, and 83% of dioceses mandate the establishment of parish pastoral councils. Sixty-two percent of dioceses have a Diocesan or Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, the survey found, and 65% employ support staff (on at least a part-time basis) to work with and promote councils. All of these things – guidelines for council, a mandate, an APC, and support staff – the Archdiocese of Boston has, or at least had in 1995. Canon Law does not mandate the existence of parish pastoral councils, but bishops can mandate them. The fact that they do, and the overall number of councils, indicate their general success in the US church.

Boston Councils in 1973

But now let’s talk about the Boston Church. Exactly thirty years ago, in 1973, the Archdiocese of Boston published an influential guideline for parish councils.#3 Such guidelines are not the most scintillating genre of literature ever published, but they indicate how church leaders understand councils. Boston’s 1973 guideline was superseded by another guideline published in 1989 after the archdiocese’s Eighth Synod.#4 The 1973 guideline, however, deserves our attention.

It stands out for three reasons. First of all, it stated that “parish council meetings are to be open to all parishioners.” This was a commonplace in the early days of the parish council movement. Movement leaders saw councils as instruments of widespread lay participation, rather than of the narrower task of pastoral planning as we understand it today. One early publication even described the parish council as “the parish in council.” Today, we would distinguish between the council itself (as a small working group) and parish convocations or assemblies (for gaining the advice of the entire parish community). But in the Boston archdiocese in 1973, that distinction did not yet exist. Council meetings were to be open to all.

A second distinctive feature of Boston’s 1973 guideline is the way it defined the scope of the parish council. It said that the scope of the council is “parish administrative matters,” not “higher level policy.” This distinction may indicate how simplistic our views of councils were in 1973. Today we can speculate that the 1973 guideline was trying to distinguish between the areas in which the laity could make a meaningful contribution (namely, “administrative matters”) and the areas which were over the laity’s head (“higher level policy”). In a remarkable reversal, Boston’s 1989 guideline steered councils away from parish administration to what it called “matters of broad consequence.” Today, of course, we would say that there is no aspect of practical parish life – certainly not the dimension of “policy” or even (in the 1973 guideline’s words) of “higher level policy” – that has no administrative consequences.

Canon 536 states that the real scope of the council is “pastoral matters.” These are the matters that pertain to the ministry of the pastor. They include teaching the Word of God, leading worship, building up the community, maintaining parish facilities, evangelizing, and promoting the common good of society. In 1973, the Boston guideline confined councils to “parish administrative matters.” In 1989, it steered councils away from administration and toward “matters of broad consequence.” But I would say that “pastoral matters,” the proper matter of councils, include almost any practical thing pertaining to the pastor.

“Decision-Making” Councils and the “Consultative-Only” Clause

A third distinctive feature about the 1973 guideline was its statement that Boston councils were to be decision-making bodies. Once again, this was common among early publications about councils. It meant that councils were more than figureheads. To add further weight to this assertion, Boston’s 1973 guideline (and the 1989 guideline) also allowed parish councils to appeal to archdiocesan authorities in the case of pastor-council disagreements. If pastor and council could not agree, they could refer the case to a higher authority, in Boston’s case, the regional vicar.

This proviso has a connection with the Code of Canon Law. Canon 536 states that parish pastoral councils enjoy only a consultative vote. The pastor consults the council. He is not obliged to take its advice. This canon is gradually putting an end to the proviso, more common to council guidelines in the late sixties and in the 1970s, of offering an avenue of appeal when councillors cannot agree with their pastor. If councils are consultative only, they should not complain if the pastor does not heed them – or so many believe after the 1983 Code.

So what do we learn from this review of Boston’s 1973 guideline for parish councils? I gather three lessons. First of all, the insistence on open council meetings meant that councils were intended to bring the wisdom of the parish to the pastor’s attention. Councils were not meant to be secret societies of the few parishioners who had the pastor’s ear. No, they were to speak the common sense, the communal opinion, the sensus communis, of the entire parish. That is why almost every council guideline, from the 1960s until now, says that councils are to be representative.

Secondly, the guideline from 1973 saw the need to limit the scope of the council. That is why the guideline distinguished between “parish administrative matters” and “higher level policy.” The 1973 distinction, as I said, was not very accurate or helpful. No one today would divorce administration from policy. But it pointed to something profoundly true. Pastoral councils cannot do everything. They have to be selective.

This brings us to the third lesson from 1973, the lesson about how to be selective. The 1973 guideline implied that the council itself, within the ambit of administrative matters, could make decisions. But after the 1983 publication of the Code, with its insistence that councils were “consultative only,” the pastor emerged more clearly as the final decision-maker. He consulted. Councillors apparently had become consultants.

Part II: Pastoral Councils in the 21st Century

If pastoral councillors are merely consultants, however (that is, people whose opinions pastors can just take or leave), their future is very dim. The idea of councillors as mere consultants appears to fly in the face of what we say about the Church as the entire People of God. Merely “consultative” councillors appear to undermine the dignity of the Body of Christ. If a pastor can take or leave the advice of his councillors, he seems to be saying (in a weird perversion of the words from St. Paul), “You are merely consultative appendages, you do not belong to the body.” Merely consultative seems to mean irrelevant, infantile, disposable, powerless, and inconsistent with the gospel.

For years I have been trying to understand why the Church insists that councils are “consultative-only.” Perhaps, I first thought, the Church did not really mean it.

I once hoped that councils are only “consultative” in certain areas – in the area of “higher level policy,” for example, as the Boston guideline from 1973 stated, but not consultative-only in the area of “administrative matters.” But that did not prove to be the case. Then I thought that perhaps the church compensated for the consultative-only clause in other ways. I once hoped that a bishop’s mandate to consult might weaken the consultative-only clause by forcing pastors to listen. But this did not prove true either.

So eventually I abandoned the hope that councils might not be other than consultative. The church unambiguously states that pastoral councils have a consultative vote only. So I adopted a new strategy. My strategy was to understand why the church insists that councils are only consultative. And this strategy has proved helpful. So let me tell you why the church teaches what it does. Then, after that, we can talk about whether canon 536 – where the consultative-only phrase is used – needs to be changed. I will begin with the meaning and assumptions behind the word “consultation.” Then I will talk about the philosophy and theology that consultation implies.

The Many Meanings of Consultation

It is easy for us to assume that consultation means only that the pastor has the final word. That was the turn that the late Bishop John Keating of Arlington gave it. He wrote that the parish pastoral council “is not a policy-making, decree-issuing, statue-formulating body.”#5 But Bishop Keating focused mainly on what councils are not. He did not clearly state what consultation is. If we want to know what the church means by consultation, we have to look at its positive content. I present this positive content in my book, “Pastoral Councils in Today’s Catholic Parish,” and I’d like to summarize it now.

When I first began working for the Diocese of Oakland, back in 1984, I had the good fortune to serve on the staff of Bishop John Cummins. I watched how Cummins consulted his Diocesan Pastoral Council. He taught me that consultation, far from being merely a negation or limit to the council’s authority, has a wide range of meanings. For Cummins, first of all, consultation meant allowing councillors to exercise their proper authority in the threefold work of investigating pastoral matters, reflecting, and proposing conclusions. He let the council liberate the power of truth to be genuinely persuasive.

Cummins was a consensus-seeker, and that is a second dimension of consultation. His aim in consulting the council was to establish a common viewpoint that united the members. Establishing a common viewpoint takes time and requires leadership, and these are essential to good consultation. A third item in Bishop Cummins’ consultative repertoire was the skill of ratification. When he detected the emergence of consensus, he would try to express it. When the expression of a common viewpoint met the approval of the council, he would formally ratify or affirm the expression. The council knew that he was a good shepherd, listening with a critical but appreciative ear.

At times, the unity between Bishop Cummins and the Diocesan Pastoral Council was so strong that I, as the DPC secretary, could not detect a difference between the council’s view and the bishop’s own. There was no gap between the council’s recommendations and the bishop’s acceptance of them. They worked so well together that I could say that the two, bishop and council, jointly made policy. To be sure, Cummins never forgot that the council’s point of view did not oblige him in a legal way. It was always “consultative-only.” But it was never “merely consultative.”

Assumptions Implicit in Consultation

So when the church says that councils have a consultative vote only, it says much more than what councils are not. Consultation implies a number of important assumptions. The first is about pastors. When a pastor establishes a council, the church assumes that he wants to learn from his people so that he can serve them better. To establish a council for any other reason – for example, to create a more favorable climate of public opinion, or to gain the assistance of an unpaid staff – is misleading if not downright harmful. Pastors establish councils because they want their councillors to accomplish the threefold task of the pastoral council (as expressed in the Vatican II Decree on Bishops), the task of investigating and reflecting on pastoral matters and recommending sound conclusions about them.

The word consultation also implies assumptions about council members. It implies that they are willing and able to do what the church asks of the pastoral council. They are free to really investigate the pastoral matter before them, perhaps by studying it, reading about it, interviewing parishioners, or discovering what other parishes are doing. Good councillors are also good at dialogue and reflection. They know how to listen to others, analyze what they have heard or read, think critically, and express themselves well. And finally, consultation implies that good councillors know how to reach a sound conclusion. They can synthesize various opinions, sacrifice their pet projects for the sake of the whole, and compromise. There is no good consultation without good councillors.

Incidentally, it is a Boston pastor, Father Michael Parise, who has written the most concrete description of a thorough process for electing pastoral council members.#6 In a 1995 article entitled “Forming Your Parish Pastoral Council,” Father Parise described the election of councillors after three meetings of discernment. He affirms a couple of important ideas. First, he believes that a pastor ought to give potential council members a clear idea of the council’s focus. And second, he affirms the idea that the election of council members in an open process that involves a number of meetings is better than the appointment of councillors by the pastor alone or with his staff.

So let me sum up so far. The church endorses the idea that pastors consult council members. Consultation has a variety of meanings apart from the legal stipulation that pastors are not obligated to take the council’s advice. Consultation also affirms the authority of the council’s wisdom, the importance of seeking consensus, the pastor’s role as ratifier, and the common motive that unites pastors and councillors. This broader vision of consultation presupposes that pastors want their councils to undertake the threefold task of investigating, reflecting, and recommending. It also presupposes councillors who are capable of this task and willing to do it thoroughly.

The Philosophy and Theology of Consultation

By way of conclusion, let me reflect for a few moments on the philosophy and theology implicit in consultation. I want to start from my basic premise. Pastors consult, and councillors want to be consulted. At the foundation of this assertion is the church’s hierarchical vision. It means, in short, that we Catholics know what holiness is and that we want to be led by holy people. We know what holiness is because we can see it in one another. Even if we believe we are not as holy as we should be – and every one of us ought to believe that – we recognize holiness when we find it. Our whole system of vocational discernment, seminary education, and ecclesiastical sponsorship of priests is meant to institutionalize that recognition.

Because we are able to recognize holiness, we believe that our church – that is, the people who acknowledge God as the source of holiness – ought to be able to make a claim on us. Even in our secular society, we Catholics are less than complete individualists. We are not a law unto ourselves. We believe that God has communicated the divine self to us. We are to measure ourselves by God’s yardstick, not by our own. We do not believe in the sovereignty of the people, but the sovereignty of God. So we are not a congregational church, in which authority resides within the local congregation. We are a Catholic church. God has made us able to recognize real holiness, God’s holiness, present in the church as in a sacrament. That is why pastors consult and people want to be consulted. Both seek the church’s holiness, each in a distinctive way.

Part of the crisis of the church today is that we have come to doubt that some of our ordained leaders are genuinely holy. The misconduct of some priests and bishops has cast a shadow on all priests and bishops. The crisis is forcing upon us painful lessons of maturity. It is more mature to live with our eyes open. And the indisputable fact that some of our leaders are not holy should not cause us to doubt the reality of holiness. We know what it is, and we want to be led by it. Pastors who consult their people because they recognize their wisdom and want to serve them better manifest real holiness. Pastors who abuse their position do not, and they should be called to give account.

The consultative nature of the council does not mean that councillors cannot confront dysfunction. When a pastor prevents his council from exercising its proper function of investigating, reflecting, and recommending, he acts dysfunctionally and parishioners should seek a remedy. If their efforts are unsuccessful, they have recourse. That recourse was well defined by a Brighton canonist, Father Richard C. Cunningham.#7 About the laity he wrote, “Ultimately they still possess the power of numbers, of finances, of public opinion, of sensus fidelium, of conscience, and the radical power of shaking the dust from their feet as they exit.”

I hear in Father Cunningham the church’s recognition of the authority of truth. Why does Canon Law grant to Catholics the right participate in public opinion and to inform others (c. 212), the right to assemble (c. 215), and the right to exercise initiative in apostolic work (c. 216)? The basic answer is that the church understands itself as a community of freedom, led by God’s own Spirit. The church may not be a democracy in the American political sense, but it is fully consistent with the democratic impulse, understood as the impulse to act freely and responsibly, impelled by God’s word. The pastoral council in the 21st century will be an instrument of this church of freedom and responsibility, or it will die.

Conclusion: Reason for the Hope

So let us cultivate a long range vision. We cannot immediately achieve what we would like to see, vital parishes in a purified and renewed church. But the struggle to purify and renew the church is itself worthwhile. In the Eucharist, we give thanks to the God who reassures us that the evils of today are not the last word. When we consume the Eucharistic elements, we commit ourselves to a spiritual work – namely, to being the body of Christ that we have received. Participation in the consultative work of the pastoral council is one aspect of being part of that body.

The resurrection showed that death and destruction were not the last word in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. They are not the last word in our lives either. God is greater than the evils under which we suffer. And when we name those evils, we are already on the way to overcoming them. Dialogue in our pastoral councils means sharing a profound faith. It is the faith that God is more powerful than evil, and summons us to overcome it.


1. Bryan T. Froehle and Mary L. Gautier, National Parish Inventory Project Report (Washington, DC: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, October, 1999), estimated that 90 percent of U.S. parishes have pastoral councils (p. 22). Data from the newest wave of the Inventory (based on preliminary results from 8,942 parishes and reported by Froehle and Gautier at the April 2-5, 2000 annual convention of the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development in Orlando, FL) suggest that 82 percent of parishes have a pastoral council, for a total of 15,728 councils.

2. Mark F. Fischer, “Parish Pastoral Councils: How Many Are There? How Do Bishops Support Them?” in Ruth T. Doyle, Robert E. Schmitz and Mary Beth Celio, Editors, Parish Laity and Ministry, Monograph no. 1 in the series Research Monographs of the Catholic Research Forum of the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development (New York: Archdiocese of New York, 1999), pp. 82-106.

3. Archdiocese of Boston, “Parish Council/Element of Team Ministry” (parish council guideline), Origins 3:3 (June 14, 1973): 35-37.

4. Archdiocese of Boston, Parish Pastoral Councils, guideline created during the Eighth Synod (Boston: Archdiocese of Boston, 1989). This document is surveyed in Mark F. Fischer, “Parish Pastoral Councils: Purpose, Consultation, Leadership,” Center Papers, No. 4 (New York: National Pastoral Life Center, 1990).

5. John Keating, “Consultation in the Parish,” Origins 14:17 (October 11, 1984): 257, 259-266 (at p. 264).

6. Michael Parise, “Forming Your Parish Pastoral Council,” The Priest 51:7 (July 1995): 43-47.

7. Richard C. Cunningham, “The Laity in the Revised Code,” in James H. Provost, Editor, Code, Community, Ministry: Selected Studies for the Parish Minister Introducing the Revised Code of Canon Law (Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1992), pp. 32-37, at p. 37.