CTSA 2004

Councils and Theology

Theologians discussed the consultative-only status of parish pastoral councils at the June 10-13, 2004 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which met in Reston, Virginia. At a session of the Pastoral Theology Group, convened by Raymond J. Webb and moderated by Elizabeth Willems, SSND, members heard three presentations and a response. Mark Fischer’s presentation (which was read by James A. Coriden) follows.

DPC LogoSmallPastoral Councils and Their “Consultative-Only” Vote

A Presentation to the Practical Theology Group at the Catholic Theological Society of America Annual Meeting, “Reconciliation: Gift and Challenge,” Hyatt Regency Reston Hotel, June 10-13, 2004, by Mark F. Fischer

Canon 536 – Paternalistic?

Parish pastoral councils are a Vatican II success story.  Forty years after Vatican II, they exist in at least three-quarters of U.S. parishes.[1] Bishops support them by mandating their existence, publishing guidelines, hiring support personnel, and establishing Diocesan Pastoral Councils.[2] American Catholics have embraced this Vatican II innovation that invites them to study pastoral matters, reflect on them, and recommend their conclusions to pastors.

When I first began working with parish councils in the 1980s, however, I chafed at their consultative-only status.  Canon 536 of the Code of Canon Law states that pastoral councils possess a consultative-only vote.[3] The canon means that councils do not legislate.  Pastors consult them and may reject their advice.  At first sight, canon 536 seemed paternalistic.  It seemed to demean lay councillors.

After the 1983 publication of the New Code, canon 536 troubled a number of commentators.  Some regretted that the canon, the first-ever reference to parish pastoral councils in the Church’s law, was promulgated at all.  They argued that canon 536 was premature in that it signaled a fixed attitude to councils before there had been sufficient experience of them.[4] Still others expressed disappointment that canon 536 had assigned to the pastoral council a consultative vote.  They would have preferred the 1983 Code to say nothing about pastoral councils and instead allow them to develop as an unfettered experiment.[5] When I first encountered canon 536, I shared these views.

To tell the truth, my immediate tack was to find a way around canon 536.  Surely, I thought, there must be a way to rectify the canon’s apparent paternalism.  And when I read in canon 536 that councils are to be “governed by norms determined by the diocesan bishop,” I believed that I had found the loophole I wanted.  Diocesan guidelines for parish pastoral councils, I believed, would soften the consultative-only clause by limiting it, by offering a process of appeal, and by clarifying what consultation means.

For example, the guidelines for councils published by the Archdiocese of Boston in 1973 suggested that councils are only consultative in limited areas.  Superseded in 1989, the guidelines stated that Boston councils are consultative-only in the area of “higher level policy” (whatever that was), but not consultative-only in the area of “administrative matters.”[6] The Boston guidelines apparently obliged pastors to take administrative advice.  When I read this, I hoped that other diocesan guidelines might similarly limit the consultative-only clause.

Another way to soften the clause is to give councils the right to appeal a pastor’s decisions to a higher authority.  Many early guidelines, from dioceses as diverse as Boston, Harrisburg, Raleigh, Louisville, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Fargo, Omaha, and San Bernardino, did in fact offer this concession.[7] They allowed for appeals variously to the bishop, the regional vicar, the dean, the chancellor, the due process board, or the office of councils.  Councils might be consultative-only, but appeals to higher authorities would give recalcitrant pastors their come-uppance.  This, I hoped, was another way to transcend the consultative-only limit.

A third way to transcend it would be to define consultation as authoritative decision-making.  Some diocesan guidelines for parish pastoral councils have emphasized the “executive” role of councils.  The guidelines from the Dioceses of Green Bay (1986) and Nashville (1989) are good examples.  They explicitly stated that councils “make” policy.  Furthermore, numerous guidelines state that councils, after making parish policy, implement it through a system of standing committees.[8] These guidelines suggested to me that pastors may be under some legal obligation to their councils.  Local norms would soften, I hoped, the harshness of the consultative-only clause of canon 536.

Canon 536 – Prudent and Liberating

But eventually I changed my mind about the paternalism of canon 536.  Far from demeaning the role of lay councillors, I came to see that the canon is prudent and liberating.  It prudently encourages pastors to consult before acting.  It frees pastors from any legal obligation to take bad advice.  And it implicitly affirms the sovereignty of spiritual freedom.  This is the freedom of the pastor to consult as prompted by the Spirit, and the freedom of the councillor to undertake a well-defined ministry and perform it thoroughly.  Let me say a word about these freedoms.

  1. Councils Cannot Force Pastors

In the year 2000, William Rademacher, a long-time advocate of councils, published a critique of the consultative-only phrase from canon 536.[9] “We have no theological grounds,” he wrote (p. 6), “for reducing the laity’s participation in Christ’s prophetic office to mere advice-giving.”  In Rademacher’s view, the consultative-only phrase is legalistic and out of harmony with what he called the prophetical office of the laity.  He proposed a phasing out of “the Roman hierarchic model” of ecclesiastical polity, to be replaced by “the patriarchate, presbyterial, or synodal models of church government” (p. 9).  Rademacher apparently believed that Eastern Orthodox-style patriarchs, or a Presbyterian-style board of elders, or decision-making via a synodal gathering, would be more Spirit-filled than parishes led by consultative pastors.

Each of Rademacher’s alternatives, however, has an underlying legal structure.  A patriarchate invests legal power in patriarchs, and Rademacher says nothing about how they might be chosen.  The same is true when the legal authorities are called, not patriarchs, but presbyters or elders.  And synodal gatherings require months of preparation, and so prove inflexible for rapid local decision-making.  In each of Rademacher’s alternatives, a new legal structure replaces the old.  Who is to say whether parish decisions will be better when a new and collective legal authority can overrule pastors?

  1. Spirituality of Pastors

The church’s documents about consultative-only pastoral councils consistently say that pastors consult to achieve a threefold aim.  That aim is “to investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity and to formulate practical conclusions concerning them.”[10] Studying and reflecting on pastoral matters, and then recommending conclusions – that is the conciliar task.  This threefold task presupposes neither an arrogant, know-it-all pastor, nor a pastor indifferent to the council’s conclusions.  On the contrary, it presupposes an inquisitive pastor and a council that wants to help him discover the truth about his parish.

I say “presupposes” because the official documents do not venture into the realm of pastoral psychology.  But by giving a clear task to councils, and by encouraging pastors to make use of them, the documents imply a pastoral spirituality.  They imply a pastor who, like Socrates, knows that he does not know everything, and who consults because he wants to know his parish better.[11] And they imply a pastor like the Johannine Jesus, consulting his flock so as to serve it better.  The pastoral spirituality implicit in these assumptions is more fitting than a legalistic spirituality.  Were the Church to affirm a legalistic spirituality, pastors would consult because the law requires it (even in situations where common sense dictates otherwise).  The Church presupposes, however, a spirituality in which pastors consult out of love for wisdom, not obligation.

  1. The Freedom of Councillors

The Church’s official documents about councils also imply something about the councillor.   By recommending councils to investigate and consider pastoral matters and to formulate practical conclusions concerning them, the documents give councillors a well-defined ministry.  Implicit is the expectation that they can perform this task and will do it well.  This suggests something about the qualities of good councillors.  They are persons who can inquire, study, reflect, synthesize various opinions, and reach wise conclusions.  It also suggests the kind of freedom essential to councillors.   They must be free to investigate extensively, to consider thoroughly, and to propose the conclusions that wisdom dictates, not what may be politically or ecclesially expedient.  The documents imply that a consulting pastor wants his councillors to tell him the truth.

Undoubtedly a pastor is free to reject his council’s advice.  And he should be able to do so when the advice is poor.  But when the advice is good, or when a pastor fails to consult or does so in bad faith, his rejection of sound advice need not inhibit the council’s spiritual freedom.  The council still retains its moral authority.  The Boston canonist, Richard C. Cunningham, has described the extreme remedy in the case of deliberate dysfunction by the pastor.  Cunningham describes the moral power of the laity in this way: “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.”[12] The Church expects councillors to fulfill their rightful ministry.  When pastors prevent them from doing so, councillors are not without recourse.


To sum up, it is tempting to regard the consultative-only clause in canon 536 as paternalistic and demeaning.  I myself yielded to this temptation when I first began learning about councils.  I tried to soften the consultative-only clause by appealing to diocesan norms that would mandate consultation, would give councils the right to appeal a pastor’s decisions, or would define consultative as executive decision-making.

Eventually, however, I rejected this approach.  I came to regard the consultative nature of councils as prudent and liberating.  The Church’s teaching emphasizes the rightful purpose of councils – not to legislate for the parish, but to seek wisdom.  It gives pastors the freedom to reject bad advice and councillors the freedom to discover the truth.  If we find too many pastors failing to employ councils as the Church teaches, we need to improve the quality of vocations to pastoral ministry.  This is fundamental (and crucial to me as a seminary educator).  But it is a different question from the value of consultative councils.

[1] The statement that 75 percent of U.S. parishes have councils is the conservative estimate of David C. Leege, “Parish Life Among the Leaders,” Report No. 9 of the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life, edited by David C. Leege and Joseph Gremillion (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1986), p. 6.  The report’s findings were also published as Jim Castelli and Joseph Gremillion, The Emerging Parish: The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Life Since Vatican II (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), p. 61.

A year 2000 study put the figure at 82 percent, but in 1999 the same authors had estimated 90 percent.  See 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), who estimated the figure at 90 percent (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.

My own research, based on a 1995 survey of 98 out of (at that time) 174 Roman Catholic dioceses, suggested that 78.62% of U.S. parishes have parish pastoral councils.  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.

[2] Mark F. Fischer, Pastoral Councils in Today’s Catholic Parish (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications (Bayard), 2001, p. 18.

[3] “This pastoral council possesses a consultative vote only” (canon 536).  John Paul II, Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition, translation prepared under the auspices of the Canon Law Society of America (Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1983).   The same phrase, “enjoys a consultative vote only,” is also used in canon 514 pertaining to Diocesan Pastoral Councils.

[4] Roch Pagé (“The Parish Pastoral Council” Proceedings of the Canon Law Society of America 43 (1982): 45-61, esp. pp. 57-60) felt that canon 536 was premature.  There is a danger in legislating for the parish pastoral council, he said, before Catholics had developed a familiarity with it.

[5] William Rademacher with Marliss Rogers, The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils (Mystic: Twenty-Third Publications, 1987), p. 31.

[6] Archdiocese of Boston, “Parish Council/Element of Team Ministry” (parish council guideline), Origins 3:3 (June 14, 1973): 35-37.  The guidelines did not define “higher level policy.”  In an apparent reversal, Boston’s 1989 guidelines steered councils away from parish administration to what they call “matters of broad consequence.”  See Archdiocese of Boston, Parish Pastoral Councils, guideline created during the Eighth Synod (Boston: Archdiocese of Boston, 1989).

[7] Mark F. Fischer, “Parish Pastoral Councils: Purpose, Consultation, Leadership,” Center Papers, No. 4 (New York: National Pastoral Life Center, 1990), pp. 8-10, esp. Table 8.  As recently as 1991, the “Parish Pastoral Council Guidelines and Handbook” of Detroit maintained a policy of allowing an appeal, and the 1986 guidelines for the Diocese of Green Bay did as well.  But these were the only two out of a 1995 survey of 13 guidelines, suggesting that the policy of allowing appeals was growing less popular.  See Fischer, Pastoral Councils in Today’s Catholic Parish, p. 55.

[8] Fischer, Pastoral Councils in Today’s Catholic Parish, pp. 36 and 45.  In eight out of thirteen guidelines surveyed in 1995, parish committees are to implement the policies set by the council.

[9] William Rademacher, “Parish Councils: ‘Consultative Vote Only’?” Today’s Parish 32:3 (March 2000): 6-9, reprinted in Parish Pastoral Councils: The Role of the Council Today, edited by Daniel Connors, a reprint from Today’s Parish (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, a division of Bayard, 2001), pp. 5-9.

[10] Vatican II first proposed the threefold task of the pastoral council in the 1965 “Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church” (Christus Dominus) at no. 27.  Virtually identical language describes pastoral councils in Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Letter “Ecclesiae Sanctae I” at no. 16; in the 1971 document of the Synod of Bishops entitled “The Ministerial Priesthood” (Part 2, II, section 3, p. 364); in the 1973 Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops by the Sacred Congregation for Bishops (no. 204, p. 105); in the 1973 “Circular Letter on ‘Pastoral Councils’” by the Sacred Congregation for Clergy (no. 9); and in Canon 511 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  To be sure, these documents refer mainly to pastoral councils at the diocesan level.  Canon 536 (referring to parish pastoral councils) does not speak of a threefold task, but states only that parish councils “give their help in fostering pastoral activity.”  By calling them “pastoral” councils, however, canon 536 implies that the threefold task belongs to them as well.  They “foster pastoral activity” by performing the threefold task.  See Mark F. Fischer, “What Was Vatican II’s Intent Regarding Parish Councils?” Studia Canonica 33:1 (1999): 5-25.

[11] Canon 529 states this explicitly.  See §1 (“In order to fulfill his office in earnest the pastor should strive to come to know the faithful who have been entrusted to his care”) and §2 (“The pastor is to acknowledge and promote the proper role which lay members of the Christian faithful have in the Church’s mission”).

[12] 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.  See also the treatment of “How the Rights of Parishes Can Be Vindicated,” in James A. Coriden, The Parish in Catholic Tradition: History, Theology and Canon Law (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1997), pp. 86-90.