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Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, “Private Letter on ‘Pastoral Councils’” (Omnes Christifideles, 1/25/73), reprinted in James I. O’Connor, editor, The Canon Law Digest, Vol. VII: Officially Published Documents Affecting the Code of Canon Law 1968-1972 (Chicago: Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus, 1975), pp. 280-288. Also published as “Patterns in Local Pastoral Councils,” Origins 3:12 (Sept. 13, 1973): 186-190.

Pastoral Councils (S. C. Cler., 25 January, 1973) Private.

The following letter by the S. C. for the Clergy was addressed to all bishops.

1. All Christians consecrated by the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Christian initiation “into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood”[1] are called by Christ the Lord himself to cooperate actively in the saving mission of all the priestly people of God.[2] Not all the faithful, however, exercise this common responsibility in the same way but a special task falls to each one, according to his state, in the communion of the Body which is the Church.[3]

There are, first of all, sacred ministers who, chosen from the faithful, are established for hierarchical service[4] and who “from antiquity have been called bishops, priests, and deacons;[5] they, in virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, “particularly and by their own profession are ordained to the sacred ministry,”[6] and by the sacred power which they possess through the exercise of various orders in various ways teach, sanctify and rule the entire People of God in the name and with the authority of Christ.[7] All religious, moreover, whether they are invested with the ministerial priest-hood or not, by the public consecration which they profess in the ecclesiastical community[8] “give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transfigured and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes.”[9] Finally, the laity “led by the spirit of the gospel can work for the sanctification of the world from within in the manner of leaven and in this way can make Christ known to others especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity.” They “can also be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.”[10]

2. Therefore the salvific mission of the entire People of God in which all the faithful, according to each one’s status within the Church, have their own proper part and responsibility, cannot be restricted to one mission of the holy pastors or Church hierarchy: “For the pastors know that they themselves were not meant by Christ to shoulder alone the entire saving mission of the Church toward the world but, on the contrary, they understand that it is their noble duty so to shepherd the faithful and recognize their service and charismatic gifts that all, according to their proper roles, may cooperate in this common undertaking with one heart.”[11] Accordingly, the Second Vatican Council has also made this observation: In exercising this pastoral care (bishops) should preserve for their faithful the share proper to them in Church affairs; they should also recognize their duty and right to collaborate actively in the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ.”[12]

3. However, this participation of the faithful in the mission of the Church is not the same as the participation of some who exercise ecclesiastical power. For in the Church, according to the will of its divine Founder, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood or hierarchy differ in essence and not only in degree.”[13] Accordingly, the pastoral work, namely of teaching, sanctifying and ruling, and the power necessary for it are not bestowed by the Lord on the entire community of the faithful,[14] but are conferred on sacred pastors by a special consecration and canonical mission.[15] Diocesan Bishops “govern the particular churches entrusted to them as the vicars and ambassadors of Christ. This they do by their counsel, exhortations and ex-ample as well as in deed by their authority and sacred power. This power they use only for the edification of their flock in truth and holiness, remembering that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the greater should become as the servant (cf. Lk. 22:26-27). This power which they personally exercise in Christ’s name is proper, ordinary and immediate.”[16]

4. The faithful who are not sealed with the ministerial priesthood, beyond the aforesaid actual participation in the apostolic mission of the Church,[17] are also able to assist in the very pastoral office itself though not in the hierarchy. Therefore, all the faithful “according to the knowledge, competence, or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, are permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on things which concern the good of the Church,”[18] and this can also be done through institutions which are established for this by law.

Motivated by this reasoning the Second Vatican Council listed among the cooperators of the diocesan bishop in pastoral work[19] and recommended the Pastoral Council “over which the diocesan bishop himself will preside and in which specially chosen clergy, religious and lay people will participate.”[20]

With this desire of the Council in mind, the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, in his apostolic letter, Ecclesiae Sanctae, given as a motu proprio on 6 August, 1966,[21] established certain norms on the subject according to which in any diocese an experimental beginning has been made or is being made to establish a pastoral council.

The general session of the Synod of Bishops held in 1971 expressed this opinion: “The pastoral council, in which clergy, religious and laity who are chosen to take part, is to offer after study and consideration, its conclusions as to what is necessary for the diocesan community to organize the pastoral work and to execute it efficiently. The more important it daily becomes for bishops and priests to cooperate in their mutual responsibility, especially through the Priests’ Council, the more desirable it is that in each diocese a pastoral council be established.”[22]

5. The Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, who has the responsibility to deal with pastoral councils,[23] wrote to the presidents of the conferences of bishops on 12 March, 1971, asking that the bishops indicate to this Congregation their recommendations and views of experiments which have already been conducted or of norms that should be established. Moreover, the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy also asked the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Church and the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Nations that they offer their viewpoints. Having done this, the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy thought it expedient to call together a plenary combined congregation to which it invited the Sacred Congregation for Bishops, and the Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes, as well as the Council of the Laity. This plenary congregation met on 15 March, 1972. We herewith briefly present its conclusions, approved by the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI.

6. The replies received and the deliberations held show that it is the common opinion of the Fathers that the establishment of a pastoral council is important and helpful. But since working together requires the mature cooperation of all, it is necessary for individual diocesan bishops[24] to consider, through a common study in the conference of bishops, as well as with their own presbyterates, whether the conditions exist for instituting a pastoral council, and, at the same time, they should work together to foster those circumstances required for the institution and efficient operation of such a council. And if a bishop considers it opportune to institute a pastoral council in his diocese, he should see to it that statutes be drawn up to be approved by him.

7. As far as the composition of the pastoral council is concerned, although the members of the council cannot in a juridical sense be called representatives of the total diocesan community, nevertheless, as far as possible, they should present a witness or sign of the entire diocese, and, therefore, it seems extremely opportune that priests, religious and laity who expound various requirements and experiences take part in the council. The persons, then, appointed to the pastoral council ought to be selected in such a way that the entire composition of the People of God within the diocese is truly represented, taking into consideration the different regions, social conditions and professions as well as the parts which individuals and associations have in the apostolate, especially those who possess noteworthy prestige and prudence.

Among these is it appropriate to appoint laymen and priests who have been chosen for offices exercised throughout the whole diocese. However, all the members of the council should be in full communion with the Catholic Church and able to accept and properly exercise this function in the Church.

Whatever form the bishop freely chooses for determining the composition of his pastoral council, most of the members should be laymen since the greatest part of the diocesan community is made up of the laity.

Besides the priests, permanent deacons, where they exist, should also be chosen for this council. Religious men and women should be named by the bishop with the permission of their own superior. Finally, the number of members of the pastoral council should not be too great so that it is able to carry out effectively the work that is committed to it.

Although the pastoral council is a permanent institution by its very nature, nevertheless, ‘‘with regard to members and activity it can be temporary and perform its function as the occasion demands.”[25] Therefore, it is appropriate for members of the pastoral council, with the exception of those designated according to the norms of its statutes by reason of the office which they hold in the diocese, to be nominated for a period of time determined in the statutes. However, so that the whole council membership will not go out of existence at the same time, it is advisable that for its renewal of membership, a system of rotation be employed in such a way that at stated times a certain number end their membership and new members are named in their place.

8. The pastoral council “enjoys only a consultative voice.”[26] The counsels and suggestions of the faithful which they propose within the confines of their ecclesiastical communion and in the spirit of true unity are of great value for the formation of decisions. The actual obedience and reverence which the faithful must show their sacred pastors does not prevent but rather fosters an open and sincere manifestation of those things demanded for the good of the Church.

Therefore, the bishop should greatly esteem its propositions and suggestions and seriously consider the judgments on which they agree,[27] preserving the freedom and authority which are his by divine law for his pastoral service to that portion of the People of God committed to his care.

9. It is the function of the pastoral council “to investigate and to weigh matters which bear on pastoral activity, and to formulate practical conclusions regarding them so as to promote conformity of the life and actions of the People of God with the Gospel.”[28] Accordingly, those questions may be committed to its study which, whether indicated by the diocesan bishop or proposed by the council members and accepted by him, refer to pastoral care exercised within the diocese. It is, however, beyond the competence of this council to decide on general questions bearing on faith, orthodoxy, moral principles or laws of the universal Church, for the teacher of the faith in the diocese is always and obviously the bishop alone, with his bond of communion with the head of the episcopal college and its members.[29]

As for those pastoral questions which pertain to the exercise of jurisdiction or governing power, the bishop already has his own senate which assists him with its advice, namely the senate of priests.[30] Nothing prevents the pastoral council, however, from considering questions requiring mandates of a jurisdictional act for execution and proposing suggestions regarding them to the bishop, for in such a case the bishop will consider the matter and make his decision after hearing the priests’ senate, if the case requires.

The pastoral council, therefore, can give the bishop great help by presenting him with proposals and suggestions – regarding missionary, catechetical and apostolic undertakings within the diocese; concerning the promotion of doctrinal formation and the sacramental life of the faithful; concerning pastoral activities to help the priests in the various social and territorial areas of the diocese; concerning public opinion on matters pertaining to the Church as it is more likely to be fostered in the present time; etc. The pastoral council can also be extremely useful for mutual communication of experiences and for proposed undertakings of various types by which the concrete needs of the people of the diocese may become clearer to the bishop and a more opportune means of pastoral action may be suggested to him.

But where the pastoral council exists, there always remains intact the right enjoyed by all Christians, including those who are not members of the pastoral council, of making known directly to their pastors, always in truth and prudence and with the integrity of faith preserved, their needs and desires, and they are to do so with that liberty and confidence which belong to the children of God and brothers in Christ.[31]

10. It is for the bishop to convene the pastoral council according to the needs of the apostolate. The diocesan bishop himself by law is to preside over the council and in particular cases his delegate if he considers it opportune.

But since the investigations and practical conclusions of the pastoral council have the character of information and suggestions which are offered to the bishop, he can accept and mandate for execution the documents worked out by the pastoral council for his discretion and authority, and, if he considers it opportune, he may promulgate them.

“That the purpose of this council actually be accomplished, it is expedient that advance study precede common effort using the assistance, if the case warrants it, of institutes or offices which work to this end.”[32] Wherefore, it may be appropriate that, under the direction of the bishop, a list of questions to be dealt with should be prepared in due time and sent to all the members of the council together with viewpoints or studies which can be useful for the thorough examination of such questions.

11. When a See is vacant, the pastoral council ceases. However, nothing prevents the Ordinary, if the case warrants it, during the vacancy of the See, to call upon the members of the council for their advice.

12. The Fathers of the plenary congregation, taking into consideration the nature of the diocesan pastoral council, feel that there is nothing to prevent the institution within the diocese of councils of the same nature and function, whether parochial or regional as they are called (for various deaneries or social bodies, etc.)

The Fathers, however, believe that it is not opportune, at least for the present, to institute pastoral councils or similar organizations on an interdiocesan, provincial, regional, national or international level. They do not, however, exclude the institution of special organizations of a technical or executive nature, made up of select members of the faithful and who would assist the bishops in their joint conferences.

13. In the present letter, this Congregation wishes to propose principles and general criteria approved by the Holy See, which emanate from consultation with the conferences of bishops and the discussion of the Fathers, and which can help the bishops in carrying out their serious task which pertains to the constitution and performance of a pastoral council. It is our hope, therefore, that the conferences of bishops will be willing to notify this Sacred Congregation concerning their experiences in this matter so that in the future we may take into account, as it should be, their experiences.

[1] Lumen Gentium (hereafter: L.G.), n. 10.
[2] L.G., n. 33: Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem (hereafter: A.A.), n. 3; Decree Ad Gentes, n. 11.
[3] A.A., n. 2; L.G., n. 32 Presbyterorum Ordinis (hereafter: P.O.), n. 2.
[4] L.G., n. 24; P.O., n. 12.
[5] L.G., n. 28.
[6] L.G., n. 31.
[7] L.G., nn. 11, 17 and 35; Decree Christus Dominus (hereafter: C.D.), n. 11; A.A., n. 2; P.O., n. 2.
[8] Perfectae Caritatis, nn. 1 and 5; L.G., n. 44.
[9] L.G., n. 31.
[10] L.G., nn. 31, 33; cf. Pastoral Const. Gaudium et Spes, n. 43; A.A., n. 15.
[11] L.G., n. 30.
[12] C.D., n. 16.
[13] L.G. , n. 10.
[14] Allocution of Pope Paul Vl, 17 May, 1972; allocution of 28 Jan., 1971 to Prelate Auditors, Officials and Advocates of the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota: AAS, 63 (1971), 135 ff.; allocution of 25 Aug., 1971: Scritti e Discorsi, 30, Siena, 1971; allocution of 1 Sept., 1971: ibid., pp. 111-116; allocution of 6 Oct., 1971: ibid., pp. 186-190; allocution of 23 Dec., 1971 to the Cardinals, to the Prelates of the Roman Curia and of the Papal House-hold: AAS, 64 (1972),32.
[15] L.G., n. 21 and explanatory note, n. 2.
[16] L.G., n. 27.
[17] L.G., n. 37
[18] Ibid .
[19] “Those Who Cooperate With the Diocesan Bishop in His Pastoral Task” in the title for numbers 25-35 of Christus Dominus.
[20] C.D., n. 27.
[21] Cf. AAS, 58 (1966), 757-787; reported in C.L.D., 6, pp. 264-298.
[22] “De Sacerdotio Ministeriali,” Part. 2, 11, n. 3, made public law by decree of the Holy Father, 30 Nov., 1971; reported in C.L.D., 7, pp. 341-365 with the cited section occurring on page 364.
[23] Cf. apostolic constitution, Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, 15 Aug., 1967, n. 68. par. 1; reported in C.L.D., 6, p. 340.
[24] Cf. motu proprio. Ecclesiae Sanctae (hereafter: Eccl. Sanc.), I, n. 17 par. 1: C.L.D., 6, p. 275.
[25] EccI. Sanc., 1, n. 16, par. 2; C.L.D., 6, p. 274.
[26] Ibid., I, n. 16, par. 2; C.L.D., 6, p. 274.
[27] Cf. “Servatis servandis.” CIC, can. 105. 1°.
[28] C.D., n. 27; cf. Eccl. Sanc., 1, n. 16, par. 1: C.L.D., 6, p. 274.
[29] Cf. L.G., n. 25; C.D., nn. 12-14.
[30] C.D., n. 27; cf. Eccl. Sanc., 1, n. 15—C.L.D., 6, p. 274, S. C. Cler. Circular letter of 11 April, 1970—reported in C.L.D., 7, pp. 383-390.
[31] L.G., n. 37.
[32] Eccl. Sanc., 1, n. 16, par. 2: C.L.D.. 6, p. 274.