DPC LogoSmallConsultation Against Its Cultured Despisers

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Consultation Must Be More than ‘Advice-Giving,'” Today’s Parish 32:3 (March 2000): 17-19; in response to William Rademacher, “Parish Councils: Consultative Vote Only?” Today’s Parish 32:3 (March 2000): 6-9.

William Rademacher, with six books about parish councils to his credit, deserves to be called the foremost thinker of the council movement. But his interpretation of the phrase “consultative vote only” does a disservice to pastors and councillors. In this reply to Rademacher, I will explain how he misunderstands the phrase and suggest a better interpretation. We assist pastors and councils more by showing the correct way to consult, I believe, than by proclaiming that consultation is broken and cannot be fixed.

The Weaknesses of the Argument

Let me begin by showing the weaknesses in Rademacher’s argument. The first is his use of hyperbole. Rademacher elevates the unavoidable tensions of consultation into a conflict of irreconcilable opposites. From his viewpoint, the Church’s teaching that pastoral councils have a consultative vote only, and that they cannot overrule the pastor, muzzles the truth. It denies the presence of the Spirit in the people of God and gags the prophetic impulse. This is implicit in Rademacher’s description of the Holy Spirit and ecclesiastical law as two “power systems” between which “there is bound to be a conflict.” He also overstates his case when he pits the prophetic voice of Christ (and of councils) against the legalism of the Pharisees (and of pastors). No experienced councillor would deny that pastors occasionally run roughshod over councils. But this falls short of the inevitable class conflict envisioned by Rademacher.

A second weakness is a distortion of the proper relation between pastor and people. In Rademacher’s eyes, many pastors do not want advice. They see it as a limitation on their power to command the parish. Rademacher wants to force them to listen to the people. He thinks that the Church ought to jettison consultation altogether in favor of prayerful discernment. If we could only compel pastors to sit down and work out their differences with a council in a spiritual atmosphere, Rademacher seems to believe, then matters would improve. This is implicit in his statement that the consultative-only clause reduces the laity’s participation in Christ’s prophetic office “to mere advice-giving.” Rademacher mistakenly believes that the laity’s word is less robust, spiritual, and prophetic because the pastor is not obliged to take it. But would we really prefer an externally compelled discernment, however prayerful, to a pastor’s freely chosen consultation? Just because consultation does not always succeed is no reason to dispense with it, as Rademacher is willing to do.

The third weakness of Rademacher’s argument is that it misrepresents Roman Catholic governance and proposes something inadequate in its place. The council’s consultative-only vote depends on a hierarchic model of governance, Rademacher states. This model, he adds, “serves poorly, if at all.” He would like to phase it out and recover “the patriarchate, presbyterial or synodal models” of governance. In other words, he would like to see a number of apostolic patriarchs (rather than Roman primacy), or boards of elders, or rule by councils. “Many good Catholics in their personal faith life have selectively phased out the hierarchy,” Rademacher says. For that reason, the current system of governance has outlived its usefulness. There is nothing more to it, he suggests, than authoritarianism, imperialism, and patriarchy.

No one can protest that the problems identified by Rademacher are imaginary or unreal. Pastors do not always work well with councils. They may not even take them seriously. When a pastor’s failure to consult alienates parishioners, it is tempting to look for other forms of governance. But Rademacher’s solutions to these problems are short-sighted. Difficulties with consultation do not render it useless. The freedom with which pastors consult and councillors advise should be preserved. Novel forms of parish governance, attractive from afar, are no less problematic than our own. Just because our problems are real does not mean that our solutions are inadequate.

The Right Meaning of “Consultative-Only”

It is not enough, however, to show the weaknesses of Rademacher’s arguments. In order to counter them, we must understand the Church’s rationale for consultation. In what follows, I will show why the Church endorses consultation, the assumptions behind it, and the strength of the Church’s own method of governance. Only then can we see why it is so important to defend the right of Catholics to express themselves and the freedom of pastors to consult as they see fit.

The Church endorses consultation because it contributes to wise governance. Pastors need to know their parish if they are to govern it wisely. They consult their parishioners because they seek what Aristotle called practical wisdom. It is the knowledge that cannot come from a textbook on pastoral theology. Pastors need to know, from among the many possible things the parish could do, what is the right decision for their people at the present time. To be sure, the Church does not leave parish governance to a majority vote. Political democracy seems incompatible with Catholic unity. But no wise pastor acts in a dictatorial fashion. He seeks the wisdom of the parish community because his primary duty is to maintain the communion of the parish. That is why the good pastor consults.

Behind this act of consultation are two assumptions. The first is about pastors. The Church assumes that pastors love their people and want to serve them better. Wise pastors recognize that parishioners have true insight into parish realities. Such pastors establish councils because, like Socrates, they know that they do not know everything. Admittedly there are know-it-all pastors. They humiliate their councillors, Rademachers rightly says, by reducing their words to “mere advice-giving.” Wise pastors do not make that mistake. They consult because they want to know more about the needs of their people. That is the first assumption.

The second is about parishioners. The Church assumes not only that parishioners have wisdom, but also that they want to put it at the service of the Church. They want to help the pastor govern the parish better. To be sure, the Church does not give councils legal power over the pastor. Most councillors have other responsibilities and would not want to govern the parish in the pastor’s stead. But most councillors love their parish. They see in it the place where the believer can encounter God. And they want to serve it, even if they do not have the final say.

Why does the Church insist upon governance by a hierarchy, with the Bishop of Rome at the head and the parish priest at the feet? It insists because that form of government has worked well. It has matured over centuries of development. It has helped to hold Roman Catholic Christianity together in the face of numberless divisions among Protestant Christianity. To be sure, Church governance is always developing. Indeed, if we believe that God’s Spirit animates the Church, we can count on further development. And that is perhaps the real meaning of Rademacher’s article. It serves as a spur to self-reflection and reform. But to accept its recommendations uncritically&emdash;to “by-pass” consultation, to “phase out” the hierarchy, to institute wholesale changes in world-wide Church governance&emdash;would be rash. The reforms of Vatican II are only 35 years old. We cannot expect them to solve all problems.

Vatican II strongly recommended consultation, and we would do well to remember why it did so. Consultation puts the wisdom of the people at the service of pastors. Consultation assumes the love of pastors for their people and the generosity of faithful people in sharing wisdom with their pastors. Consultation affirms that the Church is primarily a community of freedom, in which people freely speak and pastors freely listen, compelled by nothing other than the Holy Spirit. We should defend these freedoms, rather than “redefining” or “bypassing” the consultation that canon law recommends.

Solutions to Abuses

We must admit that Rademacher would not attack the consultative-only language of canon law if the Church did not face real problems. He would not criticize consultation if it quickly and easily cured every ill. Rademacher looks honestly at the Church, warts and all. He is right to call attention to dysfunction in parish councils.

The proper function of pastors is to consult. The proper function of pastoral councils is to be consulted. If a pastor establishes a council but does not consult it&emdash;or, having consulted it in a superficial way, dismisses its advice&emdash;he acts dysfunctionally. He is not honoring the proper function of the council. In that case, it is the councillors’ duty to explain to the pastor what their proper function is. If he does not like the council’s advice, courtesy dictates that he explain his objections. The council may well need to reflect further. But if the pastor lacks this fundamental courtesy, and persists in a dysfunctional abuse of the council, councillors should take their complaint to the regional dean or to the chancery office. And if they receive no satisfaction, they have the right to resign in protest and to go to another parish.

Take, for example, the case of a pastor who willfully and repeatedly offends parishioners, and who does so against the considered advice of the parish council. To be sure, the council cannot override the pastor’s decisions. If he despises their wisdom as mere advice-giving, they cannot force him to accept it. But they and their fellow parishioners can, within the bounds of charity, speak up. Canon law guarantees parishioners not only the right to share their opinions with their pastor, but to meet with one another, to discuss their problems, and to publish their opinions. In a community of freedom, truth has its own power, a power more persuasive than the power to offend.

The Church guarantees the rights of parishioners because human dignity demands it. Parishioners may always express themselves in charity, meet together, and publish their opinions. Their word of protest is especially fitting when a pastor acts dysfunctionally. If he refuses to consult and abuses the council, he hinders its proper function. Against this the Church ensures parishioners the right to speak.

Let us not forget, however, that the dysfunctional exception proves the rule. Dysfunction is abnormal. The rule or norm is wise pastors who want to consult and generous councils that want to be consulted. Pastors want to consult because their councillors offer practical wisdom. Parishioners undertake the work of councils because study, reflection, and the formulation of practical advice is important. Consultation is hard work. Just because it is not always successful is no reason to reject it. Rademacher, who has devoted much of his life to councils, knows this better than most of us.