Priest as consulter

DPC LogoSmall“What Gives Father the ‘Right’?”

By Mark F. Fischer

(Published as “What Gives Father the ‘Right’?” Today’s Parish (April/May 1992): 19-21)

“The pastoral council possesses a consultative vote only.” (Canon 536, §2)

When the 1983 Code of Canon Law was published, many parish council members groaned. They felt that the code, by calling the pastoral council’s opinion a “consultative vote,” trivialized that opinion. True, the code grants to councils the right to speak their mind to the pastor. But this is a right which every Catholic already possesses. Council members groaned because the code gives councils no new rights. They certainly have no right to overrule the pastor. Only to the pastor, properly speaking, have bishops entrusted parishes.

Since 1983, council theorists have responded to the new code by explaining what consultation is, how it ought to take place, and why there is good reason for it. These explanations are invaluable to pastoral council members, especially those who question their usefulness on the council. But the theories are founded upon an enormous assumption, an assumption never adequately examined in council literature. The theories take for granted the structures–legal, historical, theological–within which pastoral councils operate. They broadly assume that the pastor has the right to consult councils without ever explaining how that right is part of a larger sharing of responsibility by the whole Church.

What gives Father the right? This essay cannot hope to describe the entire context within which ordained pastors exercise their rights. But it can answer the question in three ways. First, we will begin by critically examining two descriptions of how pastors consult councils. Then we will explain how the right of priests to fulfill the office of pastor, including their consultation of the parish council, is not simply one among other rights which have accrued to them over the centuries, but is part of the very fabric of Christian life. And finally we will sketch the resentment which divides pastors and councils, and suggest how a common project of planning for parish leadership may help overcome that resentment.

The Council in Law

If “Father has the right,” we should begin with the law which grants that right. In the 1985 Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Joseph A. Janicki, a Milwaukee canonist, provides a thorough treatment of canon 536, the one canon which speaks of parish pastoral councils. His treatment focuses mainly on the role assigned by law to pastors and council members. This is quite appropriate for a legal commentary. But it does not answer the questions of how the two roles developed. And it does not say how the rights of each fit into the larger context of shared responsibility in the Church.

Janicki speaks clearly of how ultimate responsibility belongs to the pastor, not to the council. He states how the council shares in the decision-making process, a process wich the pastor alone ratifies. But he does not show why council members should accept and affirm their consultative role. To be sure, he hints at the underlying theological rationale. He does say that the laity’s right to participate is rooted in their baptism. He does say that the pastor presides over the council as he presides over the Eucharist. He does say that the pastor’s authority should be viewed not as personal power but as service. But he neglects to say why the laity should freely accept their role. He never explains how shared responsibility underlies the division.

Doubtless Janicki would respond that such a rationale lies outside a commentary on canon law. And perhaps it is more a matter for legal philosophy or ecclesiology. My point is that the Church’s law governing pastoral councils presupposes the entire history of the differentiation of roles in the Church, and at least a word about this is needed.

The Council in History

It is not superfluous to say that ordained leadership emerged as the product of a period of charismatic leadership in the early Church, to which the New Testament attests and which modern scholars have closely examined. The Church quite properly developed a process for cultivating, legitimizing, and governing Christian ministry after a period of relatively unstructured and Spirit-led leadership. But this process, the result of experience and sound insights, can become rigid, as Edward Schillebeeckx notes in The Church with a Human Face (1990). The authority of pastors to govern their people is embodied in law in order to regularize and foster the life of the Christian community. But it can be misinterpreted as a personal prerogative, or can be improperly reduced to a mere authority of office, without regard for the Spirit it is meant to serve.

The link between the Spirit-led vocation to Christian leadership and ecclesiastical office must not be taken for granted. Catholic Christians, and pastoral council members in particular, have to recall their own tradition–a tradition in which ordained ministry is both the sign and reality of Spirit-filled leadership. We need to recall how the office of the ordained pastor emerged and was affirmed by the Christian community. This occurred precisely because such pastors enabled their communities to grow and to make the Lord present.

This link between ordination and Spirit remains true, even if we are not wholly sympathetic to all the criteria (e.g., celibacy, maleness) by which the charism of ordained leadership is discerned today. Such a link suggests the wider context of shared responsibility in which priests and people enjoy rights in Church law. The right of the pastor to govern is part of the right of Christians to sound leadership, a right for which all share responsibility.

The Council in Theology

When we ask “What gives Father the right?”–the right to govern, the right to consult the parish council–we refer to a right enshrined in law but ultimately granted by God. This brings us to theology. The most thorough treatment of pastoral councils in theology is the 1988 New Practical Guide for Parish Councils by William Rademacher with Marliss Rogers, a revision of Rademacher’s 1979 Practical Guide. The best part of the revision is the new chapter 5, “Consultation in the Church.” There we read that consultation should be understood not within a narrowly legal sphere, but within a broader ecclesial one. Consultation manifests our faith and common discipleship, say the authors. It takes place in the context of the Church as Christ’s body, whose members all possess the Spirit. Baptism enables all to share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission, we read, and it reminds us of the call to renewed conversion.

The problem with this treatment of consultation is that it does not say enough about the special role which the pastor plays. When expounding the Pauline image of the Church as Christ’s body, there is no reference to headship. When extolling the baptismal call to participate in Christ’s threefold mission, there is no reference to the difference between the common priesthood and the ordained priesthood. Instead, what we find are generalizations about the community’s respect for hierarchical leadership.

Matters do not greatly improve in chapter 6, a somewhat-revised version of “The Ministry of the Pastor” from the 1979 edition. This chapter is marked by an effort to reduce the tension between pastors and councils. The authors want to insist that the council is a decision-making body in which the pastor is a “partner.” Of course, they concede that the pastor is also the “ratifier” of the council’s decisions. But he does so in the name of the diocese, say the authors, not primarily in his role as pastoral leader.

Indeed, The New Practical Guide offers surprisingly little about the pastor as leader of the council. To be sure, we read that he guides the preparation of the council agenda, challenges council members to adopt a broader vision of Church, and is supposed to have a broad vision himself. But the chapter on the ministry of the pastor never says that it is he who initiates pastoral planning, calls for needs assessments, or convenes parish assemblies. Perhaps the authors fear that, if they emphasize the pastor’s role, they might undermine lay initiative or leadership. But their non-directive portrayal of leadership–according to which the pastor conveys a vision with nothing more systematic than “his contagious excitement and energy”–simply will not suffice.

The leadership which the Church grants the pastor is an expression of the Christian belief in a charism of headship. It is the ability to help the community achieve its goal of becoming God’s kingdom and Christ’s mystical body. In the case of parish councils, leadership means actively consulting: defining a problem, exploring solutions, and choosing which solution is best for the community. Far from stifling lay initiative, the pastor who exercises his “right” to consult provides a context for lay initiative.

Defining the Resentment

“What gives Father the right?” The very way the question is posed expresses a resentment which many Catholics feel. It suggests our irritation with clerical paternalism, patriarchy, and injustice. Paternalism, because the honorific “Father” suggests to many that lay people are children. Patriarchy, because a male priesthood seems to deny women’s gifts for pastoral leadership. Injustice, because a “right” exercised as a personal privilege cuts itself off from wider concerns of justice.

In truth, our need to retrieve the bases for pastoral leadership suggests that the particular problem of council members–namely, to understand why they are consultants to a pastor who is the parish’s ecclesiastical “governor”–is part of a wider problem. The wider problem is the crisis of confidence in ordained leaders. The laity needs to rediscover the basis for ordained leadership because that basis is no longer self-evident.

Part of the problem is a numerical one. The number of priests per Catholic in the United States is low and getting lower. Dean Hoge reported in 1986 that there is one priest for every 1,123 Catholics. In 1967, there was one for every 756 Catholics. And in the Southwest, the situation is far worse. By my count, the number of Catholics per priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is 4,119.

Judging by these figures, one can guess that most Catholics have little intimate contact with their parish priest. Without this contact, we can expect little understanding of the role of the priest, and little commitment to his leadership. Hence the ease with which Catholics feel resentment. Not knowing what pastoral governance is, not understanding how the priesthood came to be celibate and male, not understanding the context of justice within which pastoral rights should be exercised, many Catholics are indeed alienated.

The Challenge to Council Members

A mature approach to the problem of resentment takes two steps. The first is to develop a sympathetic appreciation for pastoral leadership. The second is to plan for the identification, recruitment, and support of parish leaders, including potential ordained leaders.

The first step is harder. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles stand in the way of developing a widespread and sympathetic understanding of pastoral leadership. There are too many Catholics, and too few priests. The traditions which have shaped the priesthood are unknown to many Catholics. How can they be sympathetic to ordained ministry when they rarely have contact with ordained ministers?

This lack of contact and poor understanding breed passivity. Indeed, Catholics seem caught in a vicious circle. Most have little to say about whom the bishops sends them as their pastor, and so they become indifferent to their own leadership needs. A sort of parochial fatalism settles in: people accept the leadership they are given without ever considering what it should and could be. As a result, many lay leaders receive little support from parishioners, and there is scant impetus for new lay leaders, as well as potential priestly leaders, to emerge. From such a parish, bishops get an impression of lassitude. And if a parish is indifferent to its leadership needs, why should a bishop consult it when making pastoral assignments?

Councils can help solve this problem if pastors will consult them about parish leadership. Most Catholics do want to be consulted about the selection of their priests, according to a 1989 study entitled American Catholic Laity in a Changing Church. The very act of consultation invites a maturity which is both sympathetic and critical. By asking the parish council to identify the parish’s leaders, assess their strengths and weaknesses (including those of the pastor!), project future needs, and develop strategies to meet them, pastors do more than help ensure their parish’s future well-being. They are also implicitly asking the council to develop a sympathetic understanding of their own office.

To be sure, this is a long-term parish process which requires patience, prudence, and sound leadership. A pastoral council needs to grapple with Christian leadership in general before it can begin to speak with understanding of this or that leader in particular. The assessment of present parish leaders demands charity and confidentiality as well as honesty and openness. Identifying potential leaders and inviting them to utilize their gifts requires tact and sensitivity.

But leadership assessment, difficult as it is, contributes to an appreciation of pastoral leadership overall, and especially of ordained leadership. The parish council which seriously studies pastoral leadership may well come to see that Father’s “right” to govern and consult is one aspect, one dimension, of the responsibility which every Christian shares for the Church’s well-being. It is a right in which the whole parish has a stake.

The Implicit Creed

Ultimately, “Father has the right”–the right to teach, govern, and sanctify as those actions are understood by Catholics–because God, acting through the Church, gives him the right. Such words seem uncompromising and simplistic. And yet they are, with due qualification, what we believe as Catholics and as pastoral council members. They are part of our implicit creed.

We believe in a God who created us as social beings, who gathers us as a people, and who has sent us as pilgrims in and for one another and the world.

We believe that God’s Word became flesh and continues to live in our midst as Christ’s own body. The Word-made-flesh reveals God’s will for us and sends us to accomplish it. In the historical development of this mission, the ordained priesthood and the office of pastor have arisen. Through this office the people are gathered, proclaiming the death and resurrection of the Lord, liturgically celebrating Christ’s presence in our midst, and waiting for the Lord’s final coming.

We believe in the Holy Spirit who quickens in us a mother’s love for one another. By this love we build one another up, taking care to nurture in each member the life of faith. And by this love we speak the truth about our leaders, not to divide but to build community, in the hope that its faith might remain wholesome.

Yes, “Father has the right.” But it is not, we believe, a right to be exercised despite us, not a right in the sense of a personal possession or privilege. Instead, it is a right as the the expression of what is just and fitting before God. The right of the pastor is a right to do what God wills: to care for a people, to lead them in a discovery of the truth, to gather them so that they might make the Lord present.

Questions for Reflection

Has your council ever reflected on the kind of pastoral leadership–clergy and lay–that it wants? At the next council meeting, spend some time listing all the activities that mark your parish as a Christian community. Describe what leaders in the parish do to ensure the success of those activities. Next, ask yourself how much more effective in manifesting God’s kingdom the parish could be if it had more and better leaders. Finally, consider what the parish can to identify potential leaders, attract them, and cultivate their gifts.


William D’Antonio, James Davidson, Dean Hoge, and Ruth Wallace, American Catholic Laity in a Changing Church (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1989).

Dean Hoge, The Future of Catholic Leadership: Responses to the Priest Shortage (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1987)

William J. Rademacher with Marliss Rogers, The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils (Mystic: Twenty-Third Publications, 1988).

Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church with a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry, trans. John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1990).

The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, study edition, edited by James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, and Donald E. Heintschel (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985).