Two decrees

DPC LogoSmallParish Councils: Whose Interpretation of Vatican II Was Right?

Presented at the Catholic Theological Society of America, Minneapolis, June 7, 1997

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


Since Vatican II, councils in U.S. Catholic parishes have proliferated and developed. The rather scant treatment of councils in official Church documents has permitted this diversity. The documents allow a great deal of leeway, and so councils have developed in a variety of ways. Some parish council developments have been more successful than others. The extensive secondary literature describes these developments and recommends them to parishes. These recommendations claim to have the merit of being faithful to Vatican II. But the intention of the bishops at Vatican II regarding parish councils is by no means clear.

In this presentation, I will focus on the suggestions made after the 1983 publication of the Code of Canon Law. Canon 536 recommended a particular style of parish council, the parish pastoral council. This style is but one of two kinds of councils recommended in the Vatican II documents. Canon Law is selective in its application of the Vatican II texts, and does not mention the other kind of council. A number of authors have sought to explain the selectivity of canon 536. They have used it as a key for reinterpreting the Vatican II texts on councils. I believe that this reinterpretation is flawed. It does not do justice to the Vatican II texts, it prematurely limits the role of councils, and it curtails the freedom of pastors to consult as they see fit.

Part One: The Reinterpretation of Vatican II in Light of the 1983 Code

When the Code of Canon Law was published in 1983, many involved with parish councils lamented the fact that Canon 536 gave them a “consultative vote only.” They had maintained the hope, expressed in the early days of parish councils, that councils would eventually be more than consultative. It was the word “consultative” in canon 536 that caught most people’s eye. Few people involved in parish councils at first understood anything about the adjective “pastoral.”

1. Popular Understanding

Within a few years, however, the distinctiveness of the word “pastoral” became an issue. Popular authors in the 1980s and 1990s championed “parish pastoral councils” over the supposedly outdated “parish councils” of the 1960s and 1970s. Old-fashioned parish councils, they said, focused exclusively on temporal matters, viewed themselves in juridical terms as sovereign decision-makers and as adversaries of the pastor, and lacked spirituality.(1) “Pastoral” councils, by contrast, have a weightier subject matter and a more reflective style. They are concerned about future visioning and planning (as distinct from the nuts and bolts of daily administration), they reach decision by discernment (more than by parliamentary procedure), and they focus on the spiritual well-being of the parish (rather than on temporal affairs).(2) The truth of this contention is debateable. But it was and continues to be the meaning of the word “pastoral” in the popular imagination of many lay Catholics.

This way of characterizing parish pastoral councils is remarkably without basis in official Church documents. No Vatican publication or letter of the U.S. bishops has ever called, under the slogans of planning, discernment, or spirituality, for a transition from “parish” to “pastoral” councils. And one may well dispute how just it is to disparage earlier “parish” councils as uniformly administrative in orientation, as rigidly parliamentary in procedure, and as exclusively temporal in focus. But almost everyone would agree that in the mid 1980s, something crystallized around the term “pastoral” council: a distinctly American approach to parish consultation which viewed councils as planning bodies, which promoted parishioner-pastor discernment, and which had a deliberately prayerful spirituality.

2. Scholarly and Popular Reinterpretations

That is the popular understanding of pastoral councils. In contrast to it, another view was advanced by five scholarly and pastoral authors after the publication of the Code of Canon Law. They were William Dalton (a professor of canon law), Orville Griese (a former officialis and seminary rector), John Keating (a diocesan bishop), Peter Kim (a Jesuit professor), and John Renken (a diocesan vicar general).(3) These authors tried to make sense out of the innovative and selective treatment of parish councils in canon 536. The canon was innovative, they noticed, precisely because it applied to parish councils the word “pastoral.” This is a technical term reserved for diocesan councils in the Vatican II Decree on Bishops. Nowhere did Vatican II apply the word “pastoral” to councils envisioned for the parish. And canon 536 was selective because it did not employ the language of Laity 26 — the Vatican II document universally cited before 1983 as the foundation for parish councils.(4) Confronted with the innovations and selectivity of canon 536, the five scholarly and pastoral writers attempted to reconcile the Code to the official documents pertaining to councils published at Vatican II and afterwards.

Their reconciliation took the form of a highly questionable thesis. The scholarly and pastoral writers maintained that “pastoral” councils, recommended only at the diocesan level in the Vatican II Decree on Bishops, were also intended for parishes. Vatican II, they claimed, had intended parish pastoral councils. In point of fact, pastoral councils at the parish level were first mentioned in the 1973 “Circular Letter” by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, eight years after the close of Vatican II. But Lumen Gentium 37 had spoken of “institutions established by the Church” to enable lay people to manifest their opinions. This vague reference to officially established institutions may well refer to pastoral councils at the parish — or so suggested Bishop John Keating of Arlington. Canon 536 had recommended parish pastoral councils, Bishop Keating reasoned, and so Vatican II must have intended them as well.

Why was it important to say that Vatican II had called (however indirectly) for parish pastoral councils? The answer lies in the distinction between the “pastoral” councils of the Bishops’ Decree and the “apostolic” councils of the Laity Decree. The Vatican II documents referred to distinctively different kinds of councils, according to the five scholarly and pastoral authors considered here. The pastoral council, described in Bishops 27, is better defined and delimited. It has been treated more extensively in post Vatican II documents than the apostolic council. Pastoral councils are consultative only. Pastoral councils serve when convened by pastors. Pastoral councils cannot be construed as permanent administrative entities. We know what pastoral councils are from a number of later official publications.

The apostolic councils of Laity 26, by contrast, are less well defined. Apostolic councils may assist every field of Church activity. Apostolic councils have laity, clergy, and religious working “in whatever way proves satisfactory,” and not just in strict hierarchical order. Apostolic councils may coordinate lay initiatives, and so have a seemingly independent administrative life of their own. In short, the Laity Decree described apostolic councils in language less restrictive than that of the Bishops’ Decree. Our five scholarly and pastoral authors argued not only that Vatican II had intended pastoral councils rather than apostolic councils. They argued moreover that the two types were wholly different. The affirmation of pastoral-style councils in canon 536, they suggested, was a repudiation of apostolic-style councils.

Bishop Keating drew a further conclusion. He noted that canon 536, the canon on parish pastoral councils, was followed by a canon on parish finance councils. Such finance councils, states canon 537, “aid the pastor in the administration of parish goods” (in administratione bonorum paroeciae adiutorio sint). The canon on finance councils, Bishop Keating said, limits parish pastoral councils. Their scope “does not extend into the administration of the parish,” he argued, “but is restricted to what are called ‘pastoral’ activities.” Orville Griese and Peter Kim concurred.(5) They too wanted to exclude administration from the list of pastoral council duties. The goal of these authors was, first, of all, to affirm the pastoral council idea; second, to exclude the apostolic council idea; and third, to interpret the pastoral council idea in a exclusive way. Canon 537, they said, excluded parish administration from the purview of the parish pastoral council. If administration were outside the pastoral council’s scope, then the council could focus on pastoral matters.

To sum up, these authors proposed a reinterpretation of Vatican II’s intention regarding parish councils, a reinterpretation in the light of canon 536. The reinterpretation had both pastoral and historical motives. The pastoral motive was to avoid the problems which had arisen from an application of the apostolic-council idea stemming from Laity 26. The ambiguities of that text had led some councils to see themselves as superior to the pastor and to assign themselves administrative tasks which hindered more than helped.(6) In some cases, this had harmed the fundamental relationship of trust which ought to exist between pastor and people. Commentators who embraced the pastoral council ideal were motivated in part by a desire to avoid these problems.

Another motive was historical. The Code of Canon Law, as we have said, had employed only the language of Bishops 27 in its recommendations of parish pastoral councils. It did not refer to the apostolic councils of Laity 26. In fact, references to Laity 26 in official Church (that is, Vatican) documents are practically nonexistent. To be sure, the technical language of Laity 26 appears in official documents which refer to councils which “coordinate” (Ad Gentes Divinitus) and which assist the “apostolate” (twice in the Directory on Bishops). And there is a reference to Laity 26 as a foundation for parish pastoral councils in the record of the discussions leading to the creation of the Code of Canon Law.(7) But apart from these scant references, Laity 26, the only Vatican II document to mention councils at the parish level, has vanished from official Church discussions. The authors who proposed to reinterpret Vatican II intentions regarding councils in light of canon 536 could well argue that Laity 26 did not count. Official documents were silent on it.

Part Two: Problems with the Reinterpretation

But the attempt to reinterpret Vatican II intentions regarding parish councils by means of canon 536 is unpersuasive. The key elements of the reinterpretation&emdash; namely, that Vatican II had called for parish pastoral councils, that pastoral and apostolic councils were clearly distinguished, and that administration is outside the scope of the pastoral council&emdash;are all problematic. Vatican II had never called for parish pastoral councils, which were first mentioned in the 1973 “Circular Letter.” So commentators on canon 536 had to strain to show that such councils were an implicit intention of Vatican II. Some said that parish pastoral councils were implicit in Lumen Gentium 37, with its affirmation of the laity’s right to advise pastors. But without any direct evidence, this intention was hard to prove.

Parish pastoral councils, the reinterpreters said further, were distinctly different from the “apostolic”-style councils recommended in Laity 26. They argued that canon 536, with its emphasis on pastoral-style councils, meant to exclude apostolic councils. At least one commentator even said that parishes ought to have three parish councils: a pastoral council, an apostolic council, and a finance council.(8) But there is ample evidence to show that the distinction between “apostolic” and “pastoral” councils was by no means hard and fast, especially in the preparatory phase of Vatican II. The adjectives pastoral and apostolic were then used interchangeably, and the tasks of the apostolic council (coordinating the works of the apostolate) were at one time assigned to the pastoral council.(9) Moreover, later Vatican documents did not preserve a rigid distinction between “pastoral” and “apostolic” functions. They suggested that pastoral councils may take charge of the works of the apostolate. In short, the boundary between pastoral and apostolic functions appears to be permeable. There is nothing to prevent an “apostolic” council from studying pastoral problems and proposing conclusions (i.e., what “pastoral” councils do); and “pastoral” councils may well promote the apostolate and coordinate lay initiatives (the work of the “apostolic” council). The language is not mutually exclusive. What seemed clear and distinct in the eyes of some commentators, namely, pastoral and apostolic councils, may more properly be described as two functions which a single council can perform.

Finally, there is good reason to suggest that canon 537, the canon on parish finance councils, does not limit the scope of parish pastoral councils.(10) Because finance councils attend to the administration of parish goods, some commentators concluded that pastoral councils must steer clear of administration. If administration is given to one council, is must be taken away from another. But this reasoning is faulty on two counts. First, the administration of parish goods is not the whole of administration. Finance councils which advise pastors on budgets and banking do not necessarily advise them on the administration of programs or running the parish office. Second, a pastor may consult his finance council about investments and his pastoral council on how best to spend parish income. Consulting one council about a matter does not prevent a pastor from consulting another council on the same topic. There is no reason to believe that canon 537 was meant to hinder pastors from consulting as they see fit.

In brief, the efforts to reinterpret Vatican II’s intention regarding parish councils were flawed. Their fundamental claim, that Vatican II intended parish pastoral councils, lacks explicit proof. The sharp distinction between pastoral and apostolic councils, which undergirds the claim that an endorsement of the one means a rejection of the other, seems overly sharp. It is not borne out by a study of the preparatory documents, of the Vatican II texts themselves, or of subsequent official documents. And there does not seem to be an essential incompatibility between pastoral and apostolic councils. In the absence of compelling evidence for the reinterpretation, we have to seek a better interpretation.

Part Three: A Better Interpretation

I think it would be better to acknowledge that the extension to parishes of the “pastoral” council idea, originally proposed for dioceses, was not the clear intention of Vatican II. The bishops certainly embraced the idea of consultation, expressed it in a variety of ways, and left the application of it to local Churches. The differences between Laity 26 and Bishops 27 can be explained as a “juxtaposition,” to use Hermann Pottmeyer’s term.(11) Vatican II juxtaposed texts, leaving to later generations the task of synthesizing them. That is our task.

The remaining ecclesiological problem is that canon 536 grants a privilege to one text, Bishops 27, and fails to even allude to Laity 26. I would argue that the texts of Vatican II have greater force of law than even canon 536. Although that canon uses the language of Bishops 27 to describe parish councils, nevertheless it does not thereby make Laity 26 moot. To do so, canon 536 would have to explicitly exclude from the scope of parish councils the tasks described in Laity 26. These are the tasks of assisting the Church’s apostolic work and coordinating lay associations and undertakings. Canon 536 did not exclude these.

Meanwhile, quite apart from these legal discussions, the task of synthesizing the Vatican II texts about councils has proceeded on the local level. Most guidelines for parish pastoral councils published by diocese throughout the United States have this synthetic nature. It is most clearly apparent in the commonplace recommendation that parish pastoral councils coordinate a system of permanent standing committees. This recommendation stems from the language of Laity 26, which states that councils may coordinate lay initiatives. So on the popular level, the synthesis of juxtaposed Vatican II texts about councils has long been underway.

What about the problems which an affirmation of the pastoral-style council was meant to solve? These were the problems of councils which viewed themselves as possessing a deliberative vote (rather than consultative only), and as exercising a permanent administrative function (rather than serving at the pastor’s request). The language of canon 536 certainly set these matters straight. No one can claim that pastoral councils are permanent legislatures.

But one could well argue that no Vatican II text ever meant to usurp the pastor’s role. Problems with overweening councils did not arise because Laity 26 gave them authority over pastors. They arose because no text can anticipate every eventuality. It was inevitable that, in the application of the Vatican II documents, there would be false starts and wrong turns. The solution to these problems does not lie in the exclusion of a defective text and the affirmation of a preferable one. No, the solution lies in the realm of prudence, in the judgments which stem from the knowledge of what is appropriate and fitting for a specific community. Even with the explicit legislation of canon 536, experience is still the best teacher of how to apply the idea of consultation at the parish level.

Parish councils have flourished in the U.S. because Americans have recognized the contribution they can make to the Church through such councils. Good pastors turn to councils so that they can judge parish matters aright. Like a Socrates, a good pastor knows that he does not know everything. Sound judgments should be make with those who know the community best. These are the best councilors, whether we call them pastoral, apostolic, or merely “parish.”


(1) The critics of old-style parish councils are numerous. Dennis O’Leary, for example, describes early councils as focused on finance and administration–on, in other words, the “temporal order”–and reluctant to take responsibility for anything related to the parish’s spiritual health. O’Leary, “Parish Pastoral Councils,” in Arthur X. Deegan, II, Editor, Developing a Vibrant Parish Pastoral Council (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1995), pp. 20-21. Mary B. McKinney sees frequent conflict and concedes, “Monthly meetings for many have become battlegrounds.” See McKinney, Sharing Wisdom: A Process for Group Decision Making (Allen, TX: Tabor Publishing, 1987), p. 6. Robert D. Newsome states that early councils and parish staffs “began to image the role of the parish council as similar to the role of a corporate board of directors.” See Newsome, The Ministering Parish: Methods and Procedures for Pastoral Organization (New York and Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 79. These authors confirmed the insight of William Rademacher and Marliss Rogers that, for many councils, a preoccupation with temporal matters relegated the spiritual to the margins; they were about power, and became jealous when their power was limited. See William J. Rademacher with Marliss Rogers, The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils (Mystic: Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), p. 63.

(2) The popular understanding of pastoral councils is implicit in an article by Natalie Cornell, “The Parish Council: 20 Years After,” Today’s Parish (January, 1986): 26-27. Cornell does not speak of “pastoral” councils, but sees a movement toward councils that plan, aim for consensus, and emphasize prayer–in a word, the “pastoral” council.

Further confirmation of this three-fold characteristic of “pastoral” councils can be found in Arthur X. Deegan, II, Editor, Developing a Vibrant Parish Pastoral Council (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1995). This book contains articles on councils as “Instruments of Visioning and Planning” (by Dennis J. O’Leary, pp. 19-35), on consensus as an important aspect of “Council Spirituality” (an article by Marie Kevin Tighe, pp. 88-99), and on “The Parish Pastoral Council and Prayer” (by Kathleen Turley, pp. 100-106).

(3) William Dalton, “Parish Councils or Parish Pastoral Councils?” Studia Canonica 22 (1988): 169-185. Orville Griese, “The New Code of Canon Law and Parish Councils,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 85:4 (January, 1985): 47-53. John Keating, “Consultation in the Parish,” Origins 14:17 (October 11, 1984): 257, 259-266. Peter Kim Se-Mang, Parish Councils on Mission: Coresponsibility and Authority among Pastors and Parishioners (Kuala Lumpur: Benih Publisher, 1991). John A. Renken, “Pastoral Councils: Pastoral Planning and Dialogue among the People of God,” The Jurist 53 (1993): 132-154.

(4) For example, the following books cited no. 26 of the Laity Decree as the basis for parish councils: Robert C. Broderick, The Parish Council Handbook: A Handbook to Bring the Power of Renewal to Your Parish (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1968), p. 2; Bernard Lyons, Parish Councils: Renewing the Christian Community (Techny, Illinois: Divine Word Publication, 1967), p. 31; David P. O’Neill, The Sharing Community: Parish Councils and Their Meaning (Dayton: Pflaum Press, 1968), p. 18; The National Council of Catholic Men, Parish Councils: A Report on Principles, Purposes, Structures and Goals (Washington, D.C.: NCCM, 1968), p. 2; and Edward E. Ryan, How to Establish a Parish Council: A Step-by-Step Program for Setting Up Parish Councils (Chicago: Claretian Publications, 1968).

(5) Keating (p. 264), Griese (“The New Code,” p. 53), and Kim (p. 48).

(6) An example of this was the dispute between Father John P. Hannan and the council of Good Shepherd Church in the Diocese of Arlington. Father Hannan’s council wanted in 1974 to institute the practices of female Eucharistic ministers and Communion in the hand, practices to which he objected and for which Bishop Thomas Welsh had given no permission. Hannan dissolved the council and Welsh backed him up. Two months later, after reconciliation efforts, the council and its committees were re-established, this time as consultative to the pastor. See Thomas Welsh, “A Parish in Conflict,” Origins 4:26 (12/19/74): 411-413; and John P. Hannan, “Toward Reconciliation in Good Shepherd Parish,” Origins 4:33 (2/6/75): 524. Another example is the complaint of Evansville Bishop Francis Shea, “A Bishop Suspends His Pastoral Council,” pastoral letter dated September 9, 1976, in Origins 6:15 (9/30/76): 229, 231-232.

(7) “Dall’esame delle osservazioni generali si traggono le seguenti conclusioni: 1) È opportuno parlare del Consiglio pastorale parrocchiale (Decr. Apostolicam actuositatem, nn. 10 e 26 e Direttorio per i Vescovi, no. 179)? Un Consultore suggerisce che venga chiamato «Consiglio parrocchiale», ma, secondo Mons. Segretario ed altri, sembra preferibile aggiungere l’aggetivo «pastorale» per circoscrivere la sua competenza, che non si estende al regime, all’addministrazione dei beni, ecc.” April 19, 1980 Discussion or Coetus studiorum of the section of the code entitled “De Populo Dei,” in Pontificia Commissio Codici Iuris Canonici Recognoscendo, Communicationes 13 (June, 1981): 146.

(8) Kim states that the coordinating council, recommended in Laity 26, has the responsibility for the “development and coordination of parish ministries and apostolic groups” (p. 83).

(9) Roch Pagé, The Diocesan Pastoral Council, translated by Bernard A. Prince (Paramus, NJ: Newman Press, 1970). Pagé relates how the Preparatory Commission known as “De Episcopis” drafted a schema entitled “De Cura Animarum” (April, 1963). The schema included a proposal for a Diocesan Pastoral Council which would (among other things) ensure the coordination of the works of the apostolate, as well as a proposal for a Diocesan Coordinating Council, which would do the actual coordinating of the apostolate itself. In the spring of 1964, the Mixed Preparatory Commission known as “De Episcopis et Religiosis” prepared a text entitled “De pastorale episcoporum munere in ecclesia.” This text became the basis for the Bishops’ Decree. Pagé states that Bishops 27 was taken “almost entirely” from the passage in “De Cura Animarum” about coordinating councils. But the final text dropped the reference to the coordination of apostolic works, Pagé continues, “changing opera apostolatus to opera pastoralia” (p. 20). Doubtless the distinction between the two types of councils was deliberate. But the close connection between “pastoral” and “apostolic” councils suggests that the two functions were not considered incompatible.

(10) “Nothing, therefore, escapes the category of pastoral if it truly pertains to the church.” James H. Provost, “Canon Law and the Role of Consultation,” Origins 18:47 (May 4, 1989): 793, 795-799 (at p. 798). Sidney J. Marceaux (“The Pastoral Council,” Doctor of Canon Law dissertation (Rome: Pontifical University of Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas in the City, 1980), in his analysis of the 1973 Circular Letter, concludes that its efforts to limit the competence of the pastoral council are superseded by the Vatican II Bishops’ Decree, which “carries a greater force of law” (p. 143). The same can be said about the efforts of those who would use canon 537 to limit the competence of councils. Both are superseded by Bishops 27.

(11) Hermann J. Pottmeyer, “A New Phase in the Reception of Vatican II: Twenty Years of Interpretation of the Council,” in Giuseppe Alberigo, Jean-Pierre Jossua, and Joseph A. Komonchak, Editors, The Reception of Vatican II, trans. by Matthew J. O’Connell (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1987), pp. 27-58, esp. pp. 37-8.