Council success

DPC LogoSmallParish Councils Thirty Years after Vatican II

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Common Sense About Councils,” Church 12:4 (Winter, 1996): 10-14.

By most measures, the proliferation of parish councils in the United States marks one of the great if indirect successes of the Second Vatican Council. Three-quarters of 18,000 U.S. parishes have such councils, according to the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life in the 1980s. An estimated 100,000 Catholics are involved in them at any one time. My research shows that a majority of American bishops support councils by publishing guidelines, employing support personnel, requiring the establishment of councils, and consulting their own diocesan councils. All of this testifies to the successful adaptation by U.S. parishes of an institution, the pastoral council, which in the Vatican II documents is only briefly mentioned and merely recommended, not mandated.

It is tempting to attribute the enormous number of parish councils to a widespread acceptance by Church leaders of democratic principles and of the need to promote lay leadership. After all, that was how many interpreted Vatican II exhortations to read the signs of the times. Parish councils, from this point of view, empower the laity and restore to them leadership in the parochial community of faith. A large portion of the extensive literature about parish councils, including most of the guidelines, manuals, and “how to” books, takes precisely that tack.

But I would argue that the success of parish councils is not due to the Church’s embrace of democratic principles, except in a very general sense, or to a desire to promote lay leadership. Rather, councils flourish in U.S. parishes because Catholics have matured in their understanding of community, have grasped more deeply the nature of consultation, and have committed themselves to participative structures with prudence and intelligence. Above all, councils flourish thanks to a Catholic instinct for genuinely Christian, and especially priestly, leadership.

A Brief History of Parish Councils

In order to understand this thesis, one has to contrast parish councils in the 1960s and 70s with councils in the 80s and 90s. One difference is overwhelmingly apparent: a difference in the understanding of parish council authority. This was, in the 60s and 70s, the subject of highly diverse speculations. Many early authors advocated the notion that councils should wield executive authority. They took their cue from the ambiguity of section 26 in the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, the only Vatican II text referring to councils at the parish level. In that text, some believed, the world’s bishops were permitting councils to coordinate, and thus to govern, parish life. Even those who rightly interpreted the Vatican II text as calling for “advisory” councils with only a consultative vote would sometimes state that parish councils have no legal status “as yet.” They wishfully thought that this legal status might eventually be granted.

That hope was dashed with the publication in 1983 of the revised Code of Canon Law. Canon 536 states that, if a local bishop finds it opportune, councils with a consultative vote only are to be established in parishes. The canon refers to these as “pastoral” councils, applying to them a term which the Vatican II Decree on Bishops had reserved for diocesan councils. This was not the first time an official document had spoken of “pastoral” councils on the parish level, but it was the most memorable. Thereafter the American discussion shifted from “parish” to “parish pastoral” councils. In addition to the language about councils “coordinating” parish lay apostolates (the language of the Vatican II Laity decree), one began to hear about parish councils investigating pastoral problems, reflecting on them, and recommending solutions (the language of the Decree on Bishops). The publication of the revised code, with its emphasis on the “pastoral” council, marked a watershed.

The affirmation of consultative “pastoral” councils meant an abandonment of the hope, however ill-founded, for parish councils with executive authority independent of the pastor. It also bade farewell to the union, wished by many, of ecclesiastical and democratic principles. If democracy means rule by the laity, based on the idea of the sovereignty of the people, then parish councils can never be democratic. The Code made that abundantly clear. Its language about consultative-only councils was more than a watershed. For many involved with councils, it marked a crisis which left them bitter and dispirited.

At the same time, however, the Code’s affirmation of “pastoral” councils helped crystallize a number of distinctly American insights. The word pastoral came to describe in the 1980s all that was best in parish councils, and to distinguish that from the excesses and misconceptions of earlier council theory. Earlier parish councils, it was said, concerned themselves with the nuts-and-bolts of daily parish business, reached decisions by parliamentary procedure, and focused exclusively on the parish’s temporal affairs. The rise of pastoral councils discredited that earlier approach. Pastoral councils, according to the new theory, apply themselves to visioning and planning, reach decisions by discernment, and focus on the parish’s spiritual renewal. They manifest a new style of parish council.

The remarkable thing about this way of characterizing the new pastoral council is that it has almost no 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 tar 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.

A More Mature Understanding

This approach is distinctive, I would argue, because it emerged not as a result of official direction but as a product of North American experience and theory. As such it manifests a certain maturity in our experience of councils. Take, for example, the issue of council spirituality. Most books on councils from the 1960s made no mention whatsoever of prayer as a constitutive part of council meetings. Formal prayer simply did not play a large role in the earliest councils. Their spirituality had more to do with lay participation, building community, and the Church’s apostolate.

Experience proved the need for deliberate and formal prayer. “After a long day at work, parishioners don’t want to start wrangling about parish minutia,” one pastor told me; “they want something uplifting.” Hence in the early 1980s parish council manuals began to emphasize formal prayer, some going so far as to urge that one-third of council meetings be devoted to it. Printed prayer programs, complete with Scripture readings, hymns, antiphons, and responses–all ready for photocopying–became de rigueur. Much of this now seems forced and graceless, but it filled the need of council members for an experience of recollection.

Another illustration of an American approach to councils is the selection of council members. From the earliest days of the parish council movement, almost every book, article, and guideline has stated that the composition of the council should be “representative,” whatever that means. Most have interpreted it in demographic terms: the council should mirror the parish census, or should have an even geographic distribution, or should reflect the membership of existing parish organizations and ministerial groups. This has led to the rise of the so-called “council of ministries,” a council whose members represent parish groups and whose self-imposed task is to coordinate them. The trouble with this approach was epitomized by Father Bertram Griffin, the Portland canonist. He noted in 1983 “the growing sense of boredom on parish super councils where the only action month after month is hearing reports from committees, commissions, and organizations, each having a reserved seat.” In many councils, an overemphasis on representation had stifled the spirit.

So the publication in the 1980s of books which advocated a process of spiritual discernment–both of council members and of council decisions–was refreshing. Several authors recognized that the value of a council has more to do with the spiritual gifts of its members than with their demographic profile. Benedictine Sister Mary Benet McKinney’s 1987 Sharing Wisdom exemplifies this approach. She listed the gifts needed by council members, such as practical wisdom, and designed group processes to help identify those gifts in potential councilors. Her book rejected the idea that representation alone should determine council membership and that a majority vote should settle all council questions. A more thorough, reflective, and deliberate discernment became the ideal.

All of this meant that councils had to restrict their scope. One cannot discern about everything, and the longing for a more reflective approach required councils to be more discriminating about how they spend their time. In the earliest literature about councils, theorists were practically unwilling to limit the scope of the council in any way. Although some tried to restrict councils to temporal matters, and others sought to shift temporal matters from the pastoral to the finance council, these efforts proved unpersuasive. The early literature not only gave them unlimited scope, but burdened them with an impossibly long list of responsibilities: advising the pastor, initiating programs, coordinating committees, cultivating volunteers, engaging in dialogue, and modeling Christian community. The list could go on forever.

In the late 1980s, however, one word began to overshadow others in describing the main task of pastoral councils: the word planning. This way of describing the council’s work has three advantages. First, it honors the canonical language about councils as consultative only. Councils make plans but do not obligate pastors to accept those plans. Second, the word planning suggests concern about the future of the parish’s mission. More important than any other task of the “planning” council is to help the parish choose how best to respond to the challenge of the gospel. This response, precisely because it lies in the future, gives the council time to prepare. And third, the term planning allows great freedom of action. Planning can be a highly technical exercise with goals, objectives, and time lines; or as simple as a sustained reflection on where God is calling the parish. The word planning has dominated recent discussions about parish councils because it corresponds to their consultative role, future orientation, and freedom of scope.

Let us see where we have come so far. The success of parish councils in the United States, we have said, is not a result of the Church’s democratic principles or its affirmation of lay leadership. Instead, it is due in substantial measure to the maturity of Catholics who took over the term “pastoral council” and gave it a distinctly American flavor. More deliberately prayerful than early councils, with a greater emphasis on spiritual discernment and on planning for the future, U.S.-style pastoral councils are a creation of the American Church, a result of thirty years of experimentation.

Lay Insights into Leadership

But that is only one-half the story. The other half has to do with the leadership, especially the priestly leadership, of councils. I contend that the present success of parish councils in the U.S. is also due in large measure to the insight of Catholics, lay and ordained, into the nature of Christian leadership. Moreover, I believe that upon the exercise of sound priestly leadership, above all, the future of parish councils depends.

After the publication in 1983 of the revised Code, with its insistence that pastoral councils have only a consultative vote, American Catholics faced a crisis. For lay council members, the crisis took the form of a question: why should I participate in a council whose advice pastors are not legally obligated to heed? This is an important question. The fact that Catholics continue to participate in large numbers suggests that the crisis was resolved successfully. I believe the resolution was achieved in part by a certain asceticism among council members. They recognized that, although pastors are not legally obligated to take their advice, nevertheless that does not deprive their work of value. Good advice stands on its own merits, without any need for legal sanction to compel acceptance.

Moreover, there are good reasons not to compel pastors to take the advice of councils. A council’s recommendations may be unsound: reached precipitously, founded on insufficient research, fundamentally flawed by the passions of the council members. But councilors can recognize this. When pastors explain why they cannot accept a council recommendation, members can see its limitations. The satisfaction they derive from participating in a council, as Father David F. Wall’s 1978 Catholic University dissertation shows, is not based on whether members have decision-making authority. No, satisfaction stems primarily from a pastor’s support of their participation. American Catholics have come to see that their parish council has less to do with law than with a community’s life and spirit. Its value cannot be reduced to the legal terms of obligation and sanction.

With this insight comes the wider realization that councilor participation cannot, strictly speaking, be called lay leadership. It is rather, I would argue, a lay ministry. To be sure, council members exercise a form of leadership by taking initiative, synthesizing viewpoints, and persuading. But only the pastor, in a formal sense, is the leader of the council. He presides at meetings of the council. He asks the members for advice, invites them to study a problem, reflects with them, and welcomes their recommendations. The fact that lay members generally accept the pastor’s leadership, so different from what they see in politics and business, suggests that their implicit understanding of leadership is already wider than secular models. Being “ministers” with a vote that is only consultative, instead of being “leaders,” does not invalidate their work.

Leadership by Pastors

The 1983 Code’s reference to consultative-only councils resulted in a crisis for pastors as well. Many of them had grown skeptical about the value of councils, pointing to rancorous meetings, insuperable structural problems, and the sheer torpor of endless reports. Canon 536 not only gave brow-beaten pastors a weapon with which to resist overweening councils, but also gave other pastors permission to ask whether they needed councils at all. The vast majority, it must be said, maintained the status quo. Most kept their existing councils, and pastors without councils created new ones as well. Many pastors, if pushed, would be able to explain the value of their councils in the facile and secular terms of participative management. “If I consult my council about a decision,” they say, “the members will accept it.” Councils are an onerous burden, many pastors feel; but if they help parishioners buy into a decision, they are worth the trouble.

This is a genuine insight, as far as it goes. But it is hard to distinguish from a calculating paternalism. The future of councils does not lie in this direction. Rather it lies in a reappropriation of our own classical and Catholic heritage. This is the heritage of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, and the Christ of faith. It richly equips us to understand consultation, I believe, and to practice it effectively.

In the classical and Catholic tradition, a pastor consults his council for one reason above all: to enter more deeply into the truth. This is a firmer basis for consultation than psychological and managerial theories which do not make their philosophy (or theology) explicit. The classical tradition links the pastor to Socrates because, like him, the good pastor knows that he does not know everything. The tradition also links the pastor to Aristotle, who clarified the competence of the wise lay person. Pastors consult parishioners, not because they are experts, but because phronesis or practical wisdom enables them to judge what is fitting for a particular community. And finally, the tradition links pastors to Thomas via his doctrine of prudence. When facing disagreement, the prudent pastor does not attempt to prematurely resolve a matter by bringing it to a vote. Instead he consults further, recognizing the need for broader knowledge. The classical tradition clarifies the intellectual motive, the subject matter, and the rationale for consultation.

Most importantly, the Christian tradition presents us with a model of leadership in the sacramental Christ. I distinguish this from the historical Jesus, who apparently never sought consensus or consulted widely. But the sacramental Christ, especially as he is presented in John’s gospel, teaches a valuable lesson about council leadership. He teaches that mission stems from communion. From a communion with God in Christ, a communion facilitated by the pastor, the parish mission flows. The first task of the pastor-leader of the council is not to create an elaborate technical plan, complete with mission, goals, and objectives. It is the specifically priestly task of acknowledging, celebrating, and thus solidifying the communion of the council. This means recalling the members’ new life which began at Baptism, their new identity in Christ, their need to “abide” in him. “Apart from me,” states the Johannine Christ, “you can do nothing.” Apart from him, all pastoral planning becomes merely a technical exercise. With him, planning clarifies mission. This helps explain why the analogy between council presidency and liturgical presiding is more than a linguistic accident.

The pastor, in short, is the key to council success. Councils flourish in the U.S., I would hazard a guess, because good pastors implicitly maintain a classical and Catholic tradition of Christian leadership. Their intellectual motive is Socratic, they understand the competence of their councils in Aristotelian terms, and they grasp Thomas’s insight into prudent knowledge as the basis of sound action. Above all, pastors understand that presiding means building communion for the sake of mission. Far from merely ratifying what their councils propose, pastors lead their councils by questioning, maintaining a practical focus, and pursuing the truth. That is not authoritarianism but leadership, a kind of leadership rooted in our own tradition.


Parish councils prosper in Catholic parishes because American Catholics have discovered how to make them work. Experience has taught that councils have to be selective in focus, discerning in style, and deliberately prayerful in spirituality. A thirty-year experience has also taught that the rationale for councils does not lie in Enlightenment theories of representative democracy but in a classical and Christian desire to make practical decisions on a prudent basis for the sake of the community. The rise of parish “pastoral” councils in the U.S. exemplifies the reception and inculturation of Vatican II teaching.

If this experience of councils is genuine, then it ought to be taught as part of parish administration. The Code of Canon Law states that seminarians are to be diligently instructed in the administration of a parish–an area which surely encompasses the arts of consultation. But the U.S. bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation does not mention parish administration, let alone parish councils. Moreover, the bishops of the U.S., unlike their Canadian counterparts, have never issued a document exclusively about parish councils. This is regrettable because, after thirty years of council experience, U.S. bishops have something to teach the Church. Parish councils in the U.S. are a success story which deserves recognition.

One can imagine a skeptic dismissing this argument on the grounds that consultative-only councils demean the laity, maintain clericalism, and are obsolete in an era of declining priestly numbers. To the skeptic I would say that our very experience offers a rebuttal. Sound priestly leadership, informed by councils, empowers lay parishioners. Consultative pastors enhance communion, focusing the Christian mission of the whole parish. And in an era of declining priestly numbers, pastors can ask no more pertinent question than about the leadership Catholics want, and how all of us can promote it.