Aquinas on councils

DPC LogoSmallPrudence and the Parish Council

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Keeping Your Council on Track,” Today’s Parish (March 1996): 31-33.

Did you ever wonder why pressing problems in a parish cannot be solved by simply applying to the concrete situation general principles (such as “What would Jesus do”)? Did you ever wonder why a parish council, after considering a problem for months, did not simply vote on the matter and abide by majority rule? Did you ever wonder why certain council members, hard-working parishioners of evident good will, become impatient, irritable, and downright unpleasant whenever council deliberations get intense?

These questions are important, but they should cause no one to wonder. They are hardly new. In fact, answers to them have been present, at least in outline, since the time of Aristotle. They are the subject matter of practical philosophy, treated by Christian writers under the heading of “prudence.” A general knowledge of the doctrine of prudence could save pastors and parishioners considerable trouble. They would not need to rediscover for themselves the basic principles of prudence. Instead, they could put those general principles to work.

Father Raúl Gomez, a Southern California pastor I have met through my work with councils, knows the principles. He has learned them over more than twenty years of parish experience. That experience capped a very thorough seminary training, back when, as Father Gomez says, “being a theologian meant the study of Thomism.” Father Gomez’s application of the doctrine of prudence illustrates the doctrine better than St. Thomas himself.

The Doctrine of Prudence

Prudence helps define what councils ought to do. That is important because canon law regulating councils is hopelessly vague. The law scarcely says more than that councils are to study problems, recommend solutions, and foster pastoral activity (canons 511, 536). In the absence of clearer directions, prudence sheds a considerable light.

Father Gomez is fond of quoting St. Thomas, who treated prudence in the second part of the Summa Theologica’s Part Two. Prudence, Thomas says in the first article of Question 47, is thought applied to action. The word “action” deserves comment. Prudence does not concern itself with what is always and everywhere true. That is the business of theory or of science. Prudence applies theory or science to the concrete action. Father Gomez avoids theoretical discussions. He can be rather abrupt when council members drop the names of Rahner, Schillebeeckx, or Ratzinger. Father Gomez does not want to know what this theologian or that one says. He wants to know how their thinking can help the parish.

Council members appreciate his discipline and focus around the council table. Some members tend to wander far afield. I recall one evening last fall when two began to argue about the October 28 publication by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At issue was whether its repeat of the ban against ordaining women was infallible. Father Gomez cut the matter short. “We’re here to talk about starting youth ministry, which is something we can do,” he said; “but none of us can ordain anybody.”

That was prudent. He kept the focus on activity, which Thomas (in article 2) says is the domain of prudence. Those who wanted to talk theology could gather in his study after the meeting. In fact, some us later did so. But the council meeting was reserved for a discussion of youth ministry: what the parish youth need, how the parish can help them, and what it will cost. Youth, the council agreed, are the future of the parish. No one argued that point.

The Clash of Principles

The youth ministry discussion, however, paved the way for a future argument. To hear Father Gomez tell the story, he knew he was in trouble when he received a visit one week later from Helen, a senior citizen at the parish. Helen is not exactly a gray panther. But with her trim jogging outfits, encyclopedic knowledge of parish history, contacts on every parish committee, and membership in the American Association of Retired Persons, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Helen became upset, she said, when she heard that the parish council was making plans to establish a youth ministry and hire a youth minister. Father Gomez admitted it was true. He had asked the council to study other youth ministries and to develop a job description for the parish’s own youth minister. How, he asked, could that be a problem?

It was a problem, Helen replied, because it overlooked the parish’s foremost pastoral need, namely, eldercare. 16.5% of people in the parish boundary are over 65, she said, quoting the 1990 census. The parish ought to coordinate activities for them, social and religious activities for the able-bodied, and hot meals and visits for the home-bound. After all, Helen asked, is there not a Biblical injunction, reinforced by Catholic social teaching, to care for the weakest among us?

Helen left and, true to her word, mail and telephone calls began to arrive at the parish office, pleading with Father Gomez to establish a ministry to the elderly. Helen had indeed expressed a sound general principle. To care for the weak who are elderly is to make a preferential option for the poor. That is Church teaching. But the general principle which has guided the parish council is no less sound and equally worthy. Youth are the future of the parish. Both principles are unexceptional.

The parish, Father Gomez reflected, has limited resources. It can afford to hire a youth minister or to hire a minister to the elderly, but it cannot afford both. The general principles of youth ministry and eldercare are equally good, and parishioners could hurl slogans at one another for an eternity without agreeing. General principles, Father Gomez knew, do not solve the problem of making choices regarding limited resources. The general principles must be applied. That too is prudence. The discussion has to move from general principles to their application.

Applying General Principles

It crossed Father Gomez’s mind that he might resolve the problem by asking parishioners to vote on youth ministry or ministry to the elderly. A referendum, he briefly thought, might bring the matter quickly to a head. But he rejected that course. Prudence, St. Thomas teaches in article 1, does not have to do primarily with what people want, with mere desire. No, it has to do with reason. The parish must compare the two ministries, judging what is most needed and beneficial. A majority would indeed pick one or the other, but the majority might be wrong.

The situation demanded something other than a ballot. It demanded reason. General principles and sound theory do not suffice, because they do not take account of the concrete parish situation. Doubtless, more care for youth and more ministry to the elderly are always good. But a parish situation is fluid. A prudent decision to commit limited parish resources is contingent upon a number of factors: the number of youth and elderly, the kind of care each needs, and the parish’s ability to provide it. The campaign Helen orchestrated made Father Gomez question his prior assumptions. He realized he needed to know more about the parish situation, especially about the elderly.

So Father Gomez decided to hold three parish assemblies to air the question. In the assemblies, he asked parishioners to envision what the parish would be like if it had a first-class youth ministry, and to envision what it would be like if all the elderly were given the care they deserve. The parish assemblies were not a referendum, Father Gomez explained. They were an effort to shed light on the parish mission and to identify candidates for a task force. The task force would help him resolve the question of youth ministry and eldercare.

Father Gomez knew that his goal was effective ministry, ministry to all members of the parish. The question, however, concerned the means. How was the parish, given its limited resources, to meet the needs of both youth and the elderly? The purpose of the task force was not just to find the means to a pre-ordained end. The end itself, namely youth ministry or eldercare, was an open question. Father Gomez sought the right disposition of parish means. That is the essence of prudence, as St. Thomas suggests in article 7. It seeks the highest good in action, whether that action take the form of youth ministry or eldercare.

Prudent Counselors

During the course of the assemblies, a number of parishioners emerged as articulate voices, passionate about the issues and willing to listen to others. These were nominated and selected for the task force. Some were members of the parish council, and others–Helen among them–were not. Father Gomez began to meet with this group and to apply the insights gleaned from the parish assemblies.

Shortly thereafter, some members of the parish, long-time parishioners who were very active and well-respected, criticized the make-up of the task force. They said it was dominated by people who had participated in the parish assemblies. These critical parishioners wanted others on the task force. They nominated some of their own number, hard-working members of parish ministries, who had not participated in the assemblies.

But Father Gomez declined to accept these nominees. He said the process for selecting task force members was clear from the outset: only participants in the assemblies were eligible for the task force. Although he respected the concerns of those who had not participated, he was not going to add task force members.

That too was prudent. Prudence concerns not only making a good decision, but understanding the decision as well. It not only disposes us to want the good, but it teaches us what good can be accomplished by our actions. It is, as Thomas says in article 4, an intellectual as well as a moral virtue.

Father Gomez knew that he wanted prudent people for his task force. These were not just the active, well-respected, and hard-working parishioners. Such people are good, but not necessarily prudent. Father Gomez wanted those with special gifts. He wanted those who can deliberate well, take counsel, inquire, and judge shrewdly. These gifts belong to prudence. And the only way to discern them is to watch people exercise them. That was a chief purpose of the assemblies. Father Gomez was watching for gifted people. He only wanted those with the requisite gifts.

A Prudent Decision

Father Gomez’s watchfulness paid off. The task force was a success. It concluded that the establishment of an expanded youth ministry was more immediately important to the parish than hiring a new staff member to coordinate ministry to the elderly. Even Helen agreed, and turned her efforts to developing a volunteer eldercare. Father Gomez published the recommendations of the task force and announced his acceptance of them at each Sunday Mass. The parishioners were given a careful explanation of the rationale, and asked to contribute money to launch the youth ministry program. Sufficient money was raised to hire a new youth minister, and the parish is now raising money for an enhanced ministry to the elderly.

Father Gomez’s foundation in the doctrine of prudence saved him and the parish a lot of grief. He moved the discussion away from abstract principles and insisted on the application of them to the concrete situation. He avoided the temptation to cut the discussion short and resolve the matter by an uninformed referendum. And he resisted pressure to expand the task force with popular parishioners who were not good at deliberations, and instead selected those who had proved their abilities in the parish assembly. Who would have thought that St. Thomas could teach so much?