DPC LogoSmallSocrates in the Pastoral Council

By Mark F. Fischer

(Published as “Parish Councils: Where Does the Pastor Fit In?” Today’s Parish (November/December, 1991): 13-15.)

Socrates, the fifth-century Greek philosopher portrayed so vividly in Plato’s dialogues, is a model for the pastor in a parish council. Why? Because the role of pastors in councils is obscure and a look at Socrates can illuminate it. Socrates shows how to get at the truth of a matter by asking questions.

Of course, this implies a special interpretation of Socrates. No one would propose that pastors take as their model the Socrates who delighted in puncturing before others the pretensions of the self-important. And none would encourage pastors to distrust, as Socrates did, the capacity for good of their communities. The Athenians stung into wakefulness by the Socratic gadfly did not regard him as a pastor, but put him to death.

Still, Socrates’ way of knowing — his way of holding up a reality before others for their examination — has a lot to teach anyone who seeks truth in dialogue, especially pastors in a parish council. Their role in parish council literature is ambiguous.

Guidelines for parish councils published by dioceses throughout the United States sketch the pastor’s role in contradictory ways. For example, take the question of membership on the council. The guidelines from Brownsville, Fargo, Milwaukee, and Omaha describe the pastor as a “member” of the council. They want him to participate in it. But the Raleigh guidelines state explicitly that he is not a member. They emphasize that the council is a consultative body, and from their viewpoint the pastor who is a member would be, in effect, consulting himself.

In the Omaha and Milwaukee guidelines, the pastor is not just a member, but a voting member. Their vision is egalitarian. In the New York and Boston guidelines, however, the pastor has no vote. He does not need to be enfranchised because, according to canon law, he presides over the council’s deliberations. The Boston guidelines go beyond canon law and make him chairman as well.

In these guidelines, two concerns vie for attention: participation and leadership. some guidelines imply a fear that pastors may dominate councils, and so they emphasize that the pastor is one among other council members. Other guidelines hint that the council may dominate the pastor, and so they emphasize his special status. Neither adequately expresses an understanding of leadership in the council.

The figure of Socrates, as we shall see, suggests a more thorough understanding. First, Socrates reveals the power of asking questions, the power of the pastor who acknowledges the limits of his knowledge. Second, the Socratic dialogue is appropriate to a particular kind of council, the council more concerned with knowing the parish and building a pastoral plan than with coordinating activities. Third, the Socratic approach fosters the maturity of the council, but cannot be reduced to a method or technique.

Unlocking the Questions

What does it mean for a pastor to lead as well as participate? Socrates shows a way. He led by asking questions and by seeing in the answers of others new problems and new questions. By asking questions, he acknowledged the contribution of others — all play a part in thinking the matter through — and he indicated that the matter is more complex than any of them thought previously.

A good example is the dialogue entitled Euthyphro. Socrates’ conversation partner, a man named Euthyphro, is prosecuting his father for murder. Even though his father’s guilt is highly disputed, Euthyphro believes that undertaking the prosecution is what holiness demands. Socrates proceeds to question him about holiness: is a thing holy because someone — even a god, as Euthyphro believes — says it is holy? Or is it holy in itself? Socrates does not deter the prosecution (indeed, he himself already faces a capital charge), but his questions suggest that holiness is other than what Euthyphro first thought.

Pastors and parish councils share the Socratic concern for holiness. The pastor who raises the holiness question with his council — whether by asking for an assessment of liturgical practices or by deliberating how best to undertake parish renewal — must be prepared to suggest that holiness is more than observing the liturgical letter or inaugurating the latest renewal weekend.

The Socratic pastor who raises such questions assumes a particular model of parish council. According to this model, the council exists to deliberate pastoral problems and to recommend solutions. It does not coordinate parish organizations, as some might recommend, or execute new programs. Rather, it seeks insight into the parish and suggests plans to make it accord with the gospel.

The pastor consults the council because, like Socrates, he recognizes the limitations of his knowledge. Socrates claimed, in the description of his trial known as the Apology, that his wisdom consisted in this: unlike his enemies, he at least saw the limits of his knowledge. But his acknowledged ignorance was not imbecilic or weak. Rather, Socrates saw that insight into the limits of his knowledge enabled him to push back his ignorance by consulting others.

Knowledge in Dialogue

Following Socrates, the pastor leads the council by defining a problem to be explored and by keeping it in focus with appropriate questions. This does not mean that he is necessarily the chairman of the council. But he takes the initiative by posing a problem, by letting it unfold in dialogue, and by asking councillors to grapple with facets of the problem as they emerge.

The philosophic assumption behind this model of parish council is venerable: the assumption that knowledge is virtue. Gaining knowledge about reality, Socrates would say, is the first step toward right action. The parish council may not itself solve the pastoral problem it is deliberating, but it increases knowledge through its deliberations. This knowledge lays the basis for sound pastoral action.

Some would criticize this as an inadequate understanding of the parish council. A council which increases knowledge but lacks executive power, they might charge, is “all talk and no action.” But a reply to this charge can be inferred from the Socratic parable of the cave in Plato’s Republic. In the parable, a person who emerges from the cave’s darkness into the sunlight (i.e., who gains knowledge) is the only one able to act wisely. Others may act wisely if forced to do so, but they lack knowledge: their actions are not based on a genuine insight into the nature of things. The parish council seeks knowledge of pastoral problems, not as a theoretical exercise, but in order to grasp what is real and to see what wisdom demands.

This does not mean that the parish council, understood as a Socratic conversation which leads to wisdom, is indifferent to right action and pastoral results. In truth, a recurring problem in Plato’s dialogues is how to achieve harmony between word and deed. This is plain in the dialogue Laches. There Laches and Socrates, discussing courage, first define it as “endurance,” only to discover that foolish endurance is not courageous at all. To act courageously demands more than mere endurance.

Something akin to this insight is what parish councils seek when they refine the parish’s mission statement. When one reads that “St. Alphonsus parish is a Christian community dedicated to building up the kingdom of God,” one must ask Socratic questions. Is a community merely the body of people living in the parish who show up for Mass on Sunday? Following Socrates in the dialogue entitled Lysis, one would have to say: community, like friendship, is not built on the superficial accidents of geographical proximity or similarity between people. One can only develop real community, as well as friendship, among those committed to the good.

Seeking Maturity

What is this thing called the good? The problem in many parish councils — a problem which Socrates faced with the Athenians — is that people vary in maturity. Socrates and Lysis could agree that goodness, not merely having things in common, is the basis of true friendship. But Lysis is a boy, and his grasp of goodness falls short of Socrates’ mature understanding. Similarly, in the parish council, all may agree that the mission of St. Alphonsus is to “build community.” But not all understand community in the same way.

How can the pastor develop a deeper understanding in the council and discern what wisdom demands of the parish? According to Socrates, there is no other way than to put forward an argument and to subject it to scrutiny. At one time, Socrates says in the dialogue entitled Phaedo, he thought there might be a better way. He thought that one could explain things empirically, that is, by observing and quantifying data. But when this proved unsuccessful, he decided that he must have “recourse to theories.” In other words, he would express things conceptually and seek agreement or disagreement.

For the pastor in the parish council, this has definite consequences. It means that, in the context of raising a question — whether about the development of lay leaders, the promotion of social justice, or the challenge of evangelization — the pastor offers a concept and seeks agreement or disagreement. The concept is not the final word; if it were, there would be no question about it. It is a “hypothesis” in the sense of an opening gambit. The dialogue that follows will show the concept’s strengths and weaknessess.

The pastor who offers such a concept will undoubtedly have invested himself in it. But he must distance himself, and the figure of Socrates can help him to do so. First of all, the pastor must remember that, by posing a question, he has acknowledged the limits of his own understanding. He recognizes that his concept is inadequate. He knows that he does not know all.

The problem of seeking agreement and disagreement about a concept is knottier — especially the part about disagreement. None of us like to hear our favorite concepts attacked. Here another Socratic principle comes into play: it is more important to discover truth than to win an argument. We see this in the dialogue named Protagoras after the famous sophist.

Socrates and Protagoras debate whether virtue can be taught, with Protagoras arguing that it can and Socrates taking the opposite position. By the end of the argument, both have gained insight. Protagoras grudgingly admits that virtue is not just the right behavior of the well-trained soldier, but behavior founded on knowledge. Socrates, while maintaining that honesty, bravery, and the like cannot be taught, comes to see that these kinds of knowledge differ from the acquired skills of the artisan or manufacturer.

The lesson here is that a concept, such as “virtue can be taught,” does indeed express a reality, but is not the whole of that reality. In the Socratic dialogue, the concept unfolds, and partners to the dialogue gain in wisdom. The nurturing of this dialogue, by which the Socratic pastor serves as a midwife to the birth of new insights, calls for skill and a commitment to truth.

Commitment to the truth, however, is more important than skill. Doubtless, the skills of a facilitator help ensure that all members of a council share their insights, that all objections are raised, and that consensus is achieved. Protagoras rightly claimed that he could teach skills useful in debating policy. But no technique for achieving agreement, whether it be called “seeking consensus” or “Robert’s Rules of Order,” guarantees agreement, let alone true insight. This is the point at which Platonic philosophy and Christian faith are closest: both demand participation in truth itself.

On Behalf, Not on Request

The figure of Socrates as a model for the pastor in the parish council avoids the extremes of weakness and dominance. The Socratic pastor leads the council by raising a pastoral question and letting the council unfold it. With his question, he admits the limits of his knowledge. This is not weakness, however, but an invitation to the council members to grapple with the question themselves.

Grappling with the question moves the council toward deeper knowledge of the parish. And from this knowledge a foundation for sound pastoral action is laid. True, the council as council does not execute pastoral policy. But without the council’s deliberations, future pastoral action may be poorly understood and inadequately carried out.

For the pastoral council to achieve a Socratic conversation, great maturity is required. The pastor must be a shepherd to the council, discerning those points where a matter is unclear, and challenging the council to explore those points with him. His aim must be to know the pastoral situation for what it really is, rather than to achieve the council’s superficial agreement with his point of view.

If a pastor leads the Socratic dialogue as a true shepherd, he still may have to lay down his life for his people. But it is better to do so on their behalf, rather than at their request.