DPC LogoSmallCouncils Challenge the Democratic Paradigm

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Can . . . and Should Our Parish Councils Be Democratic?” Today’s Parish (November/December 1996): 32-35.

When New York Representative Susan Molinari, a pro-abortion rights member of Congress, gave her keynote address at the Republican National Convention on August 13, viewers received a mixed message. The appearance of Molinari showed, on the one hand, that abortion-rights advocates have a powerful voice in the G.O.P. On the other hand, however, the appearance of Molinari did nothing to alter the G.O.P. anti-abortion plank, which had been nailed tight on August 7. Molinari’s appearance revealed ambivalence toward abortion, despite the plank, within the Republican ranks.

If we compare this exercise of the democratic process with our experience of parish councils, we are struck by the similarities between the two, at least at a superficial level. In parish councils, members occasionally advocate positions which they know full well pastors will not accept. Pastors in turn invite the expression of diverse views in the interests of openness and tolerance. But there is a fine line which divides genuine tolerance from merely placating a disgruntled parishioner. Pastors who exercise a soothing paternalism may well undermine the trust upon which every true consultation must be built.

Not only the Republican National Convention, but the Democratic as well, provides a lesson to parish councils. Democrats such as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and the Reverend Jesse Jackson castigated President Clinton on August 27 for signing the welfare reform bill into law. The bill, which cuts off welfare aid to children after a certain benefit period, seemed to contradict the president’s professions of concern for the poor. Cuomo’s and Jackson’s critical voices were subordinated, however, to a benign and well-crafted image of support for the president. This led many commentators to dub the Democratic Convention (as well as the Republican) an “infomercial”–a public relations ploy to inform people about a candidate and woo support for him, rather than to deliberate policy.

Parish council members can feel at times that they too are part of an infomercial. This happens whenever a pastor invokes the council to justify to other parishioners an unpopular decision. To parishioners who criticize him for the decision, the pastor may reply, “I’m consulting my council about it.” The pastor, however, may not intend a thorough consultation. Indeed, he may be simply mollifying his parishioners. Parishioners gain the impression that the pastor’s mind is not yet made up (when in fact it may already be closed) or that a consensus is being forged (when in fact the councilors may be deeply divided). A pastor who says he is “consulting the council” when his consultation is nonexistent, half-hearted, or insincere, may be producing nothing but an infomercial. He is informing parishioners and trying to win their support, but not really consulting.

The common denominator between the national political conventions and church councils is that both are susceptible to bad faith. Good faith alone can make them a success. When faith turns bad in practice and in public life, it threatens both democratic institutions and church consultative bodies. Parish councils need to recognize that Christian faith is their foundation, just as a philosophical faith in transcendent ideas is at the root of the democratic political process. That much the two have in common. But Church consultation differs from political democracy, and council members need to know that as well.

Councils and Consultation

Much of the power of the early parish council movement sprang from its application of democratic principles to parish government. Early council enthusiasts envisioned parish councils as sharing not only responsibility with the clergy, but power as well. By involving parishioners, councils would modernize outmoded pastoral practices. They would democratize parishes, many said in the 1960s and 70s, creating a balance of power between laity and clergy.

The publication in 1983 of the Code of Canon Law, with its insistence that councils have a vote which is “consultative only,” dashed the hopes of those who wanted to apply to parishes the U.S. democratic paradigm. Having given to the council’s elected leader the title of “president,” they had to change their terminology. Since the pastor presides at the council, only he can be president. His role is to consult the council, inviting it to study an issue and drawing from it insight and wisdom. An elected chairman or chairwomen may facilitate the discussion, but only the pastor presides.

This is the Church’s paradigm for councils. To the American eye, it may appear insipid. If a council is merely consultative, no pastor is obliged to heed it. A consultative council cannot restore the imbalance between the power of the clergy and the laity. No council can overthrow a tyrannical pastor’s yoke. The appeals of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the appeals to self-evident propositions, as well as to “nature and nature’s God,” are out of place in the consultative parish council. No one joins a council in order to declare the parish’s independence from the pastor.

That does not mean, however, that councils need be vapid or banal, or that they exclude divergent opinions. Clear evidence for the power of church consultation was Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin’s announcement on August 12 of the “Catholic Common Ground Project.” The project aims to sponsor conferences and papers which, in the words of its organizers, will promote dialogue and so help to restore Church unity. Cardinal Bernardin’s announcement, which received widespread coverage in the secular press, suggests that “consultative-only” projects are anything but insipid.

At the heart of Cardinal Bernardin’s proposal is an insight into the transcendent nature of truth. All have access to truth. All understand it and express it to the best of the gifts God has given. But no one possesses it. Not even the bishops, articulators of the Christian tradition in an authoritative way, would claim that their teaching is the final word on every subject. Truth transcends even their authoritative teaching. Moreover, the entire Catholic people can benefit from a dialogue. Discussions must go forward on the issues which divide Catholics, said Cardinal Bernardin. These include the place of women in the Church, the image and morale of priests, and the gap between the Church’s teachings on sexuality and the convictions of many Catholics. No topic should be tabu.

Implicit in the cardinal’s initiative is the belief that much will be gained by a structured dialogue. By inhibiting dialogue, he suggested, we quench the spirit. By inviting consultation, leaders such as Cardinal Bernardin provide hope, hope for genuine dialogue, hope for a meeting of minds and hearts. In such a dialogue, all parties contribute and all learn. Such a dialogue can indeed find a “common ground” on which diverse elements of the Church can stand.

But finding a common ground differs from an exercise of U.S.-style democracy. There is a fundamental difference between church consultation and our political process. Representation, popular will, pluralism–each of these terms has a different meaning, depending on whether we view them as Church members or as members of the body politic. To those differences we shall now turn.

Consultation v. Democracy

Let us begin with the topic of representation. Members of pastoral councils, canon 512 tells us, are to be representative of the Catholic people. But this canon does not mean that council members are to be elected as our political representatives are, nor does it mean that council members are to champion the interests of those who elected them. Pastoral Council members are to be chosen, states canon 512, so “that the entire portion of the people of God which constitutes the diocese is truly reflected, with due regard for the diverse regions, social conditions, and professions of the diocese as well as the role which they have in the apostolate.” In other words, council members are to reflect the wisdom of the people–all the people. Representative council members make wisdom present.

To tell the truth, council members are representative in the same way that the pastor is representative. The pastor’s task is neither to represent his parish constituency nor to represent his bishop. Rather, the pastor’s responsibility is to represent Christ. He does this by trying to be a true disciple, by serving in a selfless way, and above all by making Christ present in word and sacrament. That is representation in the Christian sense, both for pastors and for councilors.

By contrast, consider the nature of representation in the U.S. political system. Elected officials represent, for good or for ill, the people who elect them. Some interpret this trust in a trivial way: they “earn” our votes by merely promising to represent our interests. The goodness of our interests is less important to the venal politician than the pragmatic goal of satisfying voters and getting re-elected. The wise politician, by contrast, understands representation in a deeper way. Representation means knowing the electorate and expressing its truest aspirations. This is noble, as far as it goes. But in Church consultation, representation means something even more profound. It means making God’s own wisdom present.

Taking this seriously will have consequences for the way in which we select parish council members. If the council’s goal is not to mirror a demographic profile or to advocate a special interest, but to make present the wisdom of God and the person of Christ Jesus, then we will choose representative council members by something more discerning than a popular election. The ability of the potential member to listen, synthesize, and express the wisdom of the community–and not skin color, sex, or membership in a specific ministry–will become the most important criterion for council ministry.

Let us turn from the topic of representation to that of the popular will. The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states that “We, the people” do “ordain and establish” the articles of government. In contrast to Great Britain, from whom the colonists declared their independence, the American people rejected a divinely-established monarchy. In the realm of government, they were sovereign, ordaining and establishing their own constitution. Upon the sovereignty of the people, the American government stands.

The concept of the People of God in Christian theology is much different. The People of God is not sovereign but elect. Christians believe that God has called them, elected them as a people. Far from being masters of their own destiny, Christians recognize their dependence on God. Faithfulness means fidelity to God’s will, not the popular will. By extension, Catholic Christians are willing to acknowledge the authority of, and to be guided by, ordained leadership. This does not always mean, of course, that “Father knows best.” But even when disagreeing with a pastor, the Catholic Christian willingly concedes that his or her own understanding should not be the final word. The Church ought to shape our conscience, and deserves a hearing.

This means that, in the pastoral council, members must subordinate their own interests to those of the parish. Council meetings should start, not with a frenzy of assessments and recommendations, but with an attitude of attentive listening and obedience to God. The measure of their success is the wisdom with which they advise the pastor, not the achievement of pet projects or the applause of parishioners. And even when the pastor does not accept their advice, their work retains its value. The good councilor takes the ascetical point of view: doing the will of God is its own reward.

A final theme in our comparison of political democracy and Church consultation is that of pluralism. The motto on our coins illustrates the American understanding: e pluribus unum: out of many, one is formed. The anthropological starting point for democracy is the experience of plurality. We are many before we are one. For that reason, we have to preserve the rights of our weakest members. Indeed, the list of reasons for establishing our governmental constitution culminates with the “blessings of liberty.” We champion the right to liberty as the most fundamental human right, because we start with the recognition of our pluralism. We are a diverse people, politically speaking, and what divides us may prove stronger than what unites us. Unless we protect individual liberties, the plurality which we are will never achieve any kind of union, let alone the “more perfect union” of which the Preamble to the Constituion speaks.

By contrast, Christians begin with a recognition of their oneness in Christ. What makes them different is less fundamental than their new identity as members of Christ’s body. Oneness in Christ, new life in Christ, imitation of Christ–these Pauline images suggest how Christian anthropology differs from the Enlightenment concepts which shaped our political forbears. The first duty of the Christian is not to define his or her political interests, but to celebrate the communion of those who share one faith, one hope, and one baptism.

This too has consequences for the parish council, which recognizes that communion takes precedence over mission. Nothing less than Christian wisdom suggests that every council should begin, not by making assessments and giving advice, but by celebrating the communion that exists by virtue of Baptism. Only on the basis of true communion is any mission truly Christian. Splendid achievements accomplished at the expense of neighborhood solidarity may win acclaim, but preserving the community is more important. This is fundamental to the Christian life, and especially to the parish council.

Challenging the Paradigm

Councils, all will admit, have much in common with the kinds of democracy to which Americans are most committed. Councils stress shared responsibility, active participation, and the importance of unity, just as a political democracy does. To that extent, councils on the parish level breathe the spirit of our nation’s founders, and they ought to.

But the spirit of Church consultation differs markedly from that of popular democracy. Council members should not only be aware of the differences, but guard against importing into councils those concepts which have their proper place elsewhere. Partisanship and the championing of competing interests, for example, have more to do with a democratic style of representation than they do with councils, for whom representation means making Christ present. Manifestations of the popular will, to give a second example, should not be at the heart of councils. “We, the people,” the sovereign founders of the state, are not the same as the People of God. And the emphasis on preserving individual liberties, to give a third example, is not the same as the Pauline doctrine of gifts. A single Christian body, in which each member exercises gifts to build up the whole, is not jealous of this or that member’s liberty.

In parish councils, Catholics offer a countercultural alternative to American-style democracy. The council should reject the idea of a balance of powers between clergy and laity in favor of a communion of saints united in one body. Councils ought not to understand themselves as a sovereign people but rather as a People of God united to a Christlike pastor. The advocacy of special interests and individual entitlements ought to give way before the recognition of a plurality of gifts edifying a single body. Councils ought to breathe a different spirit than popular democracies.

Doubtless, parish councils are susceptible to deformities and dysfunctions. They can be wrongly used as forums for unhappy parishioners or as infomercials for the pastor’s pet interests. But by attending to the specific function of councils–the function of studying pastoral problems, of reflecting on them and discerning God’s will, and of making sound recommendations–council members and pastors can avoid the excesses of the democratic paradigm. In its place, they can promote a Christian vision which is more refreshing and faithful.

Is your council unaware of the differences between a political democracy and Church consultation? Do some council members feel that their task as representatives is to progect the interests of a particular ministry or ethnic group? Do some believe that they are elected as “the loyal opposition” to the pastor and so always play an adversarial role? Do some think that the effectiveness of the council should be judged by the number of concrete achievements it can show to parishioners?

If so, then pastor and council ought to reconsider. Protecting interests, becoming adversaries, and achieving results are the ways of democratic politics. Church councils ought to follow a different paradigm.