Against representation

DPC LogoSmallAre Councillors Representatives?

By Mark F. Fischer

(Published as “Against Representation,” Today’s Parish (September 1992): 23-26.)

Several years ago, while attending the annual convention of a small Church-related organization, I found myself worried about whom I might nominate for the organization’s steering committee. The organization wanted to broaden committee membership to include people from different geographical locales and ethnic groups. On the first day of the convention, I had met a young African-born priest who was serving in the chancery at a Southern diocese. He was attending the convention for the first time. Well-educated and articulate, he had been in the U.S. about five years, and we spent a free afternoon visiting tourist traps in the convention city.

This man, I thought, could make a great contribution to the steering committee. He could bring to it an international point of view and represent an area of the U.S. in which we have few members. As an Afro-American, he could widen our ethnic base. I asked him if I could nominate him, he agreed, and was easily elected.

But as I soon discovered, he was over-taxed by his chancery duties and not deeply committed to our organization. Before the next meeting of the steering committee, he called and explained he was unable to attend. At the meeting, the committee asked him in absentia to help on a project. He agreed to help, but never followed through. Six months later, he did not even call to explain his absence at the second steering committee meeting. We never even got a letter of resignation; he just dropped out.

I felt bad about having nominated him. What I thought was a good deed did not serve the committee well. Yes, the young priest had many attractive qualities: he represented a different point of view, region, and race. But my experience taught me that representativeness does not suffice as a criterion for committee membership.

This is as true for parish pastoral councils as it is for committees. Just because people are “representative” does not mean that they will make good councilors. And yet representativeness is a quality which many diocesan guidelines for parish councils strongly emphasize. Some even go so far as to say that the authority of the parish council stems from its representative nature.

This is mistaken. In the following essay, I will criticize the notion of “representation” in parish pastoral councils. The political science notion of “representative government” differs from the theological idea of representation, and an over-emphasis on political representation obscures other, more important criteria for member selection. Finally, I will show how advocates of the “discernment” style of member selection are not just advocating a better technique, but also expressing a sound and faithful vision of the Church.

A “Representative” Council?

Let us begin by seeing what diocesan guidelines for councils have to say about representation. The Diocese of Nashville’s Handbook for Parish Pastoral Councils (1989) strongly expresses the representative nature of the parish council. The handbook states that council members are to be elected so as to ensure parish-wide representation. Councilors, we read, are the elected representatives of their parish constituencies. In contrast to the parish staff which, in the Nashville Handbook, enjoys a delegated authority, the parish council has “the authority of elected representation.” When making parish policy, the two authorities–representative authority by the council and delegated authority by the pastor to the staff–are to reach consensus.

The point of view expressed in the Nashville Handbook resembles in some important ways the democratic notion of representative government. To be sure, the handbook nowhere suggests that the parish council governs the parish or acts legally on its behalf. The parish never becomes a democracy. But the handbook understands the council as “representing” the parish in the sense that the council looks after the parishioners’ interests. On occasion, these interests may compete with those of the parish staff, and a compromise has to be arranged. We can say that the Nashville Handbook envisions the parish as a representative government in that the parish comprises various parties, all of whom deserve a voice. The parish council allows the protection of parishioner interests, especially when those interests differ from those of the parish staff.

The Diocese of Cleveland’s manual of parish council policies, entitled Christ Calls Us Together (1990), sheds further light on the concept of representation. It does so by distinguishing a structure of parish council selection from the attitude which councilors should have. The attitude in question is one of broad-mindedness. Cleveland councilors represent their parishioners best when they put the good of the entire parish ahead of a narrow viewpoint. The manual calls for parish council members who do not see themselves as partisans of a special interest, but representatives of all.

At the same time, however, the Cleveland manual urges that parishes establish a structure of parish councilor selection to ensure that the council includes a balanced cross-section of the parish community. In this case, representation is linked to demography. If the parish has many Polish-American parishioners, there should be Polish-Americans on the council. The structure indicated in the Cleveland manual is a kind of proportional representation. Members join the council in proportion to the number of people they represent. This suggests that representation on the council is more than just a matter of members looking after parishioner interests. The Cleveland manual broadens this notion of representation to include an attitude of broad-mindedness and a structure which makes representation proportional. Both of these requirements are treated with equal seriousness.

Another wrinkle in the concept of representation can be seen in the Directives and Guidelines (1987) for parish councils in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. In Brownsville, selection committees see that nominees for the council are “representative of the entire parish and actively engaged in an official ministry.” Unless Brownsville parishioners are members of one of their parish’s five ministerial commissions, they cannot join the council. This provision ensures that councilors are committed to a ministry and thoroughly familiar with it. The concept of representation in Brownsville is linked to a particular quality in council candidates. They must be active and knowledgeable.

In summary, three distinct features mark the concept of representation in parish councils. The first is that the parish comprises diverse groups with competing interests, and council members are to look after those interests. Second, representation in the council is a matter of both attitude and proportion: although all members should have an attitude that the good of the parish comes first, nevertheless members should reflect the demographic profile of the parish. Finally, representation may be linked to certain qualities of parish councilors, such as their active participation in and knowledge of ministry. Looking after interests, reflecting a demographic profile, and knowing what the parish is about–this is a sample of how parish council guidelines use the word representative.

A Critique of “Representation”

It is interesting to note that official Church documents say nothing directly about pastoral councils being “representative.” The Vatican II Decrees on Bishops and on Lay People say only that councils should include clergy, religious, and laity. Of all the Vatican II documents, only the Decree on Missionary Activity states that delegates to a pastoral council should be elected–and this in reference to a diocesan council, not a parish council. The 1983 Code of Canon Law has nothing to say in canon 536 about how parish pastoral councils are chosen. One cannot find there any support for the concept of “representation.”

The only indirect reference in the Code to representation on councils is in canon 512 (about diocesan, not parish, councils). It states that Diocesan Pastoral Council members are to be chosen 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.” This canon gives some support to the idea of proportional representation. It suggests that the council should reflect regional, social, and professional diversity. The canon also lends support to the idea that councilors should have some qualifications, at least in terms of apostolic activity. But this limited support falls short of a full-blown rationale for “representative” councils in the political sense of that word.

Conspicuously absent in official Church documents is any reference to the representation of interest groups. Councils which allow for the expression of competing interest groups have more to do with representative democracy than Church consultation. Few theorists would propose that parish councilors fight each each other to protect the interests of their neighborhood, ethnic group, or ministerial commission. Even fewer would propose that the council fight the parish staff on behalf of parishioner interests as a whole. To be sure, council members have a duty to state the truth as they see it. But stating the truth includes a corollary obligation–the duty of listening–which opens oneself to another’s viewpoint. Speaking the truth and listening with an attitude of openness are far from the idea of looking after one’s own interest group.

The notion of proportional representation carries with it a similar problem. No one denies that genuine insights, from wherever in the parish they originate, deserve expression on the pastoral council. But is a structure which attempts to ensure a certain demographic profile–so many Polish Americans, so many old people, so many Hispanics–any guarantee of insight? This advocacy of proportional representation is very common. Many diocesan guidelines for parish pastoral councils, such as those of Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Hartford, allow pastors to appoint a number of council members “to achieve balance” or “to ensure representation.” The provision testifies to a desire that the council manifest the wisdom of the parish. But proportional representation, even when linked to calls for a broad-minded attitude, runs the risk of fostering tokenism and the protection of narrow group interests.

The notion that a “representative” council should be a “qualified” council seems unobjectionable–unobjectionable, that is, until one asks the important question: qualified for what? Diocesan guidelines for parish councils which require that all candidates for the parish council first belong to a parish ministerial commission imply that a representative council is knowledgeable about parish ministries. But there are two arguments against this view.

The first argument against commission activity as a prerequisite for council membership is familiar. Commission membership may turn a council member into a partisan for his or her commission. That is why the Diocese of San Bernardino’s Parish Council Guidelines (1984) explicitly rule out the election of councilors to represent specific ministries. They do this to ensure that the council members will “represent” the parish as a whole. Experience on a ministerial commission may not make a councilor “representative.”

The second argument has to do with the purpose of councils. If being a good council member demanded thorough knowledge of this or that parish ministry, then commission experience would be essential. But who says that technical knowledge of a ministry is a prerequisite for effective council service? Who says that one must be a lector or choir member in order to discuss the parish’s pastoral needs? Indeed, many argue–and we shall look at two eloquent examples shortly–that the most important quality in a councilor is not technical knowledge at all. Instead, it is something akin to the old Aristotelian practical wisdom: the ability to reach the truth with others in a discussion.

So there is good reason to cock a skeptical eye at the commonplace that councils should be “representative.” If representation means looking after one’s own group interest, making the council reflect a demographic profile, or qualifying certain parishioners to represent others, then representation may be inimical to the council. It may provoke self-interest, tokenism, or a skewed sense of council purpose. For that reason, some books about councils downplay representation or ignore it altogether.

Alternatives to Representation

A good example of such a book is The New Practical Guide to Parish Councils by William Rademacher with Marliss Rogers (Twenty-Third, 1988). To be sure, the Guide maintains the importance of representation in the sense of demographic proportion (e.g., Black councilors represent Black parishioners). But the book subordinates representation to what it calls the “functional principle.” According to this principle, councils should attract people who are skilled in ministerial functions and not simply rely on those who fit a demographic profile.

The Guide’s critique of representation moves council theory away from a naive appropriation of categories borrowed from representative government. The book emphasizes that the first criterion for council membership comes not from political science but from the Church’s tradition: faith and responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. Faith means a willingness to open oneself to God. Responsiveness means attention to the media through which God speaks, above all, to the voices of the Christian community. It has nothing to do with proportional representation.

The Guide’s “functional principle,” with its insistence that council members be familiar with ministerial functions, may resemble too closely the criteria for council membership in the Brownsville diocese. This can be a problem, as we saw, for a council member does not need to be a catechist or a Eucharist minister in order to help the council plan the parish’s mission and goals. But the Guide performs invaluable service by moving councilor selection toward a sound theological basis. By subordinating representation to the discernment of the Spirit, the book lays the foundation for a deeper sense of councilor selection and council purpose.

Indeed, after describing how parish council members can be elected, the Guide goes on to sketch a “discernment process” as an alternative to such a parish-wide election. This kind of discernment process was earlier and eloquently advocated by Mary Benet McKinney in Sharing Wisdom: A Process for Group Decision-Making (Tabor, 1987). McKinney recommends a series of meetings, before the selection of the parish council, at which interested people learn more about the council and explore with others the contribution they feel called to make. The key feature in McKinney’s proposal is self-nomination. She envisions that people who understand the needs of the council and who believe they can contribute will put their names forward for consideration by the group of interested people. The group–and not the parish at large–will then confirm the individual’s insight or suggest the need for more reflection.

For McKinney, representation in the political sense is not a value. those who share wisdom, she implies, are not unduly concerned with looking out for a group’s interests, reflecting the demographic profile of the parish, or having a particular ministerial experience. Instead, their passion is wisdom: discerning what God wants of the community. A willingness to discern, as McKinney admits, is time-consuming. Not everyone has the gift for it. And this means that those who nominate themselves, and are confirmed by the community, will be a select group. They are not “representatives” in the political sense, but the “elect” as that term is used in the Christian tradition.

McKinney directly confronts the charge that this might make the council undemocratic and elitist. Doubtless, a council whose members are self-nominated and whose call is discerned by them and by others committed to the shared wisdom model is not for everybody. Not everyone, McKinney says, feels called to serve on the parish council. Furthermore, of those who do hear a call, not everyone has the gift for spiritual discernment, the gift of sharing wisdom. But if the parish pastoral council is to effectively perform its task of refining the parish’s mission and goals, then this selectivity is appropriate. The task is specialized and the gift is rare. A representative council may not have that gift.

Christian Representation

There is, of course, a properly theological understanding of representation. This understanding is usually developed in the theology of salvation: Christ is the perfect representative of all humanity, and in a lesser way, the Church represents the redeemed and represents the non-Christians’ interest before God in intercessory prayer. This theological concept of representation is mirrored in the parish pastoral council when councilors see their work within the broad scope of human inter-dependence. We need one another–we need “representatives”–because it is through others that we encounter God. As others go out of themselves in love and give themselves to us, we encounter God’s own emptying and gift of self. Parish councilors are representatives in the theological sense when they regard their work as a gift of self to the parish–so that all might find themselves in Christ.

Questions for Reflection

Do you find your parish council elections preoccupied with achieving a proper racial or gender balance? Do certain council members see themselves as representatives of this or that faction? Perhaps a greater attention to the purpose of the council might lessen this preoccupation.

At the next council meeting, set aside time to ask, “How can the council, in refining the parish’s mission and goals, help parishioners develop a sense of their own vocation and mission?” And if this is the task of the council, what kind of members should the pastoral council seek?