DPC LogoSmallWhom Does the Council Represent?

Published in Today’s Parish 30:7 (Nov./Dec. 1998): 22-25.

By Mark F. Fischer

Do you “represent” your parish? A friend of mine, the chairwoman of a pastoral council in a Midwestern diocese, thought she did. She had read her diocesan guidelines for parish pastoral councils which say explicitly that the council “represents” the parish. But my chairwoman came in for a rude shock when she discovered that the pastor did not view her as the representative she thought she was. He had a different viewpoint, and he let her know it. But let me tell the story in the words of the chairwoman herself, a long-time parishioner with four grown children who works in a law office.

“Our pastor is a benevolent dictator,” she told me. “Everyone likes him — you can’t help but enjoy his blarney and charm. But he is a dictator nonetheless, and I found out about it the hard way. For months last year we had been working on a mission statement. I had been insisting on the importance of the Sunday liturgy. I said it is the main point of contact between the Church and parishioners, and that we ought to have a liturgy committee. Many of the councillors were coming around to my viewpoint when the pastor put his foot down. ‘We are not here to assess the liturgy,’ he said, ‘but to complete the mission statement.’ The pastor’s ‘no’ was final. He later made a concession by promising to establish a liturgy committee in the near future, but I felt squashed like a bug.”

The council chairwoman was bitter because she believed herself to be the representative of the parish. Pastoral council meetings, she felt, were the pastor’s opportunity to hear the parish’s representatives speak out. It was that pastor’s duty to listen, she said, not to curtail the discussion.

The Root of the Problem

The tension between the pastor and the chairwoman is common. It stems from the Church’s ambivalence about the role of councils. From the 1960s, when councils were in their infancy, some people viewed them as instruments of lay participation in the parish. This view drew its motivation from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium 37, which spoke of empowering the laity to manifest their opinion about Church matters. Many applied this passage to councils and viewed them as forums for parish discussions.

The 1973 “Circular Letter” on pastoral councils to the world’s bishops from the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy also lent indirect support to the concept of representation. This “Circular Letter” is the sole Vatican document devoted entirely to councils. It said that the pastoral council, while not a “representative” in the juridical sense, nevertheless presents a witness or sign of the whole People of God (no. 7). This and other official documents laid the basis for understanding the council as a “representative” body. The 1998 pastoral council guidelines published by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati make this explicit. “The parish pastoral council is the primary means,” they say, “by which the voice of the parish membership is represented.”

At the same time, there are clear limits to the “representative” nature of the pastoral council. Vatican II’s Decree on Bishops recommended the establishment of pastoral councils, and the 1966 Apostolic Letter of Paul VI on implementing the Bishop’s Decree insisted that such councils enjoy only a consultative vote. The consultative nature of councils distinguishes them from a representative assembly. With that in mind, the 1973 Circular Letter stated that councils are not juridical representatives of the parish. Their opinions have no legal force. This doctrine limits any attempt to construe the pastoral council as a democratic organ of representative government.

So the pastoral council can be said to truly represent the People of God, but not in a legal sense. No civil or ecclesiastical court will hold that the decisions of a pastoral council should legally bind a pastor. If councils are authentically (but not juridically) representative, whom or what do they represent?

Council as Sacrament

Councils represent the People of God, said the 1973 Circular Letter, in that they provide a “sign or witness.” These two words, “sign” and “witness,” move us away from the conceptual world of democratic politics. They move us into the heart of the Christian mystery. The word “sign” is commonly used as a synonym for sacrament. The word “witness” is a common definition for martyr. By using these words, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy suggested that the pastoral council is “representative” in that it “makes present” something distinctively Christian.

Sacraments signify and make real what they represent. The pastoral council, we may venture to say, is a sign or sacrament of the People of God. It signifies the People of God, and makes them — and particularly the wisdom they possess — really present. Just as we can celebrate the sacraments well or badly, so the pastoral council can do a good or poor job of signifying the People of God’s wisdom.

One way many pastoral councils try to ensure that they are a sign of the People of God is by seeking consensus. The search for consensus is meant to guarantee that the pastor and his councillors are of one mind. By insisting that all must agree on an issue before it becomes a decision of the council, the search for consensus aims to uphold the council as a sign or sacrament of the People of God.

Many dioceses recommend that councils seek consensus. For example, the 1996 pastoral council guidelines for the Diocese of Greensburg, entitled “New Wine, New Wineskins,” make the search for consensus a linchpin of councils. “All phases of the pastoral planning cycle,” the guidelines state, “utilize the skill of decision-making by CONSENSUS” (p. 33). These guidelines go on to say that consensus should be sought in matters “of overall direction and policy” — a very important point which deserves more emphasis. No council should search for consensus about everything, as we shall see.

The Limits of Consensus

The trouble with the search for consensus is that it is unnecessary in most matters. Administrative experts claim that groups should not seek consensus unless a matter (1) is relevant to the whole community, (2) requires broad support for a decision to be successful, and (3) is general enough so that non-specialists can competently judge it. Parishioners take a long time to reach one mind about a matter. If they are asked to reach consensus on every detail, they may waste so much time that they cease to be a sign of the People of God. Instead they may become another kind of sign: a sign of inaction, of endless discussion, of the inability to agree.

This was the experience of one pastor in the Northeast. He was committed to the search for consensus, but found he had to limit it when the council wanted to reach consensus about the specifications for a new heating system in the parochial school.

“With my council, I emphasize the importance of reaching consensus on important matters,” the pastor said, “but not on every matter. In our school renovation, we got stuck on the heating system. Some council members wanted a unit more powerful than what we absolutely needed. They reasoned that, if the unit were more powerful, it would not have to work so hard, and consequently would have a longer life. Others wanted to economize on the heater and buy only what the Building Code required. There was a lot of hard feelings about the heater and, when I tried to resolve the issue, members accused me of interrupting the search for consensus. We eventually settled on the minimum heating unit, but I made up my mind to never again seek consensus with a council on an issue which really belongs to specialists.”

This pastor endorsed the search for consensus. It was for him a commitment to trust his council until all can agree on a common direction. Consensus expressed for him the desire to make the council a sign or witness of the People of God. But he also saw that the search for consensus is inappropriate in certain circumstances. An undiscriminating use of consensus-seeking techniques can fail to make the council a sign of the People of God. It can force the council to make decisions on matters about which councillors are incompetent to judge.

The Commission System

Another way councils try to make themselves a sign of the People of God is by getting parishioners involved. Many councils believe that it is their responsibility to foster participation in the life and ministry of the parish. To this end, many councils see themselves as the coordinator of a parish-wide system of ministries, standing committees, or commissions. The council thus becomes an extension of the parish staff, coordinating the major centers of volunteer activity.

This is recommended, for example, in the 1990 “Policy and Guidelines for Parish Consultative Structures” of the Archdiocese of Seattle. They urge the establishment of a system of commissions, and state that “the commissions can be accountable to the parish pastoral council” (1993 printing, p. 33). The council coordinates the commissions, which may even be asked to seek the council’s approval for their projects.

The trouble with the commission system is that responsibility can become very diffuse. In this system, the pastor shares responsibility with the council. The council shares responsibility with the commissions. And the commissions share responsibility with the parish staff. Sometimes no one knows where the buck is supposed to stop. Consider the following story from Los Angeles, told by a council chairman.

“One of our council’s major goals was to develop a parish religious education handbook,” the Los Angeles chairman said. “Most of our CCD teachers are volunteers, and there was a great deal of variety in the curriculum from teacher to another. One elementary teacher had her students memorize prayers and gospel verses. Another had students bake bread and make collages. The council did an informal evaluation, noted the differences, and recommended that catechists’ duties should be made more clear. The pastor accepted our recommendation and, after discussing it with the DRE, formulated a plan for creating a handbook. The DRE in turn said that she needed the help of the parish Religious Formation Commission.

“A year and a half later,” the chairman continued, “catechists are still confused. Council members say, ‘We set the objectives, the staff is supposed to develop the programs.’ The DRE says, ‘I would not develop the handbook on my own, I need the commission’s help.’ The chair of the commission says, ‘We’re establishing an RCIA team, and have no time for handbook development.’ So who’s in charge?”

Maintaining Responsibility

The chairman’s complaint illustrates a danger to which councils with standing committees are susceptible. The effort to share responsibility may actually diminish responsibility by blurring the lines of accountability. Strictly speaking, the pastor is ultimately responsible for the life of the parish. Undoubtedly he should consult widely and invite parishioners to exercise their gifts and ministries. But he is the one at whom the buck ought to stop. Councils advise him. Commission members work under his supervision. Staff members support him.

When council members embrace the commission system, they may lose sight of the pastor’s role. They may believe that the council, and not the pastor, is the one to whom commissions and staff are accountable. But we can well ask how a pastoral council, a group of volunteers which meets but once a month, can coordinate all parish commissions, let alone be responsible for the supervision of staff. In reality, it cannot be done. So the system of commissions, a system designed to foster widespread participation in the life and ministry of the parish, can undermine the council’s identity as a sign of the People of God. It can do so by giving the council a responsibility too heavy for the council to bear.

Pastor-Centered Councils?

Some dioceses emphasize that the council is consultative to the pastor. They underline the pastor’s role: he initiates the council, he convenes it, he presides over it. The 1998 “Pastoral Council Guidelines” for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles take this tack. They say that a pastor consults his council get good advice–but not to have the council oversee a system of parish commissions or standing committees. Pastors are looking primarily for wisdom and prudence, these guidelines suggest, not for volunteer additions to the parish staff.

Such an approach may strike some people as a step backward. It is a retreat from what some people might call the democratic values of pastoral councils. It puts councils, they say, in a passive position. If councils do not define policy and coordinate parish standing committees, they have no power. An emphasis on the role of the pastor ushers in a new era of clericalism.

But the dichotomy between democratic councils and pastor-centered councils is wrong. Missing is the Church’s assumptions about what makes a good pastor. The good pastor is not the council’s adversary, but the one who seeks the council’s guidance. He does not convene the council to show that he alone has the power to convene, but because he wants to bring trusted parishioners together to advise him. He does not preside with grandiose notions of himself as president, but to welcome the gifts of all who are gathered in council. The good pastor, in short, wants to draw the council into the mystery of parish life. He wants to share with them its most fundamental problems and seek solutions.

We can easily mistake the letter of the Church’s law regarding councils as a blow to our legitimate aspirations to participate in the Church. We can take the Church’s refusal to make councils a juridical representative of the parish as a slight against the laity. But another interpretation is preferable. The letter of the Church’s law regarding councils insists upon Christian values, we can say, rather than on the spirit of modern democratic government. Councils are consultative not because the Church rejects their advice. Good pastors want good advice. The Church wants to reinforce the communion which ought to exist between pastor and people by inviting pastors to consult their parishioners.

A Sign of the People of God

Ultimately the pastoral council is a “representative” in that it represents, makes present, the practical wisdom which resides in the People of God. The council does not represent the parish in the way a duly elected civic official represents his or her constituency. It represents by being a sign or a sacrament. The council is a sacrament when it signifies, and makes real, the wisdom of the People of God. The good council reflects deeply and advises wisely. The good pastor participates in the reflection and accepts the advice when it is fully mature.

The wariness of the Church’s official documents regarding democratic representation stems from the Church’s identity. The People of God differs from “we, the people” of the United States. The People of God are those who have been given faith by the God who calls them. This faith embraces the many parts of the Body of Christ, parts foreign to the body politic. These parts include a desire to hold the Church together and to maintain its communion. Preserving unity and maintaining communion are central. They differ from the political will to forge a majority by pleasing constituents.

The pastoral council which wants to be a sign and witness of the People of God cannot rely on any one set of techniques. No techniques, neither the search for consensus nor the establishment of a system of commissions, will ensure that a council truly represents the People of God. To be a sign of that People, God must call the council members in their innermost hearts and they must hear that call. Hearing that call takes knowledge, from the outset, of the council’s role. More importantly, it takes a willingness to respond to God’s call. This is nothing less than the call to be a council member in the way the Church intends.