Is the Parish Council Democratic?
By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “How Democratic Should Your Council Be?” Today’s Parish (October 1993): 23-26.
Almost everyone agrees that the parish council, like the Church, is no democracy. It is not democratic in the classical sense articulated by the Greeks, because it does not “rule” the parish or issue legislation. And it is not democratic as that word was used in the philosophical Enlightenment, because Catholics do not believe that all rule derives from the sovereignty of the people. We say that God rules the Church, including parish councils. But God rules through a people, and there’s the rub. The idea of a People of God keeps the question of democracy open.
There are good reasons for speaking of the democratization (if not the democracy) of pastoral councils. The radical equality in dignity of all the baptized, and their share in the offices of Christ, are teachings which have endured since Apostolic times, and underlie today’s ideal of council collaboration between priest and people. Elections, to give another example, are a “democratic” element which has always played a role in the Church and continues to play a role in councils today. Even the liturgy has a democratic element, in that the Christian spirit grows from our participation in it, and participation is no less important to councils. They may not be democracies in the classical or Enlightenment senses of the word, but they are definitely democratic.
In this essay, we shall explore the relation between pastoral councils and democracy. Starting with what contemporary writers have to say, we shall see that the pastoral council incorporates many democratic elements, and indeed breathes the spirit of democracy. An analysis of democracy will clarify what actually takes place in councils. Moreover, it will provide an important criterion for evaluating councils and expressing what they ought to be.
No Democracy, but . . .
Much has been written on the general theme of democracy and the Church, so let us begin there. “It would not make sense to affirm that ‘the church is a democracy,'” writes Giuseppe Alberigo in the October 1992 issue of Concilium, “just as it never made sense to argue that ‘the church is a monarchy’ or ‘the church is an aristocracy'” (p. 21). In this issue of Concilium, provocatively subtitled “The Tabu of Democracy within the Church,” Alberigo concedes that the Church transcends all political labels, democracy included. Nevertheless he sees the desire of modern parishioners to participate more fully in decision-making as a democratic inspiration rooted in the gospel. In his view, a flat denial that Catholicism has or could have democratic elements makes democracy tabu: forbidden on account of its own dangerous powers.
More than simply unafraid of democratic elements in the Church, American Catholics apparently welcome them. They want to participate in democratic-style Church decision-making, and they want to do so in large numbers. That is the unequivocal conclusion of George Gallup and Jim Castelli in The American Catholic People (Doubleday, 1987). 77% of American Catholics who responded to their survey support greater lay participation in parish decision-making (p. 56).
But this creates a “dilemma” for American Catholics, according to William D’Antonio and the other authors of American Catholic Laity in a Changing Church (Sheed and Ward, 1989). The dilemma has to do with a dual commitment: a commitment to popular participation and to Church tradition. The authors state that American Catholics are both “living in a nation characterized by democratic values, and recognizing that the Church at the higher levels is operating as a monarchy” (p. 120). Needless to say, “operating” as a monarchy is different than being one, just as having “democratic” elements is different from being a democracy. But the comment in American Catholic Laity suggests the difficulty in characterizing the pastoral council, which has emerged as a “democratic” institution within a traditional Church.
Democracy in the Council?
Writers about pastoral councils have mixed feelings about calling them democratic. For example, William J. Rademacher and Marliss Rogers, in The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils (Twenty-Third, 1988), flatly state that the parish council is not a democracy (p. 23). But they go on to qualify that statement. They admit that councilors are used to a democratic style of decision-making (p. 32) and that such decision-making promotes Christian adulthood (p. 75). Democracy, rightly understood, does have a place at the council table. To be sure, The New Practical Guide distinguishes a democratic style in the council from a simple majority vote (p. 143). The authors would insist that a council can never be a democracy, pure and simple, because in some “democracies” decision-making is nothing more than a tally of votes. But I would argue that Rademacher and Rogers include under “democratic decision-making” all efforts to reach a consensus and to discern the spirit of the council. With this more nuanced perspective, they help us discriminate between helpful and harmful democratic elements.
Another writer who sharpens our perspective is Mary Benet McKinney. In her book Sharing Wisdom (Tabor, 1987), she takes issue with the “democratic” premise that all are able to serve on parish councils. It is untrue, she argues, that all are equally gifted. Such a falsehood, McKinney says, is “related to our understanding of democracy and the great American dream that any kid on the block can grow up to be president” (p. 37).What makes it a “dream,” a popular but misleading half-truth, is that it makes no reference to people’s gifts and talents. Yes, anyone can become president, and anyone can serve on a parish council–provided that such a person is properly equipped and genuinely called. McKinney underscores the notion of call, insisting that potential councilors be known and selected for their gifts. She opposes any trivially “democratic” effort to fill the parish council roster with well-meaning people who lack a conciliar vocation. But in her emphasis on collaboration and on testing decisions by the wisdom of the group, she echoes a Church concern which is profoundly democratic: the concern for shared responsibility.
Up to this point, our parish council writers have been ambiguous about democracy. Rademacher and Rogers deny that the council is a democracy, but affirm democratic decision-making as a way to Christian maturity. McKinney rejects any democracy which is blind to the individual’s gifts and deaf to the community’s call. But she affirms the shared responsibility which I call democratic. There is one parish council writer, however, who enthuses about democracy in the council. I am speaking of Robert Howes and his concept of a “democracy of means.”
Howes introduces the “democracy of means” in his Creating an Effective Parish Pastoral Council (Liturgical Press, 1991). The phrase refers to the way in which a council decides by what means the parish can attain its goals. Howes defines a point at which a pastor, having approved a pastoral plan developed with the council, asks it to decide how best to reach its goals (p. 39). The council, he implies, is a democracy of means but not of ends. It decides not what to do, but how to do it. Now some may question whether a pastor, even one who formally ratified a plan developed with his council, can or should leave to the council all decisions about the implementation of it. To this extent, Howes’ “democracy of means” is questionable. But Howes is also affirming, albeit in a more radical way, the basic principle of democratic decision-making affirmed by the other authors we have considered: decision-making which is participative, co-responsible, and exercised by those suitable gifted.
These authors help us see that “democracy” in the council is a mixed bag. On the positive side, democracy means blending the best of contemporary American and traditional Church culture, taking responsibility for the Church, electing people for the gifts and talents they bring, and giving councils a significant role in pastoral planning. On the negative side, democracy means reducing choice to a mere tally of votes and election to a superficial exercise of filling seats. When we speak of democracy in pastoral councils, we have to say what democratic elements we mean.
Having surveyed recent writings on democracy and pastoral councils, we can now define the democratic elements that are legitimately present in councils. Democracy comprises more than a science of rule or a philosophy of political power. “Since the eighteenth century democracy has not only come to be established as a system of government,” writes Kurt Tudyka in the number of Concilium referred to above, “but has also become the dominant principle of legitimation, order and conduct” (p. 8). It is a culture, a culture which expresses a certain anthropology, manifests itself sociologically, and has consequences for Church management.
Culture. First of all, the pastoral council reflects a culture of participation. Council members view themselves, not as a flock to be led or as subjects to be ruled, but as participants in a Church to which they make an important contribution. This is certainly true of younger and better educated Catholics. American Catholic Laity states: “Younger Catholics, both those under thirty and in their thirties, and those with college education, are most supportive of increased lay involvement in decision-making in the Church” (p. 120). They support it because democracy cherishes involvement. Being involved is one of democracy’s common set of values and obligations. We affirm them, not because we are compelled to do so, but by virtue of our membership in the culture. Democracy in this cultural sense, which arose in the nineteenth century, and over whose relation to Christianity scholars continue to argue, surely contributed to Vatican II’s rediscovery of the idea of coresponsibility rooted in a common baptism.
Anthropology. Democratic culture expresses a certain anthropology. The anthropological justification for democracy, writes Kurt Tudyka in his Concilium article, is that democracy is a form of human self-realization. It enables “the free development of the person who has come of age” (p. 5). Whoever participates in decision-making is doing two things: first, shaping a goal which is personally chosen; and second, maturing and developing oneself in the process. If we translate this into an explicitly Christian anthropology, we see democracy’s connection to the notion of God’s call and our journey towards salvation. God calls us to actualize the gifts we have been given, and to grow in perfection by entering into Christ’s paschal mystery. Democracy, once freed from the Enlightenment baggage of the absolute sovereignty of the people, is profoundly rooted in an anthropology which affirms the vocation and dignity of the individual.
Sociology. Democracy, then, is a culture with an implicit anthropology. Culture and anthropology manifest themselves sociologically in terms of popular expectations. Members of a democratic culture expect that all public affairs and institutions are subject to democratic legitimation. Nothing should be imposed on a people despotically from without. And conversely everything, even that which is most challenging and difficult, must be popularly affirmed in the name of the common good.
This sociological expectation is manifest in the pastoral council. Members view themselves as colleagues of the pastor, to whom they make an important contribution. Although most members would quickly affirm a real hierarchy of gifts in the Church, acknowledging that their role is consultative to the pastor, not legislative, nevertheless they are far from apathetic about what the pastor does with their advice. This is borne out by the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Life since Vatican II, published as The Emerging Parish (Harper, 1987). Authors Jim Castelli and Joseph Gremillion found that 90% of American Catholic “volunteer leaders” feel they have at least some influence in the parish, and 40% want more influence (p. 106). They expect their volunteer efforts to be taken seriously. This sociological expectation necessarily falls short, in the Church, from what Enlightenment thinkers might call the “democratic” demand that all decisions be legitimated by the people. But the expectation that pastors should listen to and work with their councils is an expectation no less Christian than it is democratic.
Management. Lastly, democracy can be viewed as a principle of organization. Organizational theorists–from Chris Argyris and Douglas McGregor in the 1960s to Edward E. Lawler in the 1990s–have long known that participation in decision-making motivates members of an organization to affirm and carry out its decisions. Workers need to feel that management values their insights, management can benefit by consulting workers, and people with a say in directing an organization are more committed to it. Consultation may seem time-consuming and unproductive. But it prevents the creation of authoritarian spheres which can exclude people and demoralize them. This concept of democracy as a tool of organizational management is readily applicable to the pastoral council.
Democracy, in short, cannot be equated simply with a form of government or a philosophy of the Enlightenment. The pastoral council is not a democracy in those terms. But through councils the Church (1) makes the culture of participation its own, (2) expresses an anthropology (compatible with Christianity) which assumes that all share responsibility for the commonweal, (3) meets the sociological expectation that Catholics can shape their parishes, and (4) motivates members by giving them a say in Church management. In these four ways, pastoral councils breathe the spirit of democracy.
Is Your Council Democratic?
An analysis of democracy in the council enables us to better judge what our councils are now doing and to envision what we would like them to do. Certainly the ambiguities of democracy alert us to what our councils should avoid. Apparently “democratic” practices, such as elections and parliamentary procedures, can be downright unhelpful and even demonic when wrongly motivated. A pastoral council which decides issues by a mere tally of votes, without regard for whether the issues have been adequately weighed or for the objections of the minority, can make bad decisions and split the council. A council which gains new members by a mere ballot, without giving parishioners an opportunity to really discern the gifts of candidates, may find the new members elected for the wrong reasons and unsuited to council work. In these cases, “democratic” procedures have been followed. But the procedures may not reflect a genuinely democratic anthropology. Such an anthropology assumes the desire and obligation of people to make well-informed decisions, and the capacity of individuals to realize themselves in a community.
A council ought to incorporate the sound elements of modern democratic culture. There should be no sacred cows in the council, no tabu topics, no hint of class privileges which make some members’ contributions worth more than others. Decisions should rather be made on the basis of the wisdom they manifest. Sometimes wisdom can be hampered by a democratic concern for making the council “representative.” In this case, wisdom takes precedence over the principle of representation. Democratic culture presupposes that all members are committed to the common good and share responsibility for it. That should be true of the council as well.
Our sketch of the sociological expectations of democracy suggests that these also have a place in the council. Council members expect that their pastor values their advice, that he will make good use of their time, and that they will have some influence over the direction the parish takes. This expectation, when properly fulfilled, benefits the parish from a managerial viewpoint. Parishioners who are cultivated and heeded will enrich their pastor’s understanding of pastoral problems and be more committed to their solution.
This essay asks whether the pastoral council is democratic. We answer that a democratic council legitimately incorporates the best elements of modern democratic culture by assuming that Catholics are mature, committed, and capable of sound decisions. A democratic council meets the expectations that the People of God Share responsibility for the Church. And a democratic council benefits the pastor with thorough consultation and motivates parishioners by involving them in decision-making. Is the council democratic? It better be!