Ryan Berning

About Decision-Making by Vote (10.05.2012), Ryan Berning wrote:

I am the new secretary for my parish council.  During the first few meetings I have noticed that the council does not take an actual vote on the items or decisions to be made. When I made a motion that the council vote on a subject, our pastor stated that no voting will take place.  The Diocese of Madison guidelines state that decisions should be reached by consensus, but canon 536 states that the pastoral council possesses a consultative “vote.”  My view is that it is impossible for the council, as a whole, to advise the pastor without voting (counting the votes or requiring a vocal majority). Could you please clarify if the Parish Councils if councils have the right to take vote in order to over their consultation?

Mark F. Fischer replied:

You asked whether  councils “have the right to take a vote” regarding an issue, given the fact that the pastor has stated that no voting will take place.  Canon 536 states that pastoral councils have “a consultative vote only.”  That seems to imply that pastoral councils must reach decisions by voting.

On the other hand, the Diocese of Madison’s draft Norms and Guidelines for Parish Pastoral Councils take a different tack.  Norm #6 says that decisions should be arrived at by consensus, not by a vote.

The trouble is that the word “vote” is a translation from the Latin.  Votum has many meanings, such as: prayer, wish, desire, and promise to God.  The motto of my wife’s Catholic high school was “Non vox sed votum,” or “not words but deeds.”  So your pastor could argue that “consultative vote” means “an expression of the council’s wishes” — not necessarily a straight up-or-down vote.

Let’s consider how your pastor may view the matter.  He is already consulting the council.  It’s up to him decide whether to take the council’s advice or not.  After all, he’s the “consumer” of the council’s advice.  It seems to not want to know precisely what the council members believe.  He probably avoids voting because he does not want to uncover differences of opinion among council members.  He may see the process of voting as polarizing.  Some writers have argued that “voting” or “parliamentary procedure” leads to division in the council.  I don’t subscribe to that viewpoint, but some do.

The Madison Norms and Guidelines call for decisions to be reached by consensus.  You could object that, from your point of view, consensus does not yet exist.  You could ask the pastor or the chairperson to test for whether the council has reached consensus.  That question would be only fair.  You also asked the following questions:

    • How can the Parish Council properly advise or give consultation to the pastor, as a whole, without taking a vote in consultation to the pastor?  Your pastor may consult in whatever way he finds useful (subject to the Madison guidelines).  He could say that the informal consultation that he now takes is satisfactory.
    • Is the Parish Council permitted to hold its own meetings without the pastor?  Parishioners can meet at any time.  But when they meet without the pastor, the meeting is not, strictly speaking, a meeting of the pastoral council.  It’s just a gathering of parishioners.
    • May the council publish its collective consultative votes on issues for the pastor and the parish to reference?  Once again, independent parishioners are free to voice their opinions.  But the pastoral council is not a body independent of the pastor.  The pastor consults it because he wants to make wise decisions, but he is not obliged to “answer” to the council.  A group of parishioners could try to embarrass the pastor by complaining that “the council advised X and he did Y.”  That’s divisive and not very prudent.

Your idea about meeting privately with the pastor is a good one.  You have a few bones to pick with him, and it’s always a good idea to lay out disagreements privately.  Ultimately, your best tack is to say that the Diocese of Madison guidelines advise councils to make recommendations via consensus, and you don’t feel that consensus has yet been reached.

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