Pastoral Councils: Why They Frequently Fail—
And How to Keep It From Happening
Younger members of the Catholic Church may not know, and older ones may have forgotten, that there was a time (within the lifetime of many Catholics still shuffling about) when there were no parish pastoral councils, much less diocesan ones. The councils we are familiar with today came into existence under the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council, later confirmed in the Code of Canon Law.
Different readers will doubtless have a variety of opinions about the wisdom of introducing such councils in the first place. That question aside, I begin from the simple fact that they are, and in all likelihood will continue to be, with us. They are „facts on the ground‟, as the contemporary idiom
The theological ground for introducing these vehicles for inviting the laity to share responsibility for the life of their church was a renewed and deepened appreciation of the implications of the sacrament of Baptism. Incorporation into the church at Baptism is not merely some sort of administrative action which places the name of the new member on some church register. When a catechumen enters into the mystery of Christ unfolding through the life of the Christian community a profound new relationship is created. Both the catechumen and the receiving community are changed. Each assumes a new responsibility for the faith-life of the other. Each is called to attend to the voice of the Spirit speaking through the experience of the other. In both cases it involves listening with respect to messages we—the individual or the community—may
not want to hear.
Operationally, the creation of councils was meant to generate a sense of mutual responsibility for the life and mission of the community of faith. Prior to such councils all the energy and power flowed in one direction, from the clergy to the laity. With the introduction of councils the power
would flow in two directions. The laity would enjoy a new form of empowerment (along with a new sense of adult responsibility). The pastors would presumably get new energy from a broader base of wisdom—at the psychic cost of abandoning all illusions of omniscience and having to attend to a broader picture than the shepherd‟s limited perspectives and insights offered.
What have we learned?
After these many years of living with these councils it is very appropriate that the church look to competent researchers to gather and analyze data about the effectiveness of these structures for sharing responsibility. I do not enjoy that kind of competence. What follows is, rather, a conclusion based on over thirty years of experience as a church consultant engaged, up close and personal, with many pastors and councils working on live agendas, at both the parochial and episcopal levels.
In their attempt to create organizational structures that would satisfy the deep impulse for broader sharing of responsibility, the bishops at Vatican II, as well as the post-conciliar implementation bodies, clearly did not want the new structures, in one single stroke, to bring the laity from a state
of zero empowerment to full-blown decision-making responsibility. From the perspective of
organizational theory that was arguably a wise choice. As desirable as an ideal end-state of shared decision-making might be, drastic and sudden change in a social system as large as the Catholic Church can bring with it consequences more destructive than the flaws in the original system.
So a decision-making role was off the table. But if the deeper impulse toward sharing responsibility is not to remain a phantom of the imagination, new structures must have at least some operational consequences. If new structures bring no actual change in the power relationship, they are destined only to create a new source of disappointment and anger. To raise hopes, even unwittingly, only to dash them is a formula for alienation.
What to do? The magic key to the dilemma was found in the word advisory. Councils would give
the laity a new experience of their baptismal dignity by formally empowering their representatives to offer advice. They were to give counsel to those responsible as pastors for the direction of the
church in their particular area of the vineyard, whether that be the parish or a diocese.
In theory the choice represented a real step forward. After all, who could argue against the idea that broadening the perspective of a leader‟s limited grasp of a situation, as well as the range of
options available to him, is a bad thing? Getting a more comprehensive picture of the situation surely has value—even if the leader is not legally obliged to follow the counsel offered by his community‟s representatives.
In practice, however, there was a hitch in the solution. “Advisory” or “consultative” are adjectives.
Whether or not they achieve their intended effects depends on the way the parties to the new relationship behave. The words challenge the pastor, on the one hand, to listen with an open mind. That calls the leader to loosen his initial commitment either to his assessment of the situation or to his preferred response to it. It requires the lay advisers to develop the skills required to present their ideas in a constructive manner, not as demands which only lead the pastor to hunker down in defense of his (limited) position.
Thus the call for training—but is that the deepest issue?
The analysis to this point would suggest that, if the structures are to be effective, a major focus should be on training: for the offering of advice to work, both parties need to learn things like listening skills or the arts of adult dialogue. The shepherds needed to learn how to listen; the faithful needed to learn how to propose their ideas. And indeed, the church has put considerable resources to exactly that purpose. Over the years I have seen numerous such training programs, of varying levels of sophistication and effectiveness.
That same experience has led me, however, to conclude that, if councils are to reach their full potential, the real issue does not lie at the level of skills development. It lies at a deeper level of the human psyche. By settling for an adjective to name the new form of empowerment, the law-makers gave those pastors who were reluctant to share responsibility free rein to treat the whole
innovation as expressing a nice, pious ideal. Hortatory adjectives bring with them no operational consequences.
In many, many cases the term „advisory‟ came, in effect, to mean „merely advisory.‟ The positive
challenge implied in the word was bypassed; all the emphasis was placed on its boundary-setting function. It came to mean simply „not deciding.‟ The letter of the law might have been fulfilled,
but the process envisioned in it was aborted. The actual advising effectively came to an end once the counsel was offered. The council shared its perspective; end of story; nothing more to say. The consultation implied in the law became one-directional, ending at the ear of the advisee. Any eventual decision then appears bearing no trace of any prior interaction. On hearing the leader‟s
choice of action one would be totally unaware that there had been any action at all by the members of the council.
Sometimes the re-formulation was quite overt. More than one pastor in my hearing told his council in so many words that they were „merely advisory.‟ But in some cases the resistance was
even more disturbing. It wasn‟t hard to hear even deeper subtexts at work. Some more blatant
examples would be: “I don‟t have to listen to these people.” “They are theologically ignorant.” “I know what we need to do; it‟s a waste of time to sit there and listen to people who don‟t know
what they‟re talking about.”
At the extreme I have witnessed, all too often, an outgoing leader‟s solid development of a faith
community over many years torn down within months by the incoming pastor (priest or bishop) without the slightest sign of any listening to the wisdom acquired by the community over the previous years of development. That the Spirit might have been at work in the decisions of the preceding leadership was apparently never even considered. L’eglise c’est moi.
Why turn to—the law?
It appears, then, that it will take more than training to bring about more effective councils. Deeper obstacles are at work. We must reckon with a fact borne out by history. It is not easy for anyone in power to give it away—or for those previously without it to claim it. Especially if the
empowerment is embedded in a clericalized culture that has held sway for centuries. That is not a matter of ill will on anyone‟s part. It is simply true that long-standing practice brings with it a form of relational inertia; that force is more powerful than any personal motivation on the part of any individual, whether for good or ill. In the face of that deep blockage what can be hoped for from the law?
In its present form canon law proposes an ideal. It offers no stimulus for the shepherd to live up to that ideal, to do the hard work involved in letting go of control and taking conciliar structures seriously. In the face of clericalized inertia how might some minor codicils to our present law move us beyond the level of pious ideals?
By creating an incentive to help the pastor and council to enter seriously into the process of sharing responsibility.
I would propose two addenda to current law, or to a particular council‟s bylaws:
The first: When a significant percentage (say, two-thirds) of the council is in agreement that the pastor‟s proposed course of action is not in the best interest of the faith community, the pastor
would be required to give a public presentation, not only of his proposed decision, but of his rationale for it. The presentation could be written or oral but it would be required.
Such a presentation might not satisfy the community, of course. Even the best law does not guarantee that leaders will be wise. But the very existence of such a requirement could have the salutary effect of making the leaders at least pause. The knowledge that the shepherd must work at
presenting a plausible case for his decision—in public—provides a powerful incentive for him to
challenge himself lest his presentation reveal the weakness of his decision-making process. The prospect of egg on one‟s face can be a powerful motivator. A caring council would work to
forestall such an outcome.
The second addendum addresses a situation in which the disconnect between pastor and council is even greater. If the council membership is unanimous in its rejection of the pastor‟s proposed
action the movement toward decision would be halted; some form of intervention, mediation or facilitation would be mandated.
The measures proposed would appear to be reasonable enough: when the likelihood exists that a proposed step will only undermine the leader‟s capacity to lead the community, it seems only
prudent to put some break on the momentum toward decision.
What kind of outcomes might be anticipated by the adoption of these two measures? Three possible scenarios suggest themselves.
In the case of those many parochial and diocesan leaders and councils who have already generated a climate of genuine trust and mutuality the adoption would be a non-event. They are already living the kind of relationship in which the conditions implied in the addenda would simply not occur.
At the opposite extreme, where the leader‟s natural difficulty at learning to share responsibility
has been shown to be overt hostility to the very idea, the situation is probably too far gone for the proposed codicils—or any, for that matter—to have any effect. In that case direct intervention of
higher authority would seem to be the only remedy.
It‟s the leaders and councils who fall in the middle that might be helped by these provisions. They
are pastors and parishioners who know intuitively what is being asked of them. They want to grow together but they have learned from experience that arriving at common ground can take hard work. It requires patience and commitment—and time! When the struggle becomes particularly
difficult, the temptation is to give up and walk away. Knowing that to take that course would bring into play a consequence that all would want to avoid might just be the incentive to stay at the table
and explore new options that might lead to undiscovered common ground. The satisfaction that comes from being able to put before the community a decision supported by both the council and the pastor is worth the extra effort.
And a given pastor-and-council need not wait for a higher legal structure to initiate the two provisions. They could study them, see their wisdom, and revise their bylaws accordingly, perhaps at the meeting when new members are taking their positions on the council.
George B. Wilson, S.J., is a church organizational consultant living in
Cincinnati, Ohio. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.