Parish Councils and Lay Involvement
Prof. Michael Hull, New York
Parish councils are one of the most important vehicles for lay involvement in the Church. Parish councils find their root in the Second Vatican Council’s Christus Dominus (no. 27). Therein, the Council emphasizes that a diocesan bishop should solicit the Christian faithful and pastoral ministers of his diocese in the form of a diocesan pastoral council. This emphasis finds its legal expression in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (cc. 511–14), wherein the canons mandate a diocesan pastoral council. However, there is no mandate for a parish (pastoral) council—only the recommendation to the diocesan bishop to set up parish councils if he thinks them opportune after consultation with his presbyteral council (c. 536 §1). Likewise, although the canons set up the norms for a diocesan pastoral council (cc. 512–14), the diocesan bishop sets up the norms for parish councils in his own diocese (c. 536 §2), as he does for canonically mandated parish finance councils (c. 537).
Since the Council, parish councils have become increasingly visible in the day-to-day operation of local parishes. It would seem that the forum of the parish council is the most immediate venue of lay involvement in the pastoral activities of parishes and that parish council is a key instance of the principle of subsidiarity. On the one hand, the parish council gives the parish priest a unique opportunity to make known parochial needs to the leading laity of his parish. On the other hand, many laypersons have a unique opportunity to make known their opinions about the parish to their parish priest and to one another. So successful has this format of the parish council become that the 1997 Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests speaks of the parish (and finance) council as a superb example of cooperation between priests and lay persons (p. 21, art. 5).
Yet, care must be taken to see that the establishment of parish councils is not misconstrued, for the parish council may never possess more than a consultative voice in the administration of a parish (c. 536 §2). This does not mean that lay involvement in the daily undertakings of a parish, or that lay financial and spiritual support is in any way underrated, undervalued, or unappreciated. But it does mean that the government of a parish is the responsibility of its parish priest. Nor does it mean that the parish priest is any way free to govern justly without taking carefully into account by means of consultation with his parish council any and all concerns of his parishioners. But it does mean that, by virtue of his holy orders and office, the parish priest makes the final decisions in his competence.
What we must take care to see and cultivate is the ever-increasing collaboration between priests and people that is facilitated by parish councils. The distinctive occasion for teamwork, concord, and evangelization found in parish council setting should not be missed. There are few other structures on the grass-roots level of ecclesiastical organization that proffer such an exciting prospect for lay involvement. Parish councils are often highlighted moments of the people of God—priests and laity—in the close cooperation envisioned by the fathers of the Council. With God’s help, that vision will be more and more realized as the pilgrim people of God make their way home to heaven.