History Of Parish Councils Essay Research Paper

History Of Parish Councils Essay, Research Paper

A Brief History of Parish Councils

To understand the history and development of Parish Councils a contrast has to be made between parish councils in the 1960s and 70s with councils in the 80s and 90s. One difference, which is overwhelmingly apparent, is the amount of authority and control the parish council has. This was, in the 60s and 70s, the subject of much disagreement. Many early authors believed that councils should promote executive authority. They took their cue from the ambiguity of section 26 in the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, the only Vatican II text referring to councils at the parish level. In that text, some believed, the world’s bishops were permitting councils to coordinate, and thus to govern, parish life. Even those who rightly interpreted the Vatican II text as calling for “advisory” councils with only a consultative vote would sometimes state that parish councils have no legal status “as yet.” They wishfully thought that this legal status might eventually be granted.

That hope was dashed with the publication in 1983 of the revised Code of Canon Law. Canon 536 states that, if a local bishop finds it opportune, councils with a consultative vote only are to be established in parishes. The canon refers to these as “pastoral” councils, applying to them a term which the Vatican II Decree on Bishops had reserved for diocesan councils. This was not the first time an official document had spoken of “pastoral” councils on the parish level, but it was the most memorable. Thereafter the American discussion shifted from “parish” to “parish pastoral” councils. In addition to the language about councils “coordinating” parish lay apostolates (the language of the Vatican II Laity decree), one began to hear about parish councils investigating pastoral problems, reflecting on them, and recommending solutions (the language of the Decree on Bishops). The publication of the revised code, with its emphasis on the “pastoral” council, marked a watershed.

The affirmation of consultative “pastoral” councils meant an abandonment of the hope, however ill-founded, for parish councils with executive authority independent of the pastor. It also bade farewell to the union, wished by many, of ecclesiastical and democratic principles. If democracy means rule by the laity, based on the idea of the sovereignty of the people, then parish councils can never be democratic. The Code made that abundantly clear. Its language about consultative-only councils was more than a watershed. For many involved with councils, it marked a crisis which left them bitter and dispirited.

At the same time, however, the Code’s affirmation of “pastoral” councils helped crystallize a number of distinctly American insights. The word pastoral came to describe in the 1980s all that was best in parish councils, and to distinguish that from the excesses and misconceptions of earlier council theory. Earlier parish councils, it was said, concerned themselves with the nuts-and-bolts of daily parish business, reached decisions by parliamentary procedure, and focused exclusively on the parish’s temporal affairs. The rise of pastoral councils discredited that earlier approach. Pastoral councils, according to the new theory, apply themselves to visioning and planning, reach decisions by discernment, and focus on the parish’s spiritual renewal. They manifest a new style of parish council.

The remarkable thing about this way of characterizing the new pastoral council is that it has almost no basis in official Church documents. No Vatican publication or letter of the U.S. bishops has ever called, under the slogans of planning, discernment, or spirituality, for a transition from “parish” to “pastoral” councils. And one may well dispute how just it is to tar earlier “parish” councils as uniformly administrative in orientation, as rigidly parliamentary in procedure, and as exclusively temporal in focus. But almost everyone would agree that in the mid 1980s, something crystallized around the term pastoral council: a distinctly American approach to parish consultation which viewed councils as planning bodies, which promoted parishioner-pastor discernment, and which had a deliberately prayerful spirituality.


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