What is a parish council, anyway? A Pillar Explainer
The parish council of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., released a statement on Monday, which said the parish “will not deny the Eucharist to persons presenting themselves to receive it.”
The statement made headlines because Holy Trinity is the Georgetown parish attended by President Joe Biden, and Catholics around the world have been paying attention to a debate among U.S. bishops over — among other things — what they should say about pro-choice Catholic politicians and Holy Communion.
While that debate is far from over, the Holy Trinity parish council made its position clear by public statement — a fairly unusual move for an internal parish organization. But the council has issued other public statements on controversial topics in recent months, and it is not the only parish council to do so: In March, the parish council of St. Sabina Parish said it would withhold payments to the Archdiocese of Chicago until its pastor was reinstated after allegations of sexual misconduct. Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich pushed back directly on that move.
But what is a parish council, anyway?
Here’s what the Church says:
'A pastoral commission’
Vatican Council II urged that “in each diocese a pastoral commission…be established over which the diocesan bishop himself will preside and in which specially chosen clergy, religious and lay people will participate. The duty of this commission will be to investigate and weigh pastoral undertakings and to formulate practical conclusions regarding them.”
The idea of diocesan pastoral commissions, or “pastoral councils” was developed by additional guidelines after Vatican II concluded.
And in 1973, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy and Congregation for Bishops urged the establishment of “parish pastoral councils” similar to those at the diocesan level.
The Church’s canon law explains that “if the diocesan bishop judges it opportune after he has heard the presbyteral council, a pastoral council is to be established in each parish, over which the pastor presides and in which the Christian faithful, together with those who share in pastoral care by virtue of their office in the parish, assist in fostering pastoral activity.”
The parish pastoral council exists, in short, for pastoral planning at the parish level — and it aims to involve a broad cross-section of the parish, to help discern the parish’s mission of evangelization, catechesis, and pastoral care.
‘Necessary to ecclesial renewal’
In 1997, an instruction issued by several Vatican dicasteries taught that parish pastoral councils “so necessary to that ecclesial renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council, have produced many positive results and have been codified in canonical legislation. They represent a form of active participation in the life and mission of the Church as communion.”
The “active participation” of a parish pastoral council helps a pastor to evaluate pastoral initiatives, set priorities, and make plans for the mission of the parish.
The instruction also explains that the role of the pastoral council is “consultative” — it is an advisory group, not empowered to make decisions for the parish, or to speak in its name.
In fact, canon 532 establishes that only the pastor represents the parish in “juridic affairs” — the Church’s language for official parish business.
The composition of parish pastoral councils vary from diocese to diocese, but the Church requires that the pastor “preside over” or lead the group. In some dioceses, some pastoral council members are elected, while in others, all members are appointed by the pastor. Members usually serve terms of two or three years, but that can vary from diocese to diocese too.
‘Assist the pastor in administration’
In addition to parish pastoral councils, each parish is required to have a finance council. The parish finance council, like the pastoral council, is consultative to the pastor — it helps in the preparation of budgets, in decisions about major expenditures and campaigns, and, in some cases, a pastor is required to consult with the council before acting.
Finance councils usually meet monthly, and often help pastors with human resources, oversight of building maintenance, and other aspects of the practical administration of the parish.
While the pastor is ultimately responsible for administration of parish finances, the Church encourages that pastors rely on the advice of financial experts, while balancing that advice with the theological and pastoral mission of the parish.
‘Collaboration, dialogue, and discernment’
In Christifideles Laici, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that at the diocesan level, the pastoral council “could be the principle form of collaboration, dialogue, and discernment as well.”
“The participation of the lay faithful in these Councils can broaden resources in consultation and the principle of collaboration — and in certain instances also in decision-making — if applied in a broad and determined manner,” the saint wrote.
The late pope, who often encouraged consultation at the parish level, applied the same sentiment to the parish pastoral council as well. In fact, the pope urged a “a more convinced, extensive and decided appreciation for ‘Parish Pastoral Councils,’” as an approach to “examining and solving pastoral problems.”