- Pastoral Council
In Catholic dioceses and parishes, Pastoral Councils may be established by the diocesan Bishop or pastor. They are consultative bodies which serve to advise them regarding pastoral issues.
The main purpose of a diocesan pastoral council is investigating, reflecting, and reaching conclusions about pastoral matters to recommend to the Bishop. The main purpose of a parish pastoral council is in some ways analogous.
Approximately 75% of 18,700 parishes in the United State have pastoral councils, according to the 1986 Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life, and more recent studies confirm or surpass that figure. Approximately 60% of U.S. bishops in 175 dioceses consult an archdiocesan or diocesan pastoral council. Council guidelines have different recommendations about the size of the council. The average is 15 members.
Bishops and pastors may consult their councils about practical matters. On the diocesan level, this may include "missionary, catechetical and apostolic undertakings within the diocese, concerning the promotion of doctrinal formation and the sacramental life of the faithful; concerning pastoral activities to help the priests in the various social and territorial areas of the dicoes; concerning public opinion on matters pertaining to the Church as it is more likely to be fostered in the present time; etc." ("Circular Letter on 'Pastoral Councils,'" published in 1973 by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, no 9).
Vatican II Origin
The concept of the pastoral council was first articulated in the 1965 Vatican II "Decree on Bishops" (Christus Dominus, par. 27). The decree recommended that bishops establish diocesan pastoral councils with a threefold purpose. The purpose is (1) to investigate pastoral matters, (2) ponder or reflect over them, and (3) reach conclusions that the council can recommend to the bishop.
Four other official documents of the Church define the diocesan pastoral council in this threefold way (Paul VI, "Ecclesiae Sanctae I," no. 16; the 1971 Synod of Bishops' "The Ministerial Priesthood," art. 2, II, section 3; the 1973 "Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops," no. 204; and the 1973 "Circular Letter on 'Pastoral Councils'" by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, no 9).
Canon 511 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law speaks about "diocesan" pastoral councils: "In each diocese, to the extent that pastoral circumstances recommend it, a pastoral council is to be established whose responsibility it is to investigate under the authority of the bishop all those things which pertain to pastoral works, to ponder them and to propose practical conclusions about them." This reflects the threefold purpose of the pastoral council as first described in the Vatican II "Decree on Bishops" at paragraph 27.
Canon 536 of the 1983 Code legislates about "parish" pastoral councils. It states that "§1. 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. §2. A pastoral council possesses a consultative vote only and is governed by the norms established by the diocesan bishop."
Consequently, the establishment of parish pastoral councils depends upon the judgement of the diocesan bishop, after having consulted his presbyteral council. If he judges it opportune, a pastoral council is established in each parish of his diocese.
More Recent Documents
The purpose of the parish pastoral council, as described in canon 536, is the "fostering" of "pastoral activity" in the parish. Because the pastor is the proper shepherd of the parish, it follows that his pastoral council possesses a consultative vote only. In fact, the 1997 "Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest" states that, "It is for the Parish Priest to preside at parochial councils. They are to be considered invalid, and hence null and void, any deliberations entered into, (or decisions taken), by a parochial council which has not been presided over by the Parish Priest or which has assembled contrary to his wishes" (Article, 5, § 3).
According to "The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community", the 2002 Instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy, "The basic task of such a council is to serve, at institutional level, the orderly collaboration of the faithful in the development of pastoral activity which is proper to priests. The pastoral council is thus a consultative organ in which the faithful, expressing their baptismal responsibility, can assist the parish priest, who presides at the council, by offering their advice on pastoral matters. 'The lay faithful ought to be ever more convinced of the special meaning that their commitment to the apostolate takes on in their parish»; hence it is necessary to have «a more convinced, extensive and decided appreciation for 'Parish Pastoral Councils'. There are clear reasons for such: In the present circumstances the lay faithful have the ability to do very much and, therefore, ought to do very much towards the growth of an authentic ecclesial communion in their parishes in order to reawaken missionary zeal towards nonbelievers and believers themselves who have abandoned the faith or grown lax in the Christian life" (26,1).
"'All of the faithful have the right, sometimes even the duty, to make their opinions known on matters concerning the good of the Church. This can happen through institutions which have been established to facilitate that purpose: [...] the pastoral council can be a most useful aid...providing proposals and suggestions on missionary, catechetical and apostolic initiatives [..] as well as on the promotion of doctrinal formation and the sacramental life of the faithful; on the assistance to be given to the pastoral work of priests in various social and territorial situations; on how better to influence public opinion etc."  . The pastoral council is to be seen in relation to the context of the relationship of mutual service that exists between a parish priest and his faithful. It would therefore be senseless to consider the pastoral council as an organ replacing the parish priest in his government of the parish, or as one which, on the basis of a majority vote, materially constrains the parish priest in his direction of the parish (26,2).
"Private Letter on 'Pastoral Councils'" (Omnes Christifideles). Congregation for the Clergy (1973). http://homepages.roadrunner.com/markfischer/A115.htm
"The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community". Instruction. Congregation for the Clergy  . http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_20020804_istruzione-presbitero_en.html
"On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest". Instruction. Congregation for the Clergy and seven other dicasteries  .http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/laity/documents/rc_con_interdic_doc_15081997_en.html
A thorough treatment of the subject can be found in Mark F. Fischer, "Pastoral Councils in Today's Catholic Parish" (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications - Bayard, 2001), ISBN 1585951684. Mark Fischer has created a website: [http://homepages.roadrunner.com/markfischer parish pastoral councils]
Parish council (US Catholic Church)
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