Canon Law and Parish Councils

Q1: Can a parish council ever vote to overrule a decision made by the pastor of the parish? If not, then what’s the point of having a parish council in the first place?  –Stephanie

Q2: Is it obligatory for every parish to have a finance council? –Damian

A: Many people wrongly confuse their church’s parish council with a finance council. In actual fact, they are two distinct entities, one of which is legally required while the other is not.  Let’s see what canon law has to say about each one in turn.

Canon 536 addresses the formation of a pastoral council (often referred to in common parlance as a “parish council”) in each parish.  The wording of the canon’s first paragraph is very precise, and shows us that its existence is not mandatory at all: a pastoral council may be established in each parish, if the diocesan bishop considers it opportune after consulting with his presbyteral council (c. 536.1).  Clearly, then, if the local bishop has not determined that each parish in his diocese should have one, there needn’t be a pastoral council in any parish of his entire diocese.  If the bishop has in fact required every parish to have a pastoral council, the law specifies that the pastor of the parish presides over it, and the council has only a consultative vote (c. 536.2).

The code is full of references to a “consultative vote” in a variety of contexts. A vote that is only consultative is not binding.  In other words, members of a pastoral council may vote on an issue in order to share their opinion, but after listening to the members, the pastor of the parish can still choose to disagree with them—and his decision stands.  If the pastor wants to do X, and all the members of the pastoral council want him to do not-X, the pastor can still go ahead with his plan.

This may sound harsh, but it is in keeping with the theological implications of the Church’s understanding of the pastor as the leader of the parish. Logically, since the whole purpose of a parish is to foster the spiritual well-being of the parishioners, it has to be under the care and control of an ordained priest (cf. cc. 515.1 and 521.1).  The pastoral council enables the pastor to obtain the input of members of his parish, and to hear how they stand on various issues affecting the parish—but while they can offer him their advice and opinions, the council members cannot tell him what to do.

It goes without saying, then, that the pastoral council cannot make any decisions in the absence of the pastor of the parish. The Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest, compiled in 1997 by experts from eight different Vatican dicasteries, reiterates that the pastor must preside at pastoral councils, and then it goes a bit further: decisions of a pastoral council are invalid if they are made at a council meeting where the pastor has not presided, or if the council has gathered for a meeting against his wishes (Art. 6, 3).  (See “When are the Laity Permitted to Preach?” for more on this important document.)

In contrast to the pastoral council, a finance council is obligatory in every parish.  Canon 537 notes that it is to help the pastor in the administration of the goods of the parish.  The very fact that a parish finance council is obligatory is an indication that the Church does not expect a parish priest to handle money-matters totally on his own.

Canon 537 also states that parish finance councils are governed by the norms laid down by the diocesan bishop. The bishop could require, for example, that every parish’s finance council include a civil lawyer, an accountant, and a banker.  He might insist that the head of the parish school (if there is one), and/or at least one parent of a child attending the school must be members of the finance council too.  In this way, the finance council could provide the pastor of the parish with different insights and various types of expertise which he understandably doesn’t have.

Still, the members of the parish finance council have only a consultative vote. Once again, this is addressed in the Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest already mentioned above (Art. 5, 2).

Let’s say that a parish is trying to decide what to do with a building on its property that the parish no longer uses/needs. Should they try to rent it out? or sell it altogether? or what?

Now imagine that there’s a member of the pastoral council who has worked in real estate for many years. He understands all the legal and financial implications of renting to tenants vs. selling the property outright.  It only stands to reason that the pastor—whose expertise is theology, not real estate—should listen carefully to what the real-estate expert has to say.  After all, the relationship between all the council members and the pastor should be a positive and constructive one!  Nevertheless, the final decision on what to do with the building does not belong to the real-estate professional; it belongs to the pastor, as head of the parish.

If/when a pastor disagrees with the finance council, this should not automatically be viewed simply as an exercise of raw power on his part. The authority to make a decision always carries with it simultaneously the responsibility for whatever happens as a result of that decision.  It is the pastor—not the finance council—who is required to ensure that parish goods are administered in accord with canon law (c. 532).  Yes, the pastor is expected to ask the finance council for their input on financial matters; but he cannot pin any blame on them, if whatever he ultimately opts to do somehow goes sour.  He alone is going to be held responsible in the end, if the judgments he makes turn out to be the wrong ones.  In short, the pastor cannot point an accusing finger at the finance council for his poor choices!

The responsibility of the pastor for the parish is not limited to financial matters, of course. (See “Who is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” for discussion of the case of a pastor who wrongly attempted to deflect blame to a lay-member of the parish in an entirely different type of situation.)  In general, the pastor of a parish has an enormous amount of responsibility on his shoulders, and thus it’s only logical that he needs to have the freedom to make the decisions for which he will be held accountable.

So we can see that while members of a parish can play an important role in various parish matters, they never run the show. Both pastoral councils and finance councils are intended to cooperate with the pastor by giving advice, but not by directly telling him what to do.  At the same time, by consulting the pastoral council and/or finance council in his parish, the pastor is expected to listen to expert opinions and advice from those with backgrounds very different from his own, in order to make the most informed decisions he can.  The relationship between council members and the pastor is intended to be a productive one—so as to enable the pastor to make the right choices about matters affecting the parish.  In this way, both the pastor and the parishioners work together for the spiritual well-being of them all.

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