Parish Councils

The term “parish council” is certainly a familiar enough element of parochial life for most contemporary Catholics, at least in the United States. But what is the role of such councils, really? Why are there two different councils in many parishes? We will try to at least scratch the surface of these questions.


Parish Pastoral Council

The parish pastoral council is a novelty to the current legislation; there was no provision for such an entity in the 1917 Code.[1] The universal law makes them an option, but the diocesan bishop, after consultation with his presbyteral council, may make the establishment of such council mandatory for all parishes within his jurisdiction. The relevant canon is 536:

§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.

However, given that little is said in the Code beyond this, it is useful to consider the norms pertaining to diocesan pastoral councils outlined in cann. 511-514 and apply them, mutatis mutandis, to similar councils at the regional or parochial level.

Can. 511 In every diocese and to the extent that pastoral circumstances suggest it, a pastoral council is to be constituted which under the authority of the bishop investigates, considers, and proposes practical conclusions about those things which pertain to pastoral works in the diocese.

Can. 512 — §1. A pastoral council consists of members of the Christian faithful who are in full communion with the Catholic Church—clerics, members of institutes of consecrated life, and especially laity—who are designated in a manner determined by the diocesan bishop.
§2. The Christian faithful who are designated to a pastoral council are to be selected in such a way that they truly reflect the entire portion of the people of God which constitutes the diocese, with consideration given to the different areas of the diocese, social conditions and professions, and the role which they have in the apostolate whether individually or joined with others.
§3. No one except members of the Christian faithful outstanding in firm faith, good morals, and prudence is to be designated to a pastoral council.

Can. 513 — §1. A pastoral council is constituted for a period of time according to the prescripts of the statutes which are issued by the bishop.
§2. When the see is vacant, a pastoral council ceases.

Can. 514 — §1. A pastoral council possesses only a consultative vote. It belongs to the diocesan bishop alone to convoke it according to the needs of the apostolate and to preside over it; it also belongs to him alone to make public what has been done in the council.
§2. The pastoral council is to be convoked at least once a year.

Renken stresses that careful consideration of these norms “leads to the insight that pastoral councils exist to do pastoral planning. They investigate pastoral works, consider (study) them, and propose practical conclusions about them: this is pastoral planning. Pastoral councils perform their planning function in an advisory or consultative way.”[2]

In 1997 an interdicasterial Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests was issued which included both the parish finance council and the parish pastoral council in a list of structures “so necessary to that ecclesiastical renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council [which] have produced many positive results and have been codified in canonical legislation. They represent a form of the active participation in the life and mission of the Church as communion.”[3] The Instruction goes on, however, to emphasize that both parish councils “enjoy a consultative vote only and cannot in any way become deliberative structures.”[4]


Parish Finance Council

While pastoral councils are optional at the parochial level, the parish finance council is undeniably a requirement of the 1983 Code. Canon 537 reads:

In each parish there is to be a finance council which is governed, in addition to universal law, by norms issued by the diocesan bishop and in which the Christian faithful, selected according to these same norms, are to assist the pastor in the administration of the goods of the parish, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 532.

Canon 532 makes it very clear that the pastor is the juridic representative of the parish in all things; he is “to take care that the goods of the parish are administered according to the norm of cann. 1281-1288.” But given the inclusion of can. 537 in the Code, Renken observes that it is “clear that the pastor is not expected to administer the goods of the parish in isolation.”[5] Renken goes on: “The role of the finance council is to assist the pastor in his role as administrator of parochial goods; the finance council cannot be conceived of as an administrative body, since administration is the pastor’s competence.”[6]

The administration of parishes is very much intended to mirror that of the diocesan level, where the diocesan bishop is the administrator to the diocesan goods (can. 1276), with a finance council or at least two financial counselors required to assist him (can. 1280).


Parish Trustees

Another aspect of parish business management that is frequently discussed alongside the two distinct councils treated here are the parish trustees. The Code itself makes no specific mention of the trustees of a parish, for a very good reason: the office of trustee is a function of the civil law corporation of the parish; they have no canonical role whatsoever, aside from being committed to ensure that whatever civil form the parish corporation takes remains faithful to the salvific mission and ecclesiological nature of the Church.

I am not certain which model the parishes in my diocese have followed as their civil law corporate entity, or even if they all are incorporated in a uniform manner. Nor do I even know what the available options for churches in general (and catholic parishes specifically) are in these jurisdictions. If and when I become involved in that aspect of diocesan administration, I will certainly need to fill those gaping lacunae in my knowledge. In the meantime I have begun to read some of the great deal of literature which has been published recently on the history of civil law parish and diocesan structures in the United States, and from what I have read so far, it has been a long, circuitous, and generally fraught history from the very founding of the country.[7] Certainly an area where expertise is needed throughout our local churches.


[1] For a history of the development of pastoral councils (diocesan and parochial) from the Second Vatican Council to the 1983 Code, see John Renken, “Pastoral Councils: Pastoral Planning and Dialogue among the People of God,” in The Jurist 53 (1992), 132-154.

[2] Renken, “Parishes and Pastors” in J.P. Beal, J.A. Coriden, and T.J. Green (eds.), New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America (New York and Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 2000) (=CLSAComm2), p. 708 (emphasis in original).

[3] Congregation for the Clergy et al., Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, 15 August 1997, art. 5.

[4] Ibid., art. 5, §2.

[5] Renken, “Parishes and Pastors” in CLSAComm2, p. 704, citing Périsset.

[6] Ibid., citing Coccopalmierio.

[7] See Mark Chopko, “An Overview on the Parish and the Civil Law,” in The Jurist 67 (2007), 194-226; Renken, “The Priniciples Guiding the Care of Church Property,” in The Jurist 68 (2008), 136-177; John Beal, “It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again: Lay Trusteeism Rides Again,” in The Jurist 68 (2008), 497-568; Chopko, “Principal Civil Law Structures: A Review,” in The Jurist 69 (2009), 237-260; Phillip Brown, “Square Pegs in Round Holes: Toward a Better Model of Parish Civil Law Structures,” in The Jurist 69 (2009), 261-310; John Foster, “Canonical Issues Relating to the Civil Restructuring of Dioceses and Parishes,” in The Jurist 69 (2009), 311-339; Renken, “The Stable Patrimony of Public Juridic Persons,” in The Jurist 70 (2010), 131-162.


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