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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.)

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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