Fr. Kevin Matthew Ph.D., D.C.L., S.T.L.

When I hear the word “consultation” my mind automatically returns to St. Paul’s Universality in Ottawa where I studied with Fr Gary Roche, an Irish Missionary working in Papua-New Guinea. We were speaking one day about a new church that a particular parish priest had decided to build with the approval of his bishop as is the normal approach in many western Dioceses. In shock horror he pointed out that in Papua-New Guinea if they thought about building a new Church they would start spreading the idea gently, discussing it with all the people, and in about five years when all the problems had been sorted out and consensus reached, they might then be able to commence the project. One of us has something to learn about being Church and I don’t think it’s them!

It surely must have been a Priest with great pastoral experience who once defined a Church Committee as: “A collection of the unfit chosen from the unwilling by the incompetent to do the unnecessary.” Those pessimistic times are no longer with us and the reality is that Catholics are awakening to a deeper understanding of their dignity and an unquenchable desire to participate actively in the life of the Church.



The process of consultation is one that has inherent beauty, but one which will always be plagued with difficulties. Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus (+390) had this to say about the assemblies of bishops:

If it is necessary to write the truth, I intend to avoid every assembly of bishops, inasmuch as I saw no council with a successful and favourable end, nor one which averted problems instead of causing and increasing them. There are always arguments and struggles for power… Nor can the bishops be corrected: if someone should accuse them of unscrupulousness, he himself would be brought to judgement quicker than he could suppress their evil ways. (PG, Letter 130, vol. 37, col.226)

Despite the difficulties, the Synod still remains as the normal form of government in the Oriental Churches.

For centuries European Dioceses operated with Cathedral Chapters of Canons who advised the Bishops. Diocesan Consultors was to be a future concept introduced into the Church from the United States in the late nineteenth century.


The Chapter or Canons grew out of the community life of the Cathedral clergy in the early Church. St Chrodogang, Bishop of Metz who died in 766 was one of the early promoters of this community life. The tendency for the clergy to be independent and have free disposal of their income gained the upper hand while the Cathedral clergy were assigned proportionate shares. It was from the twelfth century onwards that the Cathedral clergy were formed into a legal body with certain honors and rights. Some were vested with powers of jurisdiction others with honors and precedence, while others had offices with rights and duties. Chapters obtained the fight to rule the Diocese during the vacancy and to elect the Bishop.

A Chapter of canons was instituted for the purpose of rendering the service of God more solemn and assisting the Bishop as his senate and council. Besides the salary of the canons, there was a special fund for those who attended the solemn recitation of the office in choir and deductions for those who missed.

There is much in the canons of the 1917 Code (Canons 391-422) about income, beneficiaries, dignities, precedence, privileges, insignia, absence from choice and recognized legal excuses, but little or nothing about their role as advisors to the bishop in the form of a senate nor guidelines as to how this should be exercised. In the light of our present development one can only chuckle at the quaintness of these provisions and fully appreciate the wisdom of our predecessors who chose not to go this way and the wisdom of the 1983 Code in making the Canons’ task now predominantly liturgical.


It was the First Plenary Council of the United States in 1852 which invited the Bishops to choose, according to their means several priests from their diocese, respected for their age, knowledge, virtue and experience to act as consultors. From these advices would be sought where needed for the administration of the Diocese. The Plenary Council encouraged their meeting on a fixed date at least monthly.

The movement towards the use of Diocesan Consultors must have spread rapidly throughout the english-speaking world. For we find that at the 1885 First Plenary Council of the Bishops of Australasia our own Bishops were equally unable to establish Cathedral Chapters and opted for Consultors.

In order to bring about some sort of unity, the Plenary Council recommended the appointment of 6 or 4 priests with a provision for at least 2 where the conditions could not be met. At this stage the tasks given to the Consultors were: 1) the proposition of three names for Bishop when the See was vacant, 2) to be at least twice yearly with the Bishop in solemn liturgical functions. The Bishop was to seek their advice in the following matters: a) fixing a time for the Diocesan Synod, b) proposing new statutes for the Diocesan Synod, c) the breaking up of parishes, d) giving a parish to the care of religious and e) the matter of electing a new consultor. The advice of consultors was to be sought in matters of alienation of Church goods over the value of 200 pounds. Finally, consultors were elected for a three year period and could only be removed for a just and proper cause after consultation with the rest of the soncultors. Following the vacancy of the See they would remain in office until the appointment of the new Bishop who was bound to begin a new election within six months of his consecration.
These articles remained the same in the 1895 & 1905 Plenary Councils. In the Fourth Plenary Council of 1937 the wording was changed somewhat although the content of the provisions remained basically the same in line with the provisions of the 1917 Code which now recognized Diocesan Consultors in Canons 423-428.


We live in and have been influenced by what must be termed the most democratic and consultative era of the world’s existence and therefore must ask whether the consultative process springs from the very nature of the Church or simply derives from outside secular pressures. Many today are clamoring for the democratization of the Church along secular lines with little understanding of the divine-human reality with which they are tampering.

Consultation is mentioned 37 times in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, 10 of those references are in the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops. There are 32 canons in the 1983 Code where consultation is recommended or required.

“Consultation” is a word and a concept that does not appear in The Catholic Encyclopedia, or in any volume of Canon law Digest or any major commentary on the 1917 Code that I have found. There are brief articles available on “consultos”, but in many senses the art of consultation in the Church is new although we must admit that the reality of a consultative process has always been part of the Church in one way or another.

This paper will address not so much the group dynamics of consultation but rather the question “Why consultation is such an essential part of the Church’s existence in our times.” The questions to be addressed are 1) Ecclesiological – involving our understanding of “Church”. 2) Theological – involving our understanding and exercise of authority in the Church, and 3) Canonical – regarding structures in the Church and the implications of consultation.


One of the purposes of the 1983 Code was to bring to fruition the new vision of the Church that resulted from the Second Vatican Council. Among the visionaries who influenced the statements of Vatican II was Karl Rahner who saw the Church as a diaspora body, a body changing as it lives among an increasing number of non-Christian (K Rahner, “On the Presence of Christ in the Diaspora Community according to the Teaching of the Second Vatican Council”, in Theological Investigations, Herder & Herder, Vol.10, 1973, pp. 84-102). The key to a vital and growing Church in such a hostile environment was a committed laity who would need to see themselves as a vital part of the Church. This vision did not emerge clearly from the previous hierarchical model of the Church and so the clergy-oriented Church would need to see ordination no longer as a symbol of status but rather of service with laity as co-workers in the mission of the Church (K Rahner, The Christian Commitment: Essays in Pastoral Theology, trans. by C. Hastings, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1963, pp. 22-23).


In our own century, before Vatican II we find that Pope Pius X (Vehementer Nos) defined the Church as an unequal society: “In the hierarchy alone reside the power and authority necessary to move and direct all the members to its end”. This ecclesiological reality has not changed, but the manner in which authority is exercised has undergone radical changes as the Church’s self understanding has developed within and following the Council. The idea of the Church as a “communion” is the “central and fundamental idea of the Council’s documents.” (Final Report 1985: Assembly of Synod of Bishops).


The two key concepts of the Vatican council regarding the Church were understanding the Church as “communion” and appreciating its functioning in terms of “collegiality”. In Redemptor Hominis John Paul II outlined the scope of collegiality within the Church, explaining that it went beyond Episcopal collegiality to other forms of collegial collaboration. The Pope mentions various diocesan, provincial and national synods; he specifically mentions councils of priests; and he commends lay people who, conscious of their responsibility, have willingly committed themselves to collaborating in the spheres of the diocesan synods and of the pastoral councils in the parishes and dioceses.

All members of the Church are now described as “Christ’s faithful”. Those incorporated into Christ through baptism are constituted the People of God. They are called, each according to his or her own particular condition, to exercise the mission which God entrusted to the Church to fulfil in the world. Because of our equality in dignity we all share a common responsibility for the life and mission of the Church. This does not mean that our participation in and responsibility for the life and mission of the Church. This does not mean that our participation in and responsibility for the life and mission of the Church are identical. Those among Christ’s faithful who share in the sacrament of Orders are to fulfil a ministry whose purpose is “service” and “unity”.

This distinction between Christ’s Faithful Laity and Christ’s Faithful Clergy does not consist in any separation or opposition, but rather highlights their working together in communion and the complementary nature of their respective roles for building up the community of the Church. In the words of John Paul II: “there is a unity in mission and a diversity of ministry”.


The fundamental equality that has always existed between Christians is an emphasis that has been overlooked in the past where the essential inequality of clergy and laity was stressed. That same inequality still remains as an essential part of the hierarchical nature of the Church, but the emphasis on the reality that also makes us equal provides a far greater dynamism and vision for the Church of the future. It was Vatican II that emphasized this equality:

Although by Christ’s will some are established as teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors for the others, there remains nevertheless, a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful and in the building up of the body of Christ. (Lumen Gentium n.32).

This equality of dignity and action precedes any differentiation in terms of function and standing in the Church and provides a newly understood basis for addressing fundamental rights in the Church.


The vision of Vatican II involves tensions within the practical order. It inevitably gives rise to questions regarding authority, particularly teaching authority, and its exercise within the Church. In calling for an authority based upon shared responsibility which involves all the baptized in the pursuit of the common good of the Church, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were reasserting a mode of Church governance which is deeply rooted in the history of the Church and is consonant with its hierarchical structure. (Cf. L.J.O’Connell, “Collegiality: theology and practice for the 80’s”, in TD 29:4, 1981, p.325) Collegiality is a mode with a spirit and a set of principles for pursuing the mission of the Church. Specially, it is a mode whereby all the baptized according to their responsibility participate in the exercise of authority derived from Jesus Christ. It is a mode which permits and enlists the voice of all its members in the determination of the direction that the Church should pursue in fidelity to the Gospel. (W. Borders, Origins 9:32, 1980, p.512)


The fundamental community where our communion is realized is the Particular Church or the Diocese. The Diocese is not to be seen as a subdivision or administrative region of the Universal Church. The Vatican Council defined a Diocese as:

That portion of the People of God which is entrusted to a bishop to be nurtured by him with the cooperation of the priests. Adhering thus to its pastor and gathered together by him in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Eucharist, this portion constitutes a Particular Church in which the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is truly present and operative. (Decree on Bishops’ Pastoral Ministry, art. 11).

If we are to speak of consultation in the Church, it is at this level that it becomes a reality. The Constitution of the Church tells us that the Universal Church, of which the Pope is Pastor, is a communion of particular Churches because: …in and from such Particular Churches there comes into being the one and only Catholic Church”. (Lumen Gentium, art. 23) “Bishops govern the Particular Churches entrusted to them as vicars and ambassadors of Christ… by their authority and sacred power… which they personally exercise in Christ’s name” and so are not “…to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiff”. (Lumen Gentium, art. 27).

In turn, we can say that each Particular church is a communion of local Churches or parishes each entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor (Canon 515) and each parish a communion of the various communities foremost among which is the family of “domestic church”. (Lumen Gentium, art. 11).


It is at this particular level of the Church that the lay faithful find their proper place in the Church in partnership with the local clergy. Gerard Kelly in speaking of the secular character of the lay faithful, sees the term “laity” not as a “put down” that places them below the clergy, “… it is more a question of the lay faithful revealing something of the true nature of the Church in a way that no other group of the faithful can.” (G. Kelly, in “Communion and Mission: The Idea of Church in Christifideles Laici”, in A.C.R., 66 (1989). pp. 391-392).
It is this view of clergy and laity as co-workers or collaborators in the mission of the Church that is reflected in the 1983 Code in canon 204, n.1:

Christ’s faithful are those who, since they are incorporated into Christ through baptism, are constituted the people of God. For this reason they participate in their own way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ. They are called, each according to his or her particular condition, to exercise the mission which God entrusted to the Church to fulfil in the world.



The mission of the Church does not stem from the power of orders, but from baptism in Christ. We are all sharers in this mission and so regardless of our life’s circumstances have some responsibility for this mission and ministry as reflected in canons 208 and 216:

Canon 208: Flowing from their rebirth in Christ, there is a genuine equality of dignity and action among all of Christ’s faithful. Because of this equality they all contribute, each according to his or her own condition and office, to the building up of the Body of Christ.

Canon 216: Since thy share in the Church’s mission, all Christ’s faithful have the right to promote and support apostolic action, by their own initiative, undertaken according to their state and condition. No initiative, however, can lay claim to the title “catholic” without the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority.

So it is that we can truly say that the ultimate basis for consultative bodies I the Church is not some policical or managerial theory. It is theological, in keeping with the nature of the Church itself. (J. Provost, “Canon Law and the Role of Consultation”. In Origins, Vol. 18, No.47.pp.795).


The Church then has a mission and all members are and ought to be participants in this mission. In his Apostolic Exhortation “Christifideles Laici”, Pope John-Paul II states:

The church’s mission of salvation in the world is realized not only by the ministers in virtue of the sacrament of orders, but also by all the lay faithful; indeed, because of their baptismal state and their specific vocation, in the measure proper to each person the lay faithful participate in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Christ.
The pastors, therefore, ought to acknowledge and foster the ministries, the offices and roles of the lay faithful that find their foundation in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, indeed for a good many of them in the sacrament of matrimony. (Art. 23)

The source of ministry becomes clearer in the same article:

When necessity and expediency in the Church require it, the pastors, according to established norms from universal law, can entrust to the lay faithful certain offices and roles that are connected to their pastoral ministry but do not require the character of orders. …However, the exercise of such tasks does not make pastors of the lay faithful: In fact a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination. … The task exercised in virtue of supply takes its legitimacy formally and immediately from the official deputation given by the pastors as well as from its concrete exercise under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority. (Art. 23)

At the moment a special commission has been set up to provide an in-depth study of the various theological, liturgical, juridical and pastoral considerations which are associated with the great increase of ministries entrusted to the lay faithful. While these conclusions are awaited, the principles laid down in “Christifideles Laici” still apply.

The basis for consultative bodies in the Church is truly theological, rooted in the magisterial teaching of the Church and articulated in fundamental principles found in the Church’s law. It is important to lay this foundation in faith for otherwise discussion of consultation can be reduces to a question mechanics, polity and even politics. (J. Provost. “Canon Law and the Role of Consultation”, in Origins, Vol.18, No.47. pp. 796.)

It is in this living, participative model of the Church that Christ is more clearly manifested to the world:

These (consultative) bodies are practical expressions of the reality that the Church is God’s work and lives from the presence of the Spirit dwelling in our midst and needs to have structures through which it stays in touch with the impulses of the Spirit, who blows wherever it wills. (J. Provost, “Canon Law and the Role of Consultation”, in Origins, Vol. 18, No.47, pp.796)


In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the Council reminds us that the laity have a right to participate in the mission of the Church and to be heard by their pastors:

The laity should develop the habit of working in the Parish in close union with their priests, of bringing before the ecclesial community their own problems, world problems, and questions regarding man’s salvation, to examine them together and solve them by general discussion. According to their abilities the laity ought to cooperate in all the apostolic and missionary enterprises of their ecclesial family. (A.A., n.10)

“According to their abilities” may means at times that the responsible decision of a person might be to abstain from too much parish involvement because of family responsibilities. It is well known that some Church helpers are escaping the relationships of marriage and family life and that the best thing they might do for the Church is to build the “domestic Church” or family at home.
The context of this mission has its boundaries or limits expressed in the Constitution on the Church: “Like all Christians, the laity should promptly accept in Christian obedience what is decided by the pastors who, as teachers and rulers of the Church represent Christ.” (L. G., n.37) How much more acceptable are these decisions when the people have been part of the decision-making process.


A key to understanding “consultation” in the Church is to understand the true nature of “power” and “authority” in the Church and its purpose. The ultimate purpose of Power and Authority in the Church is the salvation of souls (L. G. 18). All authority in the Church comes from God and Christ has given his power to the Church. It is an authority to empower people for eternal life or life in the kingdom. The functions (munera) given to a Bishop at his Episcopal ordination are not personal gifts and can only be exercised in hierarchical communion with the College of Bishops. Any use contrary to building this communion or outside this ambit is an abuse of power. The 1983 Code emphasizes “Authority” rather than “power”. Authority is the legitimate use of power and law is concerned with addressing how such an exercise is legitimate.


Where the 1917 Code presented Metropolitans, plenary and provincial councils and other authorities above the level of the Diocese as participating in supreme power of the Holy Father, now they are presented as elements of the relationships between particular Churches. There is a new recognition of the Particular Church. Authority in now seen as springing from the communion of Churches and the collegial interaction of bishops and not as devolving from the Pope. In the words of John-Paul in promulgating the 1983 Code, authority must now be seen as “service”.

Authority can be exercised in different ways. There is a) leadership of people (e.g. Mother Teresa – she has no power yet speaks with authority); b) stewardship ( – of people and things); c) decision-making and d) decision-taking. The area that concerns us is decision-making as part of the process of decision taking.


There are two ways to understand participation I authority in the Church:

1) Authority is held by one or a few informed individuals who reflect for all, and govern all. Those who carry out the directives do so with different degrees of good will or understanding (participation).

2) All involved in a project become informed, reflect, decide on action, and designate responsibilities – so all contribute both with their strengths and defects to carry out a project. This second approach takes lay responsibility seriously, an approach that is more imperative than ever today. (G. Thils, “Canon Law and Vatican II ecclesiology”, in TD 31:3, 1984, p.215)
Pope Paul VI indicated the importance of the second way when he spoke on revising ways okf exercising authority. Authority can bear down on others and curb their freedom through fear, he said, or it can foster full and responsible self-expression in other. But Church authority is for building up, not for destroying (2 Cor 10:8). The second way is therefore preferable – to “tend the flock… not as domineering… but as examples” (1 Pet 5: 1-3). In the second way disadvantages are more apparent. But if the first way conceals drawbacks, it also increases them. A correct use of dialog would seem to offer a good expression of pastoral authority. (To Italian Episcopal Conference, 1910)

The ecclesiastical models that cause so many difficulties are that of 1) unequal society with clerics possessing all power, laboring in service of the Church, and with a subordinate laity that can cooperate with clerics; and 2) ecclesial communion in which clerics are pastor-servants with the necessary power and in which laity are brothers and sisters having their own role in building the Church. (G. Thils, “Canon Law and Vatican II ecclesiology”. In TD 31:3, 1983, p.216)

It is interesting to note that while new openings are made for the laity to enter the previously rather protected world of the clergy, that some openings are made for the religious and clergy to enter the world of the laity and others are cut off. Under the former Code, Religious needed at least express permission of the local superior, and clergy in sacred orders the express permission of their own ordinary, to be a godparent at baptism (CIC 766). While this has disappeared in the new law, the field of politics has been closed off for the clergy together with other acts of civil administration (Canon 285). The secular world is clearly the predominant sphere of the lay faithful while the internal functioning of the Church remains the sphere of the clergy. However, there is and can be a new freshness in the ways this is implemented in collaborative ministry. Some parallels might be made on the way the clerical leaders intervene in political events and the way the lay faithful ought to intervene in matters of teaching and policy within the Church.



There are many ways to look at rights in the Church. Basic human rights, those which come with our human dignity are presumed. There are a) ECCLESIAL RIGHTS: those which come with baptism. b) ECCLESIASTICAL RIGHTS: those rights given by Church law. And c) COMMUNAL RIGHTS: those which pertain to members of certain associations. Those rights which spring from baptism make us sharers in the threefold dignity of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King.

As sharers in the priesthood of Christ, all the baptized are called to sanctity and all are called to sanctify the Church. As sharers in his prophetic role, all are called to learn and to teach according to their means and their position in the Church and the world. As sharers in his royal dignity, all are called to service, both within the Church and the world. All have a right and a duty to exercise their dignity which comes from Christ himself.

To these rights must of necessity be added “Instrumental Rights” which are conditions required so that human dignity can be respected and preserved. Within the Church many instrumental rights depend on, and can only be possible with an active laity and sometimes the instrumentalities required for broad consultation can be lacking. It may be lack of funds or lack of structures or simply lack of openness to change on the part of the leader involved. We cannot legislate for personalities.


The Constitution on the Church tells us that the Christian faithful have a duty and the right to participate in the inner life of the Church. … “through agencies set up by the Church for this purpose” (Lumen Gentium, 37). It is here that they are called to apply their experience and insight, and especially the gifts they have received from the Spirit.


Canon 211 decrees that “All the Christian faithful have the duty and the right to work so that the divine message of salvation may increasingly reach the whole of humankind ii every age and in every land.” This call to mission is repeated for the lay faithful (Canon 225) and is the basis for rights to form associations (Canon 215), to assemble (ibid.), to take the initiative in apostolic activities (Canon 216) and to a Christian education (Canon 217) . (Provost, loc.cit., p. 796) This provides a clear basis for active participation in the life and work of the Church, a call for collaboration and shared responsibility in being what the Church is, a communion on mission:

Can. 211 All Christ’s faithful have the obligation and the right to strive so that the divine message of salvation may more and more reach all people of all times and all places.

In the 1917 Code the spreading of the gospel was seen primarily as the responsibility of the pope and bishops. Others were seen as participating in this work by designation from higher authority. The average christian was seen as having the more passive role of supporting the missionaries and at least not remaining silent when the faith was under attack.


The framework within which all rights are exercised in the Church is “Communion”. The Common Good always regulates the exercise of rights. Rights in this sense are not absolute but relative, for their exercise must respect the rights of others and the conditions needed for all to achieve their fulfillment. The answer lies in recognition of the separate functions of the clergy and the laity, not to separate them, but rather to help them discover the sense of “partnership” that the “communion” of the Church needs in order to function effectively.

Balancing the equality that exists among the Christian Faithful and the rights they possess is the sense of responsibility that comes as an equal part of the right.

Can. 223 #1 In exercising their rights, Christ’s faithful, both individually and in associations, must take account of the common good of the Church, as well as the rights of others and their own duties to others.

The authority regulating the use of rights is that of the Church and is provided by the second part of the canon:

Can. 223 #2 Ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights which are proper to Christ’s faithful.
This must be seen not so much as an emphasis on the power of the Bishops, but rather as a call to deepen relationships, for “…to maintain communion, implies mutual respect, shared responsibility and various degrees of participation in that communion.” This implies much more than an ability to work together for it includes our sanctification: “… the call to holiness is really the call to be the Church as God’s people in the Spirit.” (Provost, loc. cit., p.795-6)


The duty of obedience will only make sense in this context of relationship, since disobedience means disunity and dismemberment of the “communion”:

Can. 212 #1 Christ’s faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound to show christian obedience to what the sacred Pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Church.

This obedience in required of all towards their bishop when he acts specifically in his role as Christ’s representative. The bishops do this when they teach formally, exercising the Church’s Magisterium, or when they establish binding discipline as pastors of the Church.


The other side of the canon which remains unformulated, implies an obligation on the part of Church authorities to consult the faithful before pronouncing on matters of doctrine or establishing Church discipline. Priests and laity form a partnership as together they seek to read the signs of the times. Priests are called upon to recognize the charisms that lay people receive. Mutual co-operation is the key (Presbyterorum ordinis, n.9). So it is that obedience is made easier when tempered with understanding and participation in the decision-making process.

The emphasis is not so much on the laity knowing all the answers as on “relevance” of what is presented and reading the sings of the times. Presentation of teaching about morals for example will have a totally different impact depending whether it is condemnatory or exhortatory and appreciative of the weakened human condition. It is not the teaching that is changed, but rather the approach – it is here that many clerics have much to learn about being Church.



Canon Law claims no more than to treat those aspects that concern the ecclesiastical society in its juridical dimension. In the bull of promulgation, Pope John-Paul says that the New Code should be seen as an “effort to translate… conciliar doctrine and ecclesiology into canonical language… and when the conciliar image of the Church cannot be completely translated into canonical language, it is the conciliar image that is to prevail:
The Code must always be referred to this (conciliar) image as the primary pattern whose outline the Code ought to express insofar as it can by its very nature (Bull of Promulgation).

Pope Paul VI referred to Canon Law as: 1) – an instrument of grace – to deepen work of the Spirit; 2) – a bond of unity in fidelity to Gospel & Vatican II; 3) – a system not based on a civil law system; and 4) – a system derived from the essence of the Church itself. It must be within this background that we view the structures of law which are meant to facilitate the mission of the Church.


Within the Particular Church there are many structures that support the Church’s basic mission which may be described as 1) Pastoral – concerning the care for its members, 2) Ecumenical – seeking unity among all Christians, and 3) Evangelical – taking the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus.

Vatican II advocated a genuine autonomy and independence for each Particular Church, but there will always be a need to balance the integrity of the local Church (apostolicity) with the unity of the Church Universal (Catholicity). On the level of Church Law, this means that each diocese must take full responsibility for its own life and activity. The Principle of Subsidiarity, by which decisions are made at the most appropriate level in the Church was one of the guiding principles for the Revised Code of Canon Law.

So it is that in the Diocese entrusted to them, Bishops enjoy all the “ordinary, proper, and immediate authority required for the exercise of their pastoral office”. As sharers in the dignity of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King-Servant they are called to 1) Sanctify, 2) teach and 3) Govern that portion of the People of God entrusted to them. In the exercise of his authority the Bishop is to make use of various individuals or groups referred to in the Code: The Council of Priests, the College of Consultors and the Council for Economic Affairs are all statutory bodies while the Episcopal Council (Canon 573) and the Diocesan Pastoral Council and optional. Likewise the Diocesan Synod, whose main purpose is legislation and Diocesan policy, is left to the discretion of the Bishop. However, the fact that these bodies are mentioned expresses the mind of the Church that they should function where feasible.


The mission of the Church is the outward reach it has to the world, while the structures are the underpinning of that mission. To look at the structures is rather an inward looking movement that might for some seem akin to navel gazing. These are two different yet complimentary ways of looking at “Church”.

It is not simply a matter of setting up structures for the sake of having them in a Diocese. There is a definite spirit by which they ought to function. Many authors express these principles in a variety of terms and complementary ways, but among the major principles we should find some of the following:


Every structure in the Church must be a genuine pastoral instrument adapted to circumstances and pastoral sensitivities. Since the Church has both divine and human elements but lives in a changing world there must be a recognition of the essential need for on-going reform of its human institutions. The Church cannot be viewed as structurally static and fixed. There are grave dangers in fixed models since the Church’s vision of itself is always developing.


All members of the Church are endowed with gifts of the Spirit. Any Church structure must facilitate the development, exercise and discernment of the gifts of the Spirit. There must be a recognition that true discernment takes time and all legal structures that flow from the Spirit will be behind the times. There should be an awareness of subtle forms of manipulation that are always possible.

These charisms or gifts, even the most ordinary of them, give rise to rights and duties which christians are to exercise in the Church as well as in the world (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 3). The function of pastors, whether bishops or parish priests, is not to extinguish these gifts (ibid., 3) but so to foster and nurture them so that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in the Church’s mission (Lumen Gentium, 30; cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 9). (Provost, loc. cit.. p. 795)


Legal structures in the Church must recognize the co – responsibility, fundamental equality and functional diversity of the members. This requires an acceptance of the complementary nature of the vertical authority structure and the horizontal structure of solidarity.

The Spirit must be tested and the consultative process is one way to do this. There is no ironclad guarantee that a consultative process will truly hear the Spirit. But pastoral action which rescinds from this necessary step is taken at the peril of the officeholder and perhaps to the detriment of the Church and its mission. (J. Provost, “Canon Law and the Role of Consultation”, in Origins, Vol. 18, No. 47, p.797)


Each ecclesiastical structure must be dependent on the Church community, not in the sense that growth is stifled and initiative inhibited but belonging as an integral part to the life and mission of the Church. At the same time it should have the independence required to fulfil its tasks adequately. There must also be a spirit of interdependence between structures since no group should be allowed to work in isolation from the rest.


Structures are never to be an end in themselves and any abuse of power is clearly contrary to the Gospel. The energies of the local Church have only one purpose in that they are at the service of the common good. This requires that the participants are accountable.


The talents of those available should be used in the most appropriate way for the service of all. It would appear to be an injustice to the individual and the Church not to use available talent to the fullest potential. Appointments to a group like the Council for Economic Affairs should not be seen as a reward given for dedicated service to the Church. The law demands that genuine experts in economic matters and civil law be appointed.


While consultation is part of the decision-making process, it must be remembered that the decision-taking is the prerogative of the person in charge. There must always be room for what is known as “administrative discretion:

Administrators at whatever level have discretion whenever the effective limits on their authority leave them “free to make a choice among possible courses of action r inaction.” (Kenneth Culp Davis, Discretionary Justice: A Preliminary Inquiry, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969, p.4)

Every legal system has, in the interest of justice, found it necessary to introduce a discretionary element to temper the rigidity of law. We must remember that too little discretionary authority can be as stifling to healthy ecclesial life as too much discretionary authority. (J. Beal, “Confining and Structuring Discretion: A Nuts and Bolts Approach”, in CLSA Proceeding, 1988, p.88)

Real dangers to the Church come from administrative decisions, secretly made, isolated from criticism, unsupported by findings of fact, unexplained by reasoned opinions, and free from all requirements that they be related to past precedents. However, when policies and criteria are determined and announced in advance, there is a greater assurance of consistent and evenhanded decision-making than when decisions are made on an ad hoc basis according to unarticulated criteria. But again, there can be dangers here when the process of their formulation is unstructured and closed with little opportunity for participation by interested parties. They could be based on careless fact – finding and legal analysis, inadvertence to relevant data and substitution of personal bias for careful reasoning.

Until such time as better guidelines arrive we must understand that the greatest hope of controlling administrative discretion lies in the self-control over discretion exercised by the administrator.


We have now officially entered the age of accountability in the Church with the Council for Economic Affairs. The hands of Bishops and Parish priests can be tied since they will need consent of the council for some expenditure in universal law ad particular legislation for the protection of Church goods. It is perceivable that this new beginning will soon expand into other areas of Church life, not in a spirit of being held back, but in promotion of better understanding and the reasonableness of collaborative ministry.


The phrase “Only a consultative vote” appears in Canons 443 (Particular Councils), 446 (Participants in the Synod), 500 (the council of Priests), 514 (The Diocesan Pastoral Council), 536 (The Parish Pastoral Council). It is an expression that comes across with a certain amount of negativity, and tends to dampen enthusiasm, but when understood correctly provides a true share in the power of government as well as demanding something special of those consulted. When speaking of the role of the Council of Priests, canon 495 states: “The Council’s role is to assist the Bishop, in accordance with law, in the governance of the Diocese, so that the pastoral welfare of that portion of the people of God entrusted to the Bishop may be most effectively promoted”.

The seriousness of the consultation process is intimated in two canons. Canon 501 #3 tells us that if the Council of priests does not fulfil the office entrusted to it or gravely abuses that office, it can be dissolved by the Diocesan Bishop after consultation with the Metropolitan or the senior suffragan in the case of an Archbishop. He is, however, obliged to reconstitute the council within a year. The importance of consultation is seen in Canon 407 which stresses the need for the Diocesan Bishop to consult with his auxiliaries in matters of greater importance, and the reason given: “For the greatest present and future good of the Diocese”.


A consultative vote is a reminder to all consulted that the decision-making process is not an absolute power. There are checks and balances in the consultative process. There will always be someone (Pope, Bishop, Parish Priest) who is responsible for the decisions that arise out of the consultation. A consultative vote allows more participation and shared vision by those consulted. Decisions ought to be arrived at through prayer and open dialogue and only through this openness can a responsible consensus be arrived at by those consulted as a group. If a vote is necessary, prudence dictates that at least two thirds be in favour. Any ultimate decision would need that ratification of the person responsible. To reject or act contrary to this vote would presume a satisfactory explanation for the sake of continuing unity and to avoid the frustration of those consulted. To openly or publicly criticize interim contributions to deliberation, discussion papers or drafts propositions is to show an immense ignorance of the process of consultation in which only final decisions have any standing.

If we look at matters legalistically, we find the following: When participants in an ecclesiastical group enjoy a deliberative vote, they do not often realize that it can be counterproductive. If they vote against a proposal, they may prevent the action of the person in charge, while if they vote in favour, he may veto their proposal. The parties can be set up like opposing camps totally contrary to the intention of the consultative process.

However, with a consultative approach all parties work together and the administrator responsible ought to be obliged to explain why he is not able to accept a proposal if the occasion arises. It is a system based on a spirit of partnership for the mission of the Church.

Fr Orsy rightly points out that “When a diocesan pastoral council insists that the bishop must not disregard a proposition voted in by a majority or when the bishop stresses he has the right to reject anything approved by the council, each is thinking on the model of political process.

The christian truth is that neither side has understood the ways and means of communion”. (L. Orsy, “New Era of Participation in church Life”, in Origins, Vol.17, No.46, p.799)


There ought to be a recognized process in decision-making that includes steps somewhat like those suggested by Fr Kennedy:

1) Gathering the factual data

2) Producing creative ideas or options,

3) Making a choice,

4) Implementing the choice,

5) Evaluating the results.

(R. Kennedy, “Shared Responsibility in Ecclesial Decision Making,” in Studia canonica, 14(1980), pp.5-23.)

To accept such a process is not to exclude the specific role of the head, but it is not to exclude the indispensable play of the limbs either. (L Orsy, “New Era of Participation in Church Life, in Origins, Vol. 17, pp. 796ff) Orsy said that “anybody who claims that he or she knows fully the meaning and the correct extent of participation should be listened to with caution. We are in the beginning of the clarification of a seminal concept. But we are not ignorant for that. (Orsy, loc. cit., p.800)


Following the Vatican Council, people expected instant success with a change in structure:

But we also expected too much of one another, Priests expected the laity to understand their problems, to pick up the mantle of responsibility, to do more than grab hold of the checkbook. People expected their priests to understand all their problems, to turn over everything to them, to do nothing without consultation or approval. (F. Rodimer, “Are Parish Councils on the Right Track?”, in Origins, 6(1977),p.727.


Dolores Lecky points out that some tensions are unnecessary because they stem from a misinterpretation of shared responsibility:

Since the Council we have heard a great deal about shared responsibility. I suggest that this has too often been interpreted in terms of sharing juridical-political power, with the over-riding question being: Who will make the decisions? And the result has too often been a polarization of clergy and laity around the misunderstanding of power, while the real power, the power of unity and service has been lost. (D. Lecky, in “Several Pressing Issues: Postconciliar Lay Involvement,” in Origins, 89 (1978), p.442)

Camille Paul (“Christifideles Laici – A Feminist Response”, in A.C.R., 66(1989), p. 412-419) outlines some of the problems she has with the consultative process associated with the Synod of Bishops:

The consultor owns the game! The time allocated for the consultation, as well as the topic and its focus, are decided by the consultor. The material collected is then synthesized by a small group of (usually) unknown people. This group then decides what is important and to be included in the submission and what is to be admitted. (p.413)

This lack of awareness of the need for checks and balances and or the limits to the consultation process, that must of necessity fall far short of democracy, is quite widespread and pernicious in its effects.


There is always a problem with the English language. When we speak of “consultation”, there is always a “consultor” and a “consultee”. It may seem more appropriate to speak of “collaborative ministry” which after all is the purpose of the consultation. While ecclesiologically and theologically sound, it is an approach to living in today’s Church and has both advantages and disadvantages:


Collaboration requires expertise, commitment of time, information, good communication and a sound understanding of service to others. Some of the advantages would include the following:

1) A shared vision of all the participants

2) A more sound knowledge of each other’s role

3) Provides a good model of the Church

4) Provides and awareness of what models of Church are preset

5) Indentifies and uses gifts and charisms of participants

6) Gather wisdom for the team – wider resources to call on

7) Best possibilities for a good solution /Decisions owned by all

8) Provides diversity in achieving a common goal

9) Different points of view come into the open

10) Builds relationships – “communion” in action

11) Encourages the acceptance of responsibility

12) People feel involved – community is formed and strengthened

13) Creates energy

14) Provides a call to dignity based on respect and trust

15) Keeps people honest

16) Should be formative and educative

17) Provides mutual support

18) Is enriching for the participants

19) Provides a creative tension

20) Helps participants recognize real limitations


Collaborative ministry is a slow, time consuming process which can allow power to be manipulative or vested in the few and represent the interests of the few rather than the concerns of the whole group. Some of its weaknesses are obvious:

1) People living different models of Church

2) There is often a need for role clarification

3) Confusion about the nature of collaborative ministry

4) Lack of guidelines – participants go around in circles

5) Everybody’s job is nobody’s job

6) Messy and inefficient decision making process

7) Lack of expertise of people limits progress

8) Stands and falls on personalities

9) Possible repression of less vocal members

10) Open to factions, manipulation and politics

11) Can become superficial and compromising

12) Too many opportunities to push one’s own wheelbarrow

13) Open to manipulation by self-promoting personalities

14) Misunderstanding can lead to tension

15) An inward focus rather than an outward can lead to “elitism”

16) Lack of tolerance of others’ points of view

17) Danger of anticlericalism

18) An extremely slow process (not fitted to today’s world!)

19) Lots of meetings

20) Time consuming

21) Emotionally draining

22) Leads to burnout, overwork and stress

23) A costly process for some instrumentalities

In balance, the advantages of collaborative ministry far outweigh the disadvantages. Limits need to be set, guidelines established and roles clarified and we have an approach that enables us to live an Church in a way that is most visible “communion” in action. We might, however, need to examine our formalized approaches. Pastoral experience shows that more can be achieved over a “cuppa”, a beer or a barbecue than at a formal meeting. A call to collaborative ministry is after all a cal to be “family” and not some “power”