Fr. Karambai S. Sebastian

In the final message of the Synod for Asia, the Synodal Fathers, speaking about the laity, said: “Many signs indicate that the Spirit is empowering them for an even greater role in the coming millennium, which could be called the age of the laity:. This change is definitely the fruit of the efforts taken to create awareness among the laity about their particular vocation and mission. In India at the national, regional and diocesan/eparchial levels, commissions, desks for the laity, women, youth have been established. Formation programmes exclusively for these groups are conducted. One important area where the lay persons are to be involved is in the ministry of governance of the Church. This is done either by way of giving them ecclesiastical offices and ministries or of including them in the process of consultation and decision-making in committees and councils.

Both the Latin and the Oriental Codes have legislated as many as ten decision-making structures within the particular church among which the laity can participate in six-three each at the diocesan and the parish levels. Besides these, each particular church can establish as many structures as needed involving the laity in the decision-making process at various levels. Collaboration of the laity with the ordained pastors in the decision-making ministry is not based on the concession arbitrarily granted by the latter, but on the legal provision originating from the fundamental obligation and right of all the christian faithful. CIC states: “Lay persons who excel in necessary knowledge, prudence and integrity are qualified to assist the pastors of the Church as experts and advisors in councils according to the norm of law (c.228, §2). The parallel canon in the CCEO is more explicit and forceful: “Lay persons who excel in the necessary knowledge, experience and integrity, should be heard as experts or consultors by ecclesiastical authorities, whether individually or as members of various councils and assemblies, whether parochial, eparchial or patriarchal” (c.408, §1). This paper attempts to study the juridical and pastoral impact generated by these canons. It consists of two parts: Part I presents the jus vigens in respect of the participation of laity in the six consultative bodies and Part II offers some critical observations.


1. The Diocesan Synod/Eparchial Assembly (CCEO cc. 235-242; CIC cc. 460-468)

By virtue of Episcopal ordination, diocesan bishops possess power of governance which is distinguished as legislative, executive and judicial (c.135, §1). They have a sacred right and a duty before the Lord of legislating for their subjects (LG, 27). They may exercise legislative power not only to complement or determine superior juridical norms where such oblige or permit them, but also, bearing in mind the needs of the local Church and of the faithful, to regulate at diocesan level, with regard to any pastoral matters not reserved to the supreme authority or to some other ecclesiastical authority (c. 392).

A diocesan bishop exercises legislative power personally (c. 291, §2). It means that he is not obliged to legislate together with other persons, organisms or diocesan assemblies. However, he is required to consult the people of God since the very nature of the Church as an organic communion demands the coresponsible participation of all her members in her life and mission. The Diocesan Synod is viewed as an effective and excellent means of participation of all the Christian faithful in the governance of the local Church.

The Congregations for the Bishops and for the Evangelization of Peoples, competent authorities for what pertains to the exercise of Episcopal ministry in the Latin Church, have jointly issued as Instruction on Diocesan synods dated 19 March 1997. It contains several directives and procedures to foster proper celebration of the Diocesan Synods. In its prologue this Instruction states: “Diocesan Synods, always regarded as important instruments in effecting conciliar renewal, have been or are about to be celebrated in a growing number of dioceses especially since the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law. ….. In recent times it is noted that expressions of diocesan communion have also adopted other forms, sometimes described as ‘diocesan assemblies’. While such assemblies often include elements of diocesan Synods, they do, however, lack a precise canonical character” . This observation is quite true as far as India is concerned since some dioceses conducted meetings called “Live-In” where, after days of deliberation, diocesan policies were evolved and statutes were lawfully promulgated. But in these “assemblies”, by and large, there was no representation of the laity at all. This is a serious undermining of the fundamental cconciliar principle that the Church is an organic communion which is, in the words of John Paul II, “characterized by diversity and a complementarity of vocations and states in life, of ministries, of charisms and responsibilities. Because of this diversity and complementarity every member of the lay faithful is seen in relation to the whole body and offers a totally unique contribution on behalf of the whole body”

Can. 460 of the CIC describes the Diocesan Synod as “a group of selected priests and other members of the Christian faithful of a particular church who offer assistance to the diocesan bishop for the good of the whole diocesan community”. The priests are no doubt “the wise collaborators with the order of bishops and their helpers and chosen instruments” (LG, n.28; PO, nn. 2 and 7). But “as sharers in the role of Christ the Priest, the Prophet and the King, the laity have an active part to play in the life and activity of the Church. Their activity is so necessary within church communities that without it the apostolate of the pastors is generally unable to achieve its full effectiveness” (AA, n. 10). The Synod therefore offers the bishop the opportunity of calling to co-operate with him his priests as well as members of the laity and some chosen religious. This is a particular form of that responsibility and concerns of all the faithful in building up the Body of Christ (c. 463, §§1&2).

Lay persons can become members of the Synod by both election and nomination. The DPC elects them in a manner and number as determined by the diocesan bishop or, where this council does not exist, in a manner determined by the diocesan bishop (c. 463, § 1, 3). The Congregations’ Instruction stipulates that “in selecting lay members to the Synod, Can. 512, § 2 should be followed in so far as possible (II, n. 3). This latter canon legislates: “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”. The Instruction further determines the qualification of the members: “To ensure the validity of their contribution for the good of the Church, it is important that the lay faithful taking part in the Synod should be chosen from amongst those distinguished by their ‘firm faith, good morals and prudence’ (c. 512, § 3). It is also an indispensable requisite that these members of the lay faithful be in a canonically regular situation I order to take part in the Synod”.

This bishop also nominates other members including lay persons for the Synod (c. 463, § 2). Regarding this category the Instruction states: “This group of synodal members should be selected from among those ecclesial vocation or the various apostolic works not sufficiently represented amongst elected members, to give adequate expression to the true make-up of the diocese. These members of the faithful should be chosen for their ‘knowledge, competence and prestige’ (c. 212, §3) whose valued opinion will undoubtedly enrich the synodal discussions” (II, n. 4). CIC as well as the Instruction leave to the bishop’s determination the number of the lay members. CCEO, however, specifies that their number cannot exceed one-third of the total membership of the eparchial assembly (c. 238, §1, 10).

In India, the CCBI Commission for Canon Law and other Legislative Texts has chosen as one of its agenda to facilitate the celebration of the Diocesan Synod in the Latin dioceses . Several dioceses are in the preparatory stages to celebrate the Synods in connection with the great Jubilee year. It is highly hoped that the Diocesan Synods, which have been held in high esteem throughout the centuries and currently are the object of renewed interest, will continue to serve the communion and mission of the particular Churches.

2. Diocesan / Eparchial Finance Council (CIC cc. 492-493; CCEO c. 263)

The two essential features of the management of the diocesan finances are the Diocesan Finance Council (DFC) and the office of the diocesan financial administrator. The DFC is a concrete expression of not only the principle of subsidiarity but also co-responsibility and above all accountability in the life and mission of the particular Church. In the present legislations, constitution of a Finance Council in every diocese/eparchy is obligatory. This requirement cannot be dispensed with by the diocesan bishop, since he has to consult it or get its consent in order to posit valid administrative acts regarding financial transactions and alienation of property (CIC c. 127; CCEO c. 934).

According to CIC 492, §1, the diocesan bishop freely chooses at least three of the Christ’s faithful and constitutes the DFC. CCEO recommends that he consults the college of Eparchial Consultors prior to appointing the members to the Finance Council unless some other equivalent process is already provided by the particular law and leaves the number to the discretion of the bishop (c. 263, §1). Although the CIC has prescribed three to be the minimum number of embers, the Council can enlarge its strength according to the economic condition and financial activity of the diocese. But at the same time the number should not be too unwieldy. The ideal umber would be between seven and twelve.

The Codes have not explicitly mentioned that lay persons are to be included in the membership. However, the required qualification of expertise in financial affairs and civil law has indirectly shown the preference for them. The diocesan statutes can give further specifications including a definite percentage of lay membership in the DFC. In India statutes governing the DFC are rarely promulgated. In some dioceses, perhaps too, enthusiastic about meeting the criteria of the Codes’ requirements, clerics are being trained in financial affairs and civil law. This trend only brings to light once again the die-hard clericalism on the one hand and on the other a breach of trust that has to be placed in the expertise of the laity as advocated by Vatican II (LG, n. 37).

3. The Diocesan / Eparchial Pastoral Council (CIC cc. 511-514; CCEO cc. 272-275)

In the universal legislation DPC is not mandatory. However, “when pastoral circumstances suggest it”, the bishop is required to establish it. The bishop’s obligation is therefore made dependent upon his estimate of the pastoral circumstances of his own diocese-a condition which will obviously vary from diocese to diocese even within a given Bishops’ Conference/Synod. In India immediately after the promulgation of the CIC, the CBCI Commission for the Laity circulated in 1984 a guide-book on pastoral councils and strongly recommended the establishment of these bodies in every diocese/eparchy . After about ten years from the circulation of this directive the CBCI seems to have taken for granted the existence of the DPC in every diocese by assigning to it the task of electing lay members for the constitution of the Catholic Council of India . Current statistics are not available in order to verify how many dioceses have actually constituted DPCs.\

The DPC is an expression of the multi-faceted life of a particular Church. Its attention is directed towards any matter concerning pastoral works in the diocese . After studying these under the authority of the bishop, the council may propose practical conclusions. The membership of the DPC is to be drawn from all categories of the Christian faithful who are is full communion with the Catholic Church, outstanding in firm faith, good morals, and prudence. This includes clergy, members of institutes of consecrated life and especially (praesertim) laity. The Congregation for the Clergy in its circular letter published in 1973 stressed that the majority of the members (maior pars) should be lay persons . In the 1977 draft of the CIC, the same word “majority” is found (c. 327, § 2) However it was replaced with “praesertim”, in the latter draft as well as in the promulgated text. The CCEO follows the CIC suit (c. 273, § 1). In any case the spirit of the law requires that the major portion of the membership should be lay faithful. The model statutes accepted by the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, for instance, specify that more than half of the membership should be lay persons . In some dioceses the DPC is being constituted with the members elected from the Parish Pastoral Councils. Perhaps this process may indirectly be made formation of these latter councils, but it cannot be made sine qua non for the formation of the DPC.

4. The parish Pastoral Council (CIC c. 536; CCEO c. 295)

Among all the consultative bodies in which the laity participate, it is the PPC which has become the focus of great attention in India. At the national, regional, and diocesan levels, formation of PPCs is enlisted as a pastoral priority. At the end of its biennial meeting held in trivendrum in February 1996, the CBCI stated: “We reflected on the need for greater lay participation in the Church through Parish Pastoral Councils, Basic Christian and human Communities, lay ministers and Finance Committees. In the process we saw that the pastoral role of parish councils needs greater emphasis. Parish Councillors must be challenged to care for people (Mt 4, 18-25) and to build up the communities in their constituencies. A training in team ministry and other related skills is very necessary for councilors to function effectively …… Parish councilors are best chosen from among the animators of small Christian communities. We reaffirm our resolution made a Conference in Pune 1992, to develop this form of Church life all over the Country”.

The CCBI issuing pastoral guidelines to tackle neo-Pentecostalism at its ninth plenary assembly held in Mangalore in January 1997, states, among other things, that parish councils are to be established wherever they do not exist, and be made instruments for building up the parish as a true fellowship, as they share in the pastoral mission of the Church; both the pastor and the parish council members along with pastoral teams undertake visiting of the families in the parish, especially in times of distress, sickness, death or any other form of suffering in families”.

Many regional and diocesan Laity Commissions have taken up the promotion of PPGs. Model statutes have been prepared for the approval by the Bishops’ Councils which are to be adapted according to the needs in the particular churches and promulgated . From a random survey conducted by this author among the participants coming from different parts of India especially from the North and attending a seminar at the NBCLC at in May 2000, it is observed that by and large there are two phases in the development of the parish councils: in the South PPCs have been established in almost all the parishes (phase 1); the present concern is their effective functioning (phase 2). The Church in the North and in the East seems to be in the first phase.

The legislation of CCEO concerning parish councils is quite different. Obviously recommending two councils – a pastoral and a financial-, can. 295has relegated specific stipulations to the particular law. This is in respect of the sociological and culture diversity among the various autonomous Churches. The Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church has approved the particular law concerning parish councils and it has been in 1998 duly promulgated . According to this norm, the participatory structure in the parish is called Palliyogam. “Palliyogam as an expression of the communion of the people of God in the parish, is intended to advise and help the parish priest and to work in cooperation with him, exercising the pastoral ministry and administering financial matters of the parish” There are two forms of Palliyogam, namely, Potuyogam and Pratinidhiyogam. Potuyogam is a body consisting of all the heads of families in the parish and members of the Pratinidhiyogam and others. Pratinidhiyogam means a body consisting of those elected by the Potuyogam or by the heads of families in the meetings of the ward/family unit, and others duly elected or nominated or posted ex-officio as members and approved by the local hierarch as per eparchial statutes . The pratinidhiyogam is parallel to the PPC of the CIC but its competence includes most of the functions of the PFC.

5. The Parish Finance Council (CIC c. 537)

As the DFC in the diocese, a finance council for every prish is obligatory in the CIC. The CBCI has now and again insisted that “Parish Finance Committees need to be constituted in parishes and through their effective functioning ensure that our stewardship of material goods becomes more and more transparent, accountable and detached (Mt. 6, 24)” . However, it looks that the mandatory legislation is not taken seriously every where. In some parishes no distinction is made between PPC and PFC and other diocesan statutes treat the PFC as a sub-committee of the PPC. This practice is certainly contrary to the letter and spirit of the present legislation of the CIC . /although both these bodies are interrelated in many respects, they have separate identity having specific competence, membership and functions. For instance, the PFC can have both consultative and deliberative competence while the PFC can only be consultative.

Concerning the membership for the PFC, can. 537, §1 prescribes “Christian faithful selected according to universal law and norms issued by the diocesan bishop”. It is therefore possible, (in fact, it has happened) that the PFC can be constituted with only clerics and the religious with complete exclusion of the laity. Hence it is necessary to determine in the diocesan statutes a definite number of lay membership in the PFC for the same reasons we have put forth for the DFC above.

6. Finance Committee for the Institutions (CIC c. 1280)

As for the parish, CIC has made it mandatory for every juridical person to have a finance committee or at least two councilors. But this legislation has been given least attention in India. As a matter of fact, more than the parishes, juridical persons like hospitals, schools and hostels deal with huge financial transactions. It is true that these institutions are required by civil law to submit to the government the annual audited statement of accounts and that many lay persons are involved in the process. But the requirement of the Church is much more: involving the laity already in the decision-making process itself. Therefore a finance committee at every juridical person will vouch not only for transparency and accountability but also for the realization of the Church as an organic communion.


1. Prior Consultation

When the universal law requires prior consultation before constituting a consultative body, the diocesan bishop is obliged to do so; otherwise his subsequent administrative act will be invalid. For instance, before convoking the Diocesan Synod (CIC c. 461; CCEO, c. 236) or establishing the PPC (c. 536) the diocesan bishop should have consulted the Senate of Priests which represents his clergy and assists him in his government of the diocese. This consultation must be documented by a decree or mentioned in the promulgation of the statutes. It is noted that in some diocese in India just circulars have been sent urging the pastors, for instance, to establish parish pastoral councils without having had the prior consultation with the Priests’ Senate.

2. Promulgation of Statutes

Universal legislation stipulates that all the consultative bodies are to be governed by the statutes promulgated in accordance with the requirement of law. Statutes are real laws issued in virtue of legislative power (c. 94). They are also called particular laws (CCEO c. 1493, §2). Diocesan bishops have power to legislate statutes. Particular laws cannot be issued contrary to universal laws (CIC c. 135, §2; CCEO c. 985, §2). For instance, a lay person cannot become the president of the PPC; or the pastor cannot be given a veto power against the decision taken at the PPC. If a bishop issues contrary law, then it will be an act of violation of the principle of subsidiarity; moreover such act will have no juridical value and the legality of such act can be contested through a hierarchical recourse to the Pontifical Council for the Authentic Interpretation of Legislative Texts .

As real laws statutes are to be promulgated. Without promulgation the law does not exist and has no force. Lex instituitur cum promulgator (c. 7). Promulgation is meant to make a law public before the community so that it can be aware of it and begin to observe it. Promulgation of law provides security in knowing what norms are binding, when they came to bid, and on whose authority. The normal method of promulgating statutes is by a decree attached to the statutes themselves. It is regretted that many diocesan statutes governing consultative bodies are not properly promulgated.

3. Election of Members

It is membership that constitutes a consultative body. Universal law has left to the competent authority to determine the membership of most of the decision-making structures in the particular Church. Many diocesan statutes follow the pattern prescribed for the Senate of Priests, namely, membership through ex officio, election and nomination (c. 497). The Instruction on Diocesan Synods has also prescribed this pattern. Designation of members by election through ballot papers is a complicated process involving many practical hazards. Unless properly conducted with meticulous preparation, election would create not few problems. It is not uncommon that elections are made political. Nominees consider themselves as political leaders representing constituencies. All vices of manipulation, intimidation, booth-capturing of political elections infiltrate also in the Church. As a result, there have been instances of the Caholic communities being irrepairably split. In fact election is one of the crucial issue that make many pastors reluctant to establish consultative bodies.

In spite of the potential risks involved, election has still its own advantages. It interests people; it offers the pastors opportunities to educate the faithful on the fundamental difference between Church and politics, between ecclesial ministries and secular offices; it helps to identify good talents and new faces; it enables the pastors to easily eliminate ineffectual and worn-out members; it enhances greater responsibility. What is most important is to give the laity and adequate preparation and formation prior to conducting elections.

An ideal alternative to election would be selecting the members from the Basic Christian Communities. The CBCI has recommended this: “Parish councilors are best chosen from among the animators of small Christian communities” .

4. Women Representatives

As in politics, participation of women in the decision-making structures of the Church in India is very insignificant. Unless women also take active part in the life and mission of the Church and particularly in the decision-making process, the Church cannot be described as an organic communion and participatory in nature. Ecclesia in Asia speaks about ‘the participatory Church in which no one feels excluded …. Women should be more effectively involved in pastoral programmes, in diocesan and parish pastoral councils, and in diocesan synods. The abilities and services should be fully appreciated in health care, in education, in preparing the faithful for the sacraments, in building community and in peace-making ….. Through their mission of love and service the compassionate Jesus, the healer and reconciler should be brought to Asian people” . In order to ensure greater participation of women, lawful provisions must be made in the statutes governing consultative bodies. The model statutes for the DPC in Tamil Nadu, for instance, have proposed that at least 50% of the elected members should be women . The Syro-Malabar Church has stipulated that in the Pratnidhiyogam thirty percent of the members shall preferably be women; but the percentage of elected women representative shall not be less than 10 percent .

5. Competence

One crucial area where the process of consultation faces serious conflict is with regard to the competence of the decision-making bodies. Of almost all the structures in which the lay persons participate, the competence is only consultative. In the Diocesan Synod, the only legislator is the diocesan bishop; the other members of the synod possess “only a consultative vote” (c. 466). The members of the Diocesan Finance Council have “only a consultative vote, unless expressly required by common law in special cases or if the document creating the council requires their consent” (CCEO c. 263, §4). The Diocesan Pastoral Council possesses “only a consultative vote” (c. 514, §1). The competence of the Parish Pastoral Council is “only consultative” (c. 536, §2).

Church law uses the Roman civil law categories of “consultative” and “deliberative” voice or vote. A deliberative voice is binding on the superior while he is not obliged to accept a consultative vote even if unanimous without a reason which is overriding in his judgement (c. 127, §2, 1). But the Indian laity who are for more than a half a century used to democratic procedures, think only in terms of “majority” and “minority”. For them an opinion expressed by the majority of the members is nothing less than binding on the superior. They get agitated when they hear, for instance, that “the parish priest is free to accept or not the opinions given by the members of the pastoral council” . They easily point out that there exists a contradiction between can. 127, §2 and can. 212, §3 which enshrines their right and the duty to manifest their opinions to their pastors and conclude that consultation in the Church is a mere formality and a farce.

In theory the law is very clear. Since a consultative body is not a college with decisional capacity, opinions or votes are not intended as a binding majority decision. Even an opinion gets a majority vote, it should be understood as o indicate the degree of concurrence amongst the council members with regard to a given proposal . But the laity are not too acquiescent about this position. They clamour for a definite role not only in making decisions but also in taking decisions. To resolve the imasse confidence building on the part of the superior is most essential. The Consultants must be convinced that the superior has arrived at a decision not arbitrarily but solely on the strength of their opinions and always having kept in mind the common good of the church. He must strive to arrive at a decision with what is called “consensus Ecclesiae”. Participatory decision-making in the Church is both an art and work of the spirit. We have to go a long way to realize this objective.

Another misconception that prevails among the lay members of consultative bodies is that their duty is just to give advice and relegate the rest to the pastors. The experience from a PPC in Mumbai illustrates this point: The members complained about priests not visiting the families. When asked about their own visit to families in their areas the answer was in the negative and they re-acted saying, “If visiting is part of our job we shall resign”. This brings out the problem of ineffective parish councils which have misunderstood their function. When parish councils do the wrong things or adopt the wrong attitudes, they are not helpful. In fact they could become harmful and destructive . As a general principle, every successful organization follows the circular dynamics of decision-making, implementation and evaluation. Involvement of the group at every level of this process is absolutely essential. This is also true to the functioning of the consultative bodies. The councilors are not mere advisors; first and foremost they are the community builders. They must remember the expectations of the Church from their part: “By the grace and call of Baptism and confirmation, all lay people (particularly) the members of consultative bodies) are missionaries: and the arena of their missionary work is the vast and complex worlds of politics, economics, industry, education, the media, science, technology, the arts and sport”.

6. Formation

To achieve participatory decision-making and fruitful pastoral ministry the desperate need is formation. First of all the pastors themselves need an ongoing formation: “To serve the Church as Christ intends, bishops and priests need a solid and continuing formation, which should provide opportunities for human, spiritual and pastoral renewal, as well as courses o theology, spirituality and the human sciences” . It is task then of the pastors to ensure that the laity are formed as evangelizers, able to face the challenges of the contemporary world, not just with world wisdom and efficiency, but with hearts renewed and strengthened by the truth of Christ. To this end, Pope John Paul joins the fathers of Synod of Asia in proposing the establishment at the diocesan or national level of lay formation centres to prepare the laity for their missionary work as witnesses to Christ in Asia today” .