Teaching Our Faith – The richness of consultation in the church

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

This series of teaching editorials focuses on consultation in the Church and the role of boards and councils on the parish and diocesan level.

One of my special joys is the interaction and dialogue that I am privileged to enter into through different forms of consultation in the life of the Church. This rich interaction allows for better decisions within the Archdiocese of Louisville and provides a process for healthy listening and communication.

While the Church has always utilized consultative bodies, the Second Vatican Council promoted structures of consultation to fit the apostolic governance by which decisions are made.  Cardinal Francis George, in writing of governance within the church, said: “The Second Vatican Council prepared a new springtime for the Gospel during the third millennium by reaching into the Church’s apostolic treasury and making visible in new ways the original gifts Christ gave to his people. One of these gifts is apostolic governance and ministry. The Council recast the episcopate, so that it is more clearly the sacrament of visible communion and ecclesial unity.” 

I discussed the theme of apostolic governance in my homily (see www.archlou.org/spalding) at the episcopal ordination of Bishop Mark Spalding. Apostolic governance refers to the authority given by Christ to the first apostles in service to Christ and His Church. In this homily, I centered this understanding of governance on the words of ordination, in which the Church calls on God to pour out the Spirit of governance, which is the spirit poured out on Jesus and shared with the twelve apostles. Jesus speaks of the way in which this authority is to be exercised … not as pagans who lord it over those they govern but as the one who came not to be served but to be the servant of all. (Matt. 20:25)

To some, the word “consultation” has a weak connotation rather than the richness envisioned by the Church. Some of this difference in understanding emerges from different foundations for law. When I studied social work in the 1970s to prepare for work in Catholic Charities, I had a course on the difference between Roman law and English law.

This is something of an oversimplification, but English law (which is the basis for our American legal system) emphasizes individual rights, and disputes tend to focus on competing self-interests. The plethora of lawsuits in our culture illustrates this understanding. The major question is power and who makes the decision. By contrast, Roman law focuses less on the individual and more on the good of a community, and so seeks the common good. Roman law forms the basis of the Church’s understanding of consultation, not focused on power but on the servant-leadership of Christ and how to work together.

Some examples of consultation in the Church do not live up to Christ’s call to spirit-filled authority. I recall reading the results of a study focused on the effectiveness of diocesan pastoral councils conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) shortly after I became a bishop in 1999. These councils, new to the church from Vatican II, did not always fare well in the study. They emerged as either “window dressing” groups, which rarely met or groups that were frustrated by agendas not addressed. 

I was struck by the insight that the most effective councils are ones in which the priorities of the council and of the bishop match. In other words, the bishop brings for consultation those burning issues that need vision and direction, and he listens when the council raises issues of concern. This type of consultation is more than polite listening. Instead, it involves dialogue in which the bishop shares his insights and proclivities in the midst of the discussion that is firmly rooted in the foundation of Church teaching and always seeks the face of Jesus. 

My experience with consultative groups is that rich experiences and good fruits result when the leaders and all members are treated with respect and dignity. This includes the active engagement of the bishop or priest and participants, care in preparing an agenda that includes critical questions relevant to the issues of the day, the promotion of attentive listening, and care in returning to topics and sharing the results of any consultation. 

These editorials will examine various forms of consultation on diocesan, parish and school levels. I am so grateful for the consultative bodies mandated by canon law, such as the archdiocesan College of Consultors, Priests’ Council, which meets monthly, Pastoral Council of the Archdiocese, which meets twice per year, and the Finance Council. In addition, I value the Development Council, which is not mandated by canon law but has proved invaluable in visioning. In my ten plus years as Archbishop, I also have had less formal but equally valuable opportunities for consultation. I think especially of the three times I met with priests regionally and with young adults and families in anticipation of synods in Rome. Last May’s dialogue and consultation with deacons and spouses also was enriching. 

I hope these presentations of the various forms of consultation in the Church help you to appreciate how Church leaders seek to listen and serve well and how your engagement can help with this process.

Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D. Archbishop of Louisville

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