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In American Roman Catholic parishes, the parish council arose after Vatican II in the new era of lay participation in parish decision making. It was a response to the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam actuositatem, par. 26). This decree, published in 1965, recommended the establishment of councils at all levels of the Catholic Church (including the parish) with one purpose, namely, to assist in the Church's "apostolate" or mission. The decree also said that such apostolic councils "may coordinate" lay initiatives, so long as they do not interfere with the autonomy of such initiatives. Many Catholics throughout the world interpreted the decree as calling for parish councils that would coordinate parish committees or commissions. This was the genesis of the "parish council".
In 1984, the revised Code of Canon Law was published. It did not refer to par. 26 of the Decree on the Laity, nor did it speak of "apostolic" councils or "parish councils" per se. Instead, in canon 536, it recommended (but did not mandate) "pastoral" councils at the parish level [see the article on "pastoral" councils].
The idea of the "pastoral" council had its genesis in the 1965 Vatican II Decree on Bishops (Christus Dominus, par. 27). This decree recommended "pastoral" councils at the diocesan level (but not at the parish level). Canon 536 applied the "pastoral" council idea to parishes. The "pastoral" council (according to the decree) has a threefold purpose. It (1) investigates pastoral matters, (2) ponders or reflects on them, and (3) reaches conclusions, conclusions that are recommended to the pastor. When the new Code was promulgated, it clarified the identity of what had hitherto been called the "parish" councils. These councils were now "parish pastoral" councils with a "consultative only" vote.
Canon 536 (which recommends parish pastoral councils) defines the purpose of councils in an extremely brief way. It says that they "give their help in fostering parish activity." Canon 536 does not mention the threefold task of the pastoral council – the task of investigating, reflecting, and reaching conclusions – but canon 511 does (in a reference to diocesan pastoral councils).
Four other Vatican documents define the "pastoral" councils in terms of this threefold task (Paul VI, "Ecclesiae Sanctae I," no. 16; the 1971 Synod of Bishops' "The Ministerial Priesthood," art 2, II, section 3; the 1973 "Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops," no. 204; and the 1973 "Circular Letter on 'Pastoral Councils'" by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, no 9). Those who read canon 536 without referring to these other Vatican documents that speak of the "pastoral" council may not realize that investigating, pondering, and reaching conclusions is precisely what defines the pastoral council.
It is an understandable mistake to distinguish parish councils from parish pastoral councils, as if the two were separate parish entities. The first parish councils were, properly speaking, "apostolate" councils of the type recommended in the Decree on Laity, par. 26. When the Code of Canon Law was revised, it did not refer to apostolate councils, but called for pastoral councils.
Those who do not know about the development of the "pastoral" council idea in the Vatican documents of 1971, 1973, and 1984 may mistakenly believe that the "parish" councils that emerged immediately after Vatican II are separate from pastoral councils. They may wrongly suppose that "parish" councils are bureaucratically structured decision making bodies, independent of the pastor, that oversee such parish matters as the annual plan, schedule and budget, capital improvements, and the like. But councils do not make decisions independently of the pastor and have a consultative vote only.
The so-called "parish" council idea has developed and is now more precisely referred to as the "parish pastoral council." Pastors may establish these councils and consult them to achieve a threefold purpose -- namely, to investigate some aspect of the pastoral situation, reflect about it, and recommend conclusions.
"Private Letter on 'Pastoral Councils'" (Omnes Christifideles). Congregation for the Clergy (1973). http://www.PastoralCouncils.com/A115.htm
The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community. Instruction. Congregation for the Clergy . http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_20020804_istruzione-presbitero_en.html
On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest. Instruction. Congregation for the Clergy and seven other dicasteries . http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/laity/documents/rc_con_interdic_doc_15081997_en.html
A thorough treatment of the subject can be found in Mark F. Fischer, Pastoral Councils in Today's Catholic Parish (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications - Bayard, 2001), ISBN 1-58595-168-4. Mark Fischer has created a website: http://www.pastoralcouncils.com