Shared Responsibility

“It was like pulling teeth.” The retired pastor was describing his experience trying to get lay people to participate in decision-making by serving on the parish council in his former parish.

He’d read my book on communication problems in the Church, Nothing To Hide, liked it, and agreed with most of what it said. But when it came to getting lay people involved in what used to be called “shared responsibility” — he’d given it a good shot for quite a few years, but he was here to tell me: Easier said than done.

I couldn’t disagree. I knew he was right. “It’s a symptom of the problem the book talks about,” I said. “Lay people have been kept out of decision-making so long, they take that for granted now. There’s no way to turn it around overnight.”

There are exceptions, however, and I cited one — a parish that I know well with an active, involved parish council and many other signs of enthusiastic lay involvement in making things go.

“I think it has something to do with the history of the parish,” I told my friend, the retired pastor. “For a long time there was only one priest there alongside a large number of laity. I think the lay people probably figured out early in the game, ‘If this is going to work, we’ll have to shoulder our share of the load. He can’t do it all himself.’ Apparently the pastor agreed — and the pastor after him, and the pastor after that. The result is the healthy situation you’ve got there today.”  

But it’s hardly universal. Parish and diocesan councils in many places haven’t lived up to the high hopes and expectations entertained for them in the years just after Vatican Council II. Instead of becoming real instruments of shared responsibility in the Church, many seem to have turned into rubber-stamps. In some cases it’s hard to tell whether a council even exists any more — or, if one does, who its members are, when it meets, what it does, or anything else.

No doubt much of the blame for this state of affairs rests at the laity’s door. But not exclusively. There’s another side to this story — as the following anecdote shows.

A woman told me recently about a parish where the pastor painted over the richly decorated interior of the church without notifying or consulting the parishioners. She wanted to know what I thought about that.

“I think,” I answered, “that whatever that pastor may have had in mind, he was communicating to his parishioners a message along these lines: ‘This is my church, not yours, and I can do whatever I want with it.'”

If a historian ever undertakes to write a history of shared responsibility, he or she will do well to trace the breakdown of the idea to the fouled-up 1970s, when so many things were going wrong in Catholic life.

There were many contributing factors, but in the United States the straw that broke this camel’s back was the feckless Call To Action conference, held in Detroit in October of 1976 under the unwitting auspices of the national conference of bishops. Mid-level church bureaucrats joined so-called activists in ramming through a laundry list of demands for radical change that angered the authorities and spelled the end for shared responsibility.

But that was three decades ago. Haven’t we learned a little something since then? Starting with parish and diocesan councils, we need to give shared responsibility another chance. This time let’s get it right.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • hildethedog

    We’ve still don’t have a parish council – never have. Our new pastor is thinking about starting one.

  • JoeLukowski

    Lay people have been kept out of decision-making so long — still in my parish and forget about the pastor starting a pastoral council, He is hands on–only his hands on !

  • Steve T.

    I was a member of my pastoral council for the past three years and even though we had a lot of advisory responsibility, the pastor always made the final decisions. And really, this is the way it should be, I think, because the pastor has to be sure he fulfills the archbishop’s mandates and we don’t. Although a few council members thought we were just rubber stamps we were able to convince the pastor of our position’s merit on several issues and he changed his mind. But he is really the final say.

  • rakeys

    Every parish I have lived in the past 30 years has had a Parish Council. Decisions are made mutually, but the pastor does have veto power, if necessary. I like it. In several parshies I have been involved with though, we have had knock down drag out fights about making some changes, laity vs laity. I was shocked to hear you say that the laity did not want to get involved wtih making decisions. Most of the parishioners I know want to do everyhting their way, and get upset if the vote goes the other way. I thought this article was going to be about parish councils taking over and not letting the pastor have a say.
    One parish in St. louis actually kicked the pastor off the board when he said that the parsish shouldn’t run a tavern in the parish community center at 10 a.m. Sunday morning when the Parish school of religion was going on. Fortunately, the bishop moved the pastor and the faithful Catholics to a neighboring parish, leaving the parish with no priest. Thank God for good priests and bishops.