After considering the parish council in some depth we now turn to another group that meets regularly in the diocese - the Presbyteral Council. This will be a short appraisal, for the simple reason that this group conducts secret meetings. It's supposed to represent the thinking of the priests of the diocese as distinct from the Bishop and other chancery officials. Indeed, like the parish council, it's supposed to be a "consultative" body with some teeth. And yet there is plenty of room for ambiguity about what "consult" means, and dioceses differ in their implementation.
The definition of the council at the web site of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which is probably typical, states: "The Presbyteral Council assists the Archbishop in the governance of the Archdiocese. The Presbyteral Council addresses matters concerning the Presbyterate and the People of God of the Archdiocese, proposed by the Archbishop and/or by the members of the Council."
This definition should raise red flags. It claims that the council addresses matters concerning the People of God. All well and good. However, since no laity are involved in the meetings (and have no meetings on a par with the Presbyteral Council), a vital part of the People of God are not present and therefore have no way to voice concerns or make proposals.
This structure, without more, reinforces the idea that the lay People of God can be cared for, shepherded, and pastored (a favorite word) but are incapable of speaking directly to the clergy. This may explain why upstart groups such as the Voice of the Faithful have gained a foothold.
Another problem with Presbyteral Councils is that the "governance" spoken of is usually not the best practices, transparent type, but the old-fashioned secretive type. This creates a fog of secrecy which insulates decision-makers from responsibility and prevents examination of the decision-making process.
Curiously, some dioceses are less secretive than others. The St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese goes so far as to have minutes published online:
The ways that the Presbyteral Council has come to public attention in the Springfield Diocese have not been very edifying. Their invariably unanimous support for the decisions of the Bishop (evident in the closing decrees published in the Catholic Observer and online) raise questions. How likely is it that not a single one of these priests has ever come to a different conclusion about even one of the closings and mergers? If you're thinking "not very" you share my concern.
When many of the parish-closings nearest to the chancery were appealed to the Vatican, it was interesting to see the reaction of the Bishop. He doubled down the verbiage in the Closing Decrees to reinforce the idea that all of the priests of the Diocese, as represented by the Presbyteral Council, were backing him up. See this link, especially the last Decree, called "Decree and Ratification" of Nov. 23, 2009.
Another way the Presbyteral Council came to public attention was during the Bishop Dupre era, when Fr. James Scahill decided to share with the world some comments that Dupre made during a meeting about the destruction of incriminating documents. The story has been told many times, but the deposition of Scahill is still the best source.
For his pains Scahill was bounced from the council. This was not done immediately, but a few months later, after McDonnell arrived in the diocese around April of 2004. Almost as soon as he arrived, McDonnell promised to end the fund that had been established to care for Fr. Richard Lavigne. However, over a month later, the fund was still in place. Scahill called McDonnell on his foot-dragging during meetings of the Presbyteral Council. Worse, Scahill went public with his criticism.
This enraged McDonnell, who claimed that Scahill had done more damage to the Diocese than Lavigne. Although these comments were made during a Presbyteral Council meeting, they, too, soon found their way into print. McDonnell fired Scahill from the Council, stating that there must be consequences for speaking out of turn. McDonnell later apologized for comparing Scahill to a convicted child abuser, but the firing stuck.
From that day forward I have read nothing about the discussions or deliberations of the Presbyteral Council. The only way we hear of them is when they unanimously consent to the Bishop's wishes.
I find it puzzling that a group of intelligent, fair-minded people would have no significant difference of opinion with a single man - who happens to be a bishop - over a span of 6 years. I wonder, does that uniformity indicate a vote of confidence? Does it say something about the Bishop, or something about the priests involved? Does it show loyalty? Obedience? Or might it show something else? Is this the Holy Spirit at work? Or what?
What do you think?