Catholics for Renewal


Newsletter Editorial – September 2023

Editorial September 2023

Diocesan Pastoral Councils – the most appropriate permanent structure for implementing synodality

The Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) is the permanent consultative body, established by the diocesan bishop and acting under his authority, which studies and weighs up those matters which affect the pastoral works of the diocese and proposes pastoral recommendations (c. 511).

Unlike a diocesan synod, which is an occasional event, the DPC is a permanent structure, which the International Theological Commission has identified as ‘the most appropriate permanent structure for implementing synodality’ at the diocesan level (n.81). It is composed of clerical, religious, and lay members, who should represent the diocese’s regions, social conditions, professions, and apostolates. They have a consultative vote.

Diocesan Pastoral Councils in Australia

Vatican II established several new permanent diocesan structures: the Council of Priests, the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the College of Consultors, and the Diocesan Financial Council. All were mandated except the DPC.  Canon Law left it up to the diocesan bishop to decide if the pastoral circumstances of the diocese required one.

The Gleeson Report found that following Vatican II the bishop of Canberra & Goulburn was the first to establish a DPC in 1966, with the bishops of Sydney and Hobart quickly following in 1967, and soon after the bishops of Adelaide (1968), Rockhampton (1971, Perth and Townsville (1973) and Brisbane (1974).  Gleeson also found that up to September 2021 the bishops of only 18 of Australia’s 28 territorial dioceses have ever established a DPC. The bishops who considered that the pastoral circumstances of their dioceses had never required a DPC were those of Armidale, Bathurst, Broome, Cairns, Darwin, Geraldton, Lismore, Melbourne, Wagga Wagga, and Wilcannia-Forbes.

The Light from the Southern Cross and ACBC Response

When the Metropolitan archbishops gave evidence to the Royal Commission in 2017 most were unfamiliar with previous DPCs but committed to take seriously any recommendation giving the laity a forum to discuss matters that contributed to the incidence and response to child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission recommended a national review of church governance (Rec 16.7), and in the 2020 review report The Light from the Southern Cross (TLSC) there were multiple recommendations on diocesan pastoral councils. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) generally agreed where they had competence, but strongly resisted the recommendation for DPCs to be mandated. The ACBC insisted that while Vatican II and other official documents encouraged DPCs, they had never mandated them. The ACBC stated that the Holy See preferred for bishops to have freedom to respond to the pastoral circumstances of their dioceses with structures of their own choice. However, it did acknowledge that when a bishop did establish a DPC in his diocese it should have significant membership drawn from lay women and men, as well as from consecrated religious and clergy. It also recognised the benefits for dioceses being able to discern the structures for pastoral planning, consultation and participation, and seeking approaches to co-responsibility best suited to local needs and circumstances. 

Previous DPCs in Australia have certainly had different approaches to co-responsibility. The 1967 Hobart DPC under Archbishop Young had a very large membership: 7 priests, 9 religious, and 22 lay persons representing parishes. Its role was to ‘investigate all aspects of pastoral work and make practical conclusions on such’, but the bishop was happy for the DPC to ‘grow in its own environment and out of its own life of the community it serves’. The bishop also allowed the DPC to be more than a ‘merely’ consultative structure. Votes were taken by secret ballot and if a two-thirds majority were in favour the bishop would only disregard the Council’s decision if there was a significant reason he could not reveal.

Plenary Council Decree

Decree 7 of the Plenary Council strongly endorsed Pope Francis’ call for greater participation of all Christ’s faithful in a more synodal church and called for ‘all dioceses and eparchies to establish a Diocesan Pastoral Council.’ It also ‘affirmed the continuing work of the ACBC and National Centre for Pastoral Research to develop guidelines and provide resources of the establishing and flourishing of Diocesan Pastoral Councils, Parish Pastoral Councils, and other appropriate synodal structures’ (5, c).

While the Decree did not mandate DPCs it was the strongest call in Australian church history for bishops to establish this ‘most appropriate permanent structure for implementing synodality’ at the diocesan level.

On 1 July 2023 just five territorial dioceses had a functioning DPC: .  The National Catholic Synodal Life Roundtable, which Decree 7 recommended be established to bring together those dioceses with Diocesan Pastoral Councils (Article 2), will need many more dioceses with DPCs if the Roundtable is to be fully representative.

Catholics for Renewal strongly encourages those diocesan bishops who do not have a Diocesan Pastoral Council to immediately begin planning for this important permanent structure which can help guide them in addressing the pastoral needs of their diocese, including those that the ACBC had already agreed to:

Analysing the multiple structures and needs of parishes;

Establishing formation programmes, pathways and ministry opportunities specifically for pastoral associates.

Establishing formation programmes, pathways and ministry opportunities specifically for pastoral associates.

Last week the National Centre for Pastoral Research (NCPR) published two reports providing various models for diocesan and parish pastoral councils. Diocesan bishops with their presbyteral councils, and parish priests with their existing parish pastoral councils would do well to read these reports carefully and choose and develop the model best suited to the pastoral needs of their particular diocese or parish.

In his 2013 Address at Assisi Pope Francis insisted that ‘A bishop cannot guide a diocese without pastoral councils. A parish priest cannot guide the parish without the parish council. This is fundamental!’ 

Image: Synodality, Religion News Service. Publication Date: 5 September 2023