Sharing Church management best practices in the Catholic Church
It has been common to distinguish between "pastoral" and "parish" councils since the publication in 1983 of the Code of Canon Law, which recommended parish pastoral councils. Today we prefer the superior "pastoral" council to the old "parish" council, which supposedly focused on administrative matters to the neglect of "pastoral" concerns.
Pastoral councils were superior in the popular imagination because they were more prayerful, because they dealt with spiritual (i.e., "pastoral") topics, because they reached decisions by consensus, not by parliamentary procedure. However, Vatican documents do not prefer consensus decision-making, do not call for more prayer, and do not make a distinction between administrative and pastoral topics.
The 1983 code is not the foundation of pastoral councils. Their foundation is the 1965 Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops (par. 27), which first recommended "pastoral" councils. It was followed by the 1973 Circular Letter of the Congregation for the Clergy, Omnes Christifideles, the only Vatican document entirely dedicated to pastoral councils. It defined the pastoral council as one that "investigates" practical matters under the pastor's direction, "ponders" them, and recommends its "conclusions." In the USA we call this "pastoral planning."
The principal distinction between "pastoral" and "parish" councils, however, does not come down to what they do. It comes down to whose apostolate they serve. Catholics commonly understand the pastoral council as an aspect of the lay apostolate. In other words, the councils exists to provide a forum for lay concerns. This was understandable in the early years of the council movement, when Vatican II's Decree on the Laity (no. 26) was often viewed as the magna carta councils.
The Decree on the Laity, however, never used the phrase "pastoral council." That term is reserved for those councils which pastors consult in order to make wise decisions on the parish's behalf. Pastoral councils serve the pastor's apostolate, the apostolate of leading the parish. Jim Lundholm-Eades implies as much when he describes the pastoral council as "communio in action." By consulting the council, the pastor serves the communio of the parish.
It is tempting, however, to describe the pastoral council in functional terms. When we say that its work should be, for example, mission-driven, data informed, and discernment derived, we are really expressing our hopes, more than the official teaching of the Church. The official teaching says that it is the pastor who consults in order to make wise decisions. The pastoral council succeeds when its recommendations are so prudent that the pastor accepts and implements them. Then it is truly pastoral.