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Leonard Swidler [1]





Why a written document? As we have seen earlier, for the same reason we have written gospels, namely, to put into writing the very nature of the Parish, its purpose, the respective responsibilities and authority of the lay and clerical leaders and various parish organizations–in sum, the way members celebrate and live their Catholic faith in this Parish community. Must the Parish community be subject to the whim and will of each pastor? Is the priest the Parish, or are the people, who live their lives and faith there, giving it life and vitality? Priests come and go, but the community remains. The people create the conditions and spirit of the Christian Parish community and the priest serves and ministers to them.


Clearly, each Parish is different, has its strengths and weakness, its own customs and celebrations, and therefore should have its own written Constitution  to spell out its mission, its own best practices, its particular way of organizing, within the Constitutions of the diocesan, national/regional, and universal Church, as a means of continuity through changing lay and clerical leadership, to be adapted as needed.


Creating such a Constitution takes a great deal of work by a dedicated team-oriented Drafting Committee. As already noted, the entire Parish needs to be involved in the creation of the Parish  Constitution. Hence, the Drafting Committee must be chosen by the entire parish and needs to include the input of  the Parish Council, Finance Committee, other organizations and special groups. The whole parish should be kept informed of the progress in the formulation of the Constitution. Not only is the development of a Parish Constitution a vital project in itself, but the process alone can give new life, insights, and perspectives to the Parish.


The work of the Parish or the Drafting Committee cannot be done here. However, we can look at what thinking and writing has been done on a contemporary Catholic Constitution. Although what I suggest that we look at here is in the form of a Parish Constitution, it is essentially taken from the Proposed Catholic Constitution for the Universal Church which can be found at . Nevertheless, much of its initial part will be pertinent to a Parish Constitution, especially the portion dealing with the general rights and responsibilities of all Catholics and the general principles that should prevail in all governance. Because that material is quite extensive, In beginning to work with a Parish Meeting, or Parish Council, or any other community group, I recommend that first all of section II and III A and B be read aloud through without stopping for questions or discussion, but perhaps making marks on the documents to come back for questions and discussion. Then each section can be read through again slowly, discussing it thoroughly, and notes be taken on what parts of it might be useful in drafting this Parish Constitution.


By way of general background to the following document, the Proposed Catholic Constitution (see Appendix), on which it is based, was created under the auspices of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC) in collaboration with many Catholic renewal groups both in the United States and in Europe, Africa, and Asia over several years. I served as the Chair of the Drafting Committee (see: ).




A. Goals


This is what a Parish (or Diocesan) Constitution should have when fully developed. All these elements  may not be immediately obtainable, but for progress to be made, it is vital to have a vision of these goals; only then can strategies to reach them be developed. Reminder: It is absolutely essential that the Parish write a Constitution, and then live by it.


            1. Decision-Making Power

All aspects of Parish life should be under the jurisdiction of the Constitution, which in subsidiarity will be in line with the Constitutions of higher bodies; any action contrary to it would be void. The rights and responsibilities of all Parish officers and agencies should be clearly spelled out. Lay women and men as well as clergy should have real decision-making power–not merely advisory.


2. Representativeness

All bodies of the parish, especially the Parish Council, should be equitably representative, being chosen from the entire community, including all elements, e.g., women, men, young, old, single, married.


            3. A Bill of Rights

The rights of all individuals and groups must be spelled out clearly in a Bill of Rights/ Responsibilities section


            4. Due Process of Law

There needs to be a judicial body which can adjudicate all complaints and protect the rights of all as listed in the Constitution; it needs to have real decision-making power to which everyone is subject.


5. Accountability/Transparency

All decision-making must be accountable to its responsible superior and eventually the whole Parish. With appropriate safeguards for personal privacy, all decision-making must be transparent to all.


B. Interim Steps


1. Start Where You Are

“Rome was not built in a day”– nor was it transformed in one either! Remember, the best can be the enemy of the good. Start wherever you are in your parish by using the possibilities that are actually present. You get involved in your parish by volunteering, accepting a responsibility. Make yourself, and like-minded “democracy-oriented” parishioners, accepted so your opinion will carry more weight. Note: Canons 537 & 1280 require Finance Committees with decision-making power.


2. Dialogue

If you don't already have a perfect parish with a perfectly functioning Constitution–and fellow parishioners are not going to immediately fall in line when you suggest that you ought to have a fully democratic parish with a Constitution–perhaps they will need to be persuaded. You too will have much to learn from them and together with them. The way to make all this happen is through Dialogue, meaning first of all respectful, open listening, and then clear, respectful explaining of your ideas. As the ancient Latin phrase has it: Festine lente! Make haste slowly!


3. Education to Change Consciousness to Pro-Democracy/Constitution

Many Catholics will be very suspicious, or even worse, of the idea of a democratic Catholicism and of a Constitution. Many will have the “feeling” that such “politics” does not belong in a sacred body like the Church. In the wake of all the sexual abuse scandals, this is beginning to change, and the momentum should be seized upon. Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be done in order to usher in a more democratic Catholicism and a Constitution is changing Catholic consciousness to accept and affirm them. This will require a massive education program through books, articles, lectures, study groups, field visits....


4. Making All Accountable and Transparent

In the wake of the national clerical sexual abuse scandals, it is imperative that all decision-making be completely transparent. This is especially important in financial matters. Use whatever bodies are available to urge transparency/accountability–personal conversations, public statements at meetings of all parish bodies, letters, parish bulletin....






This Constitution provides the framework within which the Parish governs itself. The Constitution sets forth the fundamental rights and corresponding responsibilities of members and the basic structure for decision-making and action within the Parish. All laws, regulations and customs of the Parish shall be carried out within this Constitution’s framework and spirit, which in turn operates within the Constitutions of the diocese, National and Regional, and Universal Church..




1. We the people of Parish X hold that because all men and women are created in God’s image and likeness and that the same divine teaching on how they should live is written in every human heart, all persons are to be treated with dignity and equality, each person having the same fundamental rights and responsibilities.


2. We hold that by our faith in God through Jesus and our baptism with water and the Holy Spirit, all Christians become “members of the body of Christ,” that is, the Church universal, and are committed to living out the Gospel proclaimed and lived by Jesus. We further hold that all Christians who recognize the Ministry of Unity which has historically been exercised by the Bishop of Rome, are members of the Catholic Church (hereafter, simply, the Church), and we here are members of  Parish X.


3. We hold that the Church’s mission, grounded in the Gospel, is to proclaim and show forth Jesus’ Good News of how to live a fully human life as images of God in individual and communal justice and love. We hold that the Church realizes this mission within the context of the laws which it enacts to foster and preserve the spirit of the Gospel and to assist its members as they endeavor to live in the love of God and neighbor.


Fundamental to the Church’s , and hence also Parish X’s mission are certain rights and responsibilities which pertain to all members.




1. The following are the Church members’ fundamental rights, flowing either from their basic human rights or their basic baptismal rights. Each right entails a corresponding responsibility on the part of the rights holders, some of which are so obvious that they do not require specific articulation. In all instances these rights and responsibilities apply to all Catholics, regardless of race, age, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, state-of-life, social or economic position.


            A. Basic Human Rights and Responsibilities


1. All Catholics have the basic human rightse.g., (a) freedom of action, (b) freedom of conscience, (c) freedom of opinion and expression, (d) the right to receive and impart information, (e) freedom of association, (f) the right to due process of law, (g) the right of participation in self-governance, (h) the right to the accountability of chosen leaders, (i) the right to the safeguarding of one’s reputation and privacy, (j) the right to marry, (k) the right to educationand the corresponding duty to exercise them responsibly.


2. As a consequence of the basic human right of freedom of action, all Catholics have the right to engage in any activity which neither causes harm nor infringes on the rights of others.


3. As a consequence of the basic human right of freedom of conscience, all Catholics have the right and responsibility to follow their informed consciences in all matters.


4. As a consequence of the basic human right to receive and impart information, all Catholics have the right of access to all information possessed by Church authorities concerning their own spiritual and temporal welfare, provided such access does not infringe on the rights of others.


5. As a consequence of the basic human right of freedom of opinion and expression, all Catholics have the right to express publicly in a responsible manner their agreement or disagreement regarding decisions made by Church authorities.


  a)Laity have the right and responsibility to make their opinions known in a responsible manner, especially where they have first-hand experience of the issue at hand.


  b)Catholic teachers and scholars of theology have a right to, and responsibility for, academic freedom; the acceptability of their teaching is to be judged in dialogue with their peersand, when appropriate, Church authorities. Such scholars and teachers will keep in mind that the search for truth and its expression entails following wherever the evidence leads, and hence, the legitimacy of responsible dissent and pluralism of thought and its expression.


6. As a consequence of the basic human right of freedom of association, all Catholics have the right to form voluntary associations to pursue Catholic aims; such associations have the right to decide on their own rules of governance.


7. As a consequence of the basic human right to due process of law, all Catholics have the right to be dealt with according to commonly accepted norms of fair administrative and judicial procedures without undue delay, and to redress of grievances through regular procedures of law.


8. As a consequence of the basic human right of participation in self-governance, all Catholics havethe right to a voice in decisions that affect them, including the choosing of their leaders, and a duty to exercise those rights responsibly.


9. As a consequence of the basic human right to the accountability of chosen leaders, all Catholics have the right to have their leaders render an account to them.


10. As a consequence of the basic human right to the safeguarding of one’s reputation and privacy, all Catholics have the right not to have their good reputations impugned or their privacy violated.


11. As a consequence of the basic human right to marry, all Catholics have the right to choose their state in life; this includes the right for both laity and clergy to marry, remain single or embrace celibacy.


12. As a consequence of the basic human right to marry, with each spouse retaining full and equal rights during marriage, all Catholics have the right to withdraw from a marriage which has irretrievably broken down.


  a)All such Catholics retain the radical right to remarry; and


  b)All divorced and remarried Catholics who are in conscience reconciled to the Church retain the right to the same ministries, including all the sacraments, as do other Catholics.


13. As a consequence of the basic human rights to marry and to education, all Catholic parents have the right and responsibility,


  a)To determine in conscience the size of their families,


  b)To choose appropriate methods of family planning, and


  c)To see to the education of their children.


            B. Basic Baptismal Rights and Responsibilities


1. As a consequence of their baptism, all Catholics have the right to receive in the Church those ministries which are needed for the living of a fully Christian life, including:


  a)Worship which reflects the joys and concerns of the gathered community and instructs and inspires it;


  b)Instruction in the Christian tradition and the presentation of spirituality and moral teaching in a way that promotes the helpfulness and relevance of Christian values to contemporary life; and


  c)Pastoral care that applies with concern and effectiveness the Christian heritage to persons in particular situations.


2. As a consequence of their baptism, all Catholics have the right,


  a)To receive all the sacraments for which they are adequately prepared,


  b)To exercise all ministries in the Church for which they are adequately prepared, according to the needs and with the approval or commissioning of the community.


3. As a consequence of their baptism, all Catholics have the right to expect that the resources of the Church expended within the Church will be fairly distributed on their behalf. Among other concerns, this implies that,


  a)All Catholic women have an equal right with men to the resources and the exercise of all the powers of the Church;


  b)All Catholic parents have the right to expect fair material and other assistance from Church leaders in the religious education of their children; and


  c)All single Catholics have the right to expect that the resources of the Church be fairly expended on their behalf.


4. As a consequence of their baptism, as well as the social nature of humanity, all Catholics have the corresponding responsibility to support the Church through their time, talents and financial resources.




A. Fundamental Insights


1. Through the centuries the Church has wrestled with the concrete issues of the exercise of power and law, without which no society can survive, let alone develop humanly. In this long period the Church both benefitted and suffered from many experiments with power and law in a great variety of cultures. In testing them for itself the Church gained wisdom in both negative and positive ways, i.e., it learned much about what works well and what does not.


2. Two key insights gained from all these experiences are fundamental for the governance of the Church in the third millennium. One is that shared responsibility and corresponding freedom are at the heart of being human, both individually and communally. The second is that the most effective means of arriving at an ever fuller understanding of reality is through dialoguewhich should be carried on both within the Church and with those outside the Church. It is on this long experience and wisdom of the Church, especially these two key insights, that this Constitution draws and builds in its governance structures.


B. Principles


1. It is of the essence of the Church to be a community. The most basic unit of that Church community is where members daily live their lives, beginning with the family and other intimate associations. Beyond this the fundamental unit of the Church is a local community, most often but not exclusively the geographical parish. The Church is especially manifested here in Parish X.

2. It is, however, also of the essence of the Church that it is a communion of communities, so that the local communities, including Parish X, are also united in intermediate level communities, as the  diocese, and national communities, and finally in the global community of the universal Catholic Church.


3. In keeping with the spirit of the Gospel, developing human experience, and the dynamic Christian tradition, especially its two key insights of shared responsibility/corresponding freedom and dialogue, the following basic principles shall shape the governing structures and regulations of the Church:


  a) All decision in the Parish shall be arrived at through a process of charitable and respectful dialogue.


  b)All leaders of the Parish, including the Pastor, shall be elected to office through appropriate structures, giving voice to all respective constituents.


  c)A Parish leaders, including the Pastor, shall hold office for a specified, limited term.


  d)All Parish leaders, councils and committees will regularly provide their constituents, and ultimately the Parish, an account of their work, including financial accounts, to be reviewed by an outside auditor when appropriate.


  e)All groupings of the faithful, including women and minorities, shall be equitably represented in all positions of leadership and decision-making.


            C. Councils


1. The members of every Parish (or equivalent) shall elect a Council, which shall be the principle decision-making body of the Parish. The Pastor shall be an ex officio member of the Council.


2. The Parish Council, either directly or through committees, shall bear ultimate responsibility for Parish policy on worship, education, social outreach, administration, finances and other activities carried out in the name of the Parish.


3. The Parish Council shall observe the following:


  a)Members of the Parish Council shall be elected in as representative a manner as possible, including, when appropriate, representatives of various organizations within the Parish.


  b)Members of Parish Council shall serve for a specified term of office, namely.......


  c)The rule of one person, one vote shall prevail in the Parish Council and all Parish committees.


  d)No one shall have veto power.

            D. Leaders


a) General

1. All Parish leaders, especially commissioned holders of ministries, shall be appropriately trained and experienced.


2. Commissioned holders of ministries are church leaders who normally work full-time for the church and are chosen by the appropriate church community to act in its name.


3. All commissioned holders of ministries shall be chosen in a manner which shall give a representative voice to all those who are to be led by them, including Pastor.


4. All commissioned holders of ministries shall serve for specified terms of office.


5. All commissioned holders of ministries can be removed from office only for cause, following a procedure of due process based on principles enunciated in this Constitution.


6. All commissioned holders of ministries have responsibilities and corresponding rights which are specified below.


b) Pastor

1. Pastors shall be chosen by the Parish and approved by the Bishop and the Diocesan Council in accordance with the procedures set forth in the Diocesan Constitution.


2. The Pastor shall serve as the leader of the Parish pastoral team. Within the policies set by the Parish Council, they bear the main responsibility for the worship, spiritual and moral instruction, and pastoral care dimensions of the Parish. This responsibility entails:


  a)Worship that reflects the joys and concerns of the gathered community and instructs and inspires it;


  b)Instruction in the Christian tradition and the presentation of spirituality and moral teaching in a way that promotes the helpfulness and relevance of Christian values to contemporary life; and


  c)Pastoral care that applies with love and effectiveness the Christian heritage to persons in particular situations.


3. Pastors have both a right to and responsibility for proper training and continuation of their education throughout the term of their office.


4. Pastors have a right to fair financial support for the exercise of their office, as well as the requisite liberty needed for the proper exercise thereof.


c) Parish Council

d) Finance Committee

e) Liturgy Committee

f) ..................




            A. Principles


1. The Catholic Church is a pilgrim church, always in need of reform and correction. Disputes, contentions, and crimes against the rights of members will regrettably occur. These are to be resolved by processes of conciliation and arbitration. Where this proves impossible, Catholics may take such cases to the Church’s tribunals for adjudication. All Catholics are entitled to fair and due process under ecclesiastical law. All personnel involved in the Church’s judicial system shall be appropriately trained and competent.


2. A system of parochial, diocesan, provincial, national and international tribunals shall be established, which shall serve as courts of first instance, each with designated courts of appeal.


B. Parish Tribunal


1. A Parish Tribunal shall be set up to which all cases of dispute which cannot be amicably settled within the various bodies of the Parish–after every effort of dialogue, conciliation, and compromise has failed, shall be sent for adjudication.


2. Persons elected to the Parish Tribunal shall if at all possible have training and experience in law, and shall serve for a term of five years.


3. The Parish Tribunal shall have consist of five members in staggering terms of office.


4. Appeals against the judgment of the Parish Tribunal shall be heard by the Diocesan Tribunal.


            C. Continued Fitness for Office of Leaders


Parish leaders shall serve out their elected term of office unless the question of competence and continued fitness for office is formally raised in the Parish Tribunal, due process being observed.




This Constitution can be amended by a three-quarter vote of all present at a Parish Meeting which is open to all Parish Members and is called at least three weeks in advance.

[1] Leonard Swidler has an STL in Catholic Theology, University of Tübingen and a Ph.D. in history and philosophy, University of Wisconsin.  Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University since 1966, he is author or editor of over 65 books & 180 articles, Co-founder (1964) with his wife Arlene Anderson Swidler,and Editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. His books include: Dialogue for Reunion (1962), The Ecumenical Vanguard (1965), Jewish-Christian Dialogues (1966), Buddhism Made Plain (co-author, 1984), Toward a Universal Theology of Religion (1987), A Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Jesus and Paul (1990), After the Absolute: The Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection (1990), A Bridge to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (1991) and Muslims In Dialogue. The Evolution of a Dialogue (1992), Die Zukunft der Theologie (1992), Theoria ± Praxis. How Jews, Christians, Muslims Can Together Move From Theory to Practice (1998), For All Life. Toward a Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic: An Interreligious Dialogue (1999), The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (co-author, 2000) Dialogue in Malaysia and the Globe (2004), Confucianism in Dialogue Today. West, Christianity, and Judaism (2005).

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