Eminent canonist and blogger Dr Ed Peters wrote about the affair a little while ago in Sorting out the latest from Vienna.
Here's a little summary of the Canon Law on Parish Pastoral Councils.
Can. 536 §1. If the diocesan bishop judges it opportune after he has heard the presbyteral council, a pastoral council is to be established in each parish, over which the pastor presides and in which the Christian faithful, together with those who share in pastoral care by virtue of their office in the parish, assist in fostering pastoral activity.That's all the Code of Canon Law says.
§2. A pastoral council possesses a consultative vote only and is governed by the norms established by the diocesan bishop.
Some points to note.
- Parish Pastoral Councils are not mandated by the Code but need only be established if the diocesan bishop judges it opportune.
- The Pastor presides over the Council. He is in charge. This is not something that anyone - even the bishop - can change. No meetings can be held, no decisions taken, without the presence and approval of the Pastor.
- The role of the members of the Council is to foster pastoral activity. In other words, they are to facilitate the work of shepherding the souls in the parish which is the exclusive and proper role of the Pastor. If they are not assisting him, they are not effective members of the Pastoral Council.
- The Pastoral Council makes no decisions. It advises - that's what is meant by possesing a consultative vote. The Pastor consults the members, they make their advice known to the Pastor, even by voting on a subject, and then the Pastor prays about it and accepts or rejects the advice. If the members are faithful Catholics with a clear love for God and the Church, their advice should be taken very seriously.
- But here is the difficult part: the Pastoral Council is governed by the norms establish by the diocesan bishop. "Norms" implies law. How binding are these norms? Obviously, they cannot contradict the universal law of the Church, but can the diocesan bishop mandate the establishment of parish pastoral councils? Can he establish norms concerning appointment, election, etc? Can the bishop confer membership of a parish pastoral council on any of the faithful? Can the bishop overrule a pastor who decides that a particular person is unsuitable for membership of a parish council? I very much doubt it.
- Accodring to Dr Peters, membership of a Pastoral Council constitutes the holding of an Ecclesiastical Office (see Title IX of Book I of the Code of Canon Law). To hold ecclesiastical office one must be in communion with the Church as well as "suitable". Being in a sinful state does not, of itself, rupture communion with the Church, but it might well make one unsuitable if this state is publicly known.
One way to make a pastoral council ineffective is for the pastor not to attend. The council has no authority and without the pastor presiding it is rendered ineffective.
I am writing from a position of ignorance concerning the facts of this particular case but with my own experience of parish pastoral councils which has been altogether positive. I have never held elections and always appointed members. I have also asked members whom I did not consider helpful in fostering my pastoral work to stand down.
I hope Fr Swierzek had/has a good canon lawyer to advise him. On the basis of the very little known to me about this case, given that the Cardinal Archbishop had overruled his decision, I would probably advise him to simply insist that Stangl's election to the pastoral council had not been ratified by him. Since he as Pastor presides over the Council, Stangl could not therefore be considered as having been appointed as a member. The ball would then be in the Cardinal's court to either insist on Stangl's appointment or to accept the Pastor's decision. If the Cardinal were to take action against the pastor, there would be options available, from throwing in the towel (one doesn't want to spend one's priestly life fighting battles and one would hesitate before entering into a conflict with one's Cardinal Archbishop) and resigning, to having recourse against any decisions made by the Cardinal.
As Dr Peters rightly says, Pastoral Councils are new in the Church and so it will take some time to develop the law in this area.
In the meantime, I am praying for Fr Swierzek and for the Church in Austria which is in dire need of prayers. (See Pope Benedict's Chrism Mass homily in which he explicitly refers to rebellious priests in Austria.) None of us likes battles and it could be that Fr Swierzek just doesn't want to fight this one. He may have found the parish to be ungovernable.