Downsizing of Catholic dioceses could bring benefits


ONGOING, BEHIND-the-scenes discussions on the future of the Irish Catholic Church have included a sharp focus on the number of dioceses on the island, with general agreement that 26 is far too many.

A consensus is emerging that when it comes to structural reform of the church in Ireland, this situation cannot continue.

It is considered excessive that this small island with its approximately 4.5 million Catholics should have so many dioceses when, for instance, the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles with a population of 4.3 million Catholics has one archbishop and six auxiliary bishops. There are, currently, four archbishops and 25 bishops in Catholic Ireland.

To reinforce the point, Austria has a Catholic population of a little over six million but has just 12 dioceses while Belgium has eight dioceses for a Catholic population of about eight million

Currently there is a bishop for 23 of Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses, plus two auxiliary bishops in Dublin, two auxiliary bishops in Down and Connor (Belfast), one auxiliary bishop in Armagh and one auxiliary bishop in Derry.

Currently neither Limerick, Cloyne, nor Kildare and Leighlin dioceses have a bishop, following the recent resignations of Bishop Donal Murray, Bishop John Magee, and Bishop Jim Moriarty.

The diocesan structure of the Irish Catholic Church was established in 1111 at the Synod of Rathbreasail which moved the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan-based model. This was developed further at the Synod of Kells in 1152. Dioceses were, in the main, modelled on political realities of the day.

In his book The End of Irish Catholicism? (2003) retired professor of moral theology at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Dr Vincent Twomey, proposed that the number of Catholic dioceses in Ireland be reduced to 12. The church was “burdened with an excess of bishops – and of dioceses”, he said. Auxiliary bishops should be very much the exception, he said.

It is a view which appears to be shared by the current Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. Since becoming archbishop in May 2004 he has not appointed a single auxiliary bishop in Dublin. If the resignations of his two remaining auxiliary bishops Éamonn Walsh and Ray Field are accepted by Rome, he will then have none.

One of the strongest arguments for a lesser number of Catholic dioceses in Ireland is that it would make for a smaller and so, more flexible and effective, Irish Bishops Conference. This should facilitate better quality decision-making as well as greater speed in arriving at decisions.

Further, in a church where clergy numbers are predicted to fall rapidly in the decades ahead, it should also help avoid both overstretching a decreasing pool of talent and the promotion of mediocrity out of necessity.

The proposed 11 restructured Catholic dioceses outlined below have been drawn up with an emphasis on causing as little disturbance as possible.

Starting with the See of the Catholic primate, Armagh, it is proposed that it and Clogher diocese be merged giving a combined Catholic population of 314,521 in 98 parishes. The primate would continue to reside in Armagh.

To its east, Down and Connor diocese could be merged with Dromore giving a combined Catholic population of 389,899 in 111 parishes.The bishop there could reside in Belfast.

To the west, Derry and Raphoe dioceses could be merged with a total Catholic population of 318,997 in 84 parishes. The bishop there could reside in Derry.

Farther south, Kilmore diocese could be merged with the Ardagh part of the current diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, as well as with the Elphin and Achonry dioceses, giving a total Catholic population of 228,650 in 133 parishes.The bishop there could reside in Sligo.

Tuam archdiocese could be enlarged to include Killala, Clonfert, and Galway dioceses, giving a total Catholic population of 302,774 in 141 parishes. The archbishop could reside in Galway.

Farther south, a merging of Killaloe with Limerick and Cashel and Emly would produce a combined Catholic population of 380,474 in 164 parishes. In this instance the archbishop could reside in Limerick.

Kerry and Cork dioceses could be combined to produce a Catholic population of 347,850 in 122 parishes, with the bishop residing in Cork.

Cloyne could be combined with Waterford and Lismore, making for a total Catholic population of 287,740 in 91 parishes. The bishop could live in Waterford.

Ferns, Ossory, Kildare and Leighlin dioceses could be combined making for a total Catholic population of 390,673 in 147 parishes. Here the bishop could reside in Kilkenny.

Dublin diocese, with its 1.15 million Catholics in 199 parishes should remain as it is with the archbishop continuing to reside in Drumcondra.

Meath diocese might be combined with the Clonmacnoise part of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, giving a total Catholic population of 265,000 in 75 parishes. Here the bishop could continue to reside in Mullingar.

That’s 11 Catholic dioceses. It can be argued that we could do with a smaller number, eg one in Dublin, one for the rest of Leinster, and one each covering Ulster, Connacht and Munster.

That would make for five dioceses for a population of 4.5 million Catholics which is still far more, proportionately, than is currently the case in Belgium, Austria, and/or Los Angeles.

Retiring bishops: a dozen more to go within five years

THE AVERAGE age of Ireland’s 29 Catholic bishops is 68, three years over the State retirement age. Of those, 22 are over 65.

Within five years, 12 will have retired as they are now 70 or over; on reaching 75, they must send a letter of resignation to Rome.

Four of the bishops are already over 75 and have sent letters of resignation to Rome. They are the Bishop of Clogher Joseph Duffy, Auxiliary Bishop of Derry Francis Lagan, Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise Colm O’Reilly, and Bishop of Killaloe Willie Walsh.

The Bishop of Elphin Christopher Jones will be 75 next March when he, too, will submit his resignation to Rome. In June of next year it will be the turn of Bishop of Kerry Bill Murphy. There will then be a gap of two years before further resignations are expected. The youngest Catholic bishop in Ireland is Bishop Noel Treanor (58) who was installed in Down and Connor two years ago. Next youngest, in ascending order, are Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor Donal McKeown (60), Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey (61), Bishop of Killala John Fleming (62), Bishop of Achonry Brendan Kelly (63), Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary (64) and Bishop of Ferns Denis Brennan (64).

Dublin’s three bishops are each 65 years old. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin reached that age last month, Auxiliary Bishop Eamonn Walsh last September and Auxiliary Bishop Ray Field last June. PATSY McGARRY