A revision of diocesan boundaries in Ireland is needed due to the “huge imbalances” territorially and demographically across the Irish Church’s 26 dioceses, the vicar for pastoral renewal and development in the Diocese of Achonry has said.
Writing in the Irish Times, Fr Eugene Duffy highlighted that the current Irish diocesan boundaries were set out in 12th century and have remained largely unchanged since then.
The need for diocesan restructuring he said was underlined by the fact that the population of Dublin diocese exceeds the combined populations of the 13 smallest dioceses in the Irish church. Some of these dioceses have populations of fewer than 40,000 people.
Fr Duffy, who this week launches his book, The Restructuring of Irish Dioceses, noted that Vatican II had created space for the revision of diocesan boundaries.
Last February, Pope Francis announced that he was appointing Bishop Michael Duignan of Clonfert as bishop of the neighbouring diocese of Galway. The new arrangement was described as “the union of the two dioceses in the person of the bishop”.
According to Fr Duffy, this has been seen as the beginning of a process of rationalisation of the Irish diocesan landscape. However, there had been no public discussion initiated by church leadership regarding how this might best be done.
Calling on the Irish bishops to include the issue of diocesan restructuring in the discussions for the national synodal process, he said the Second Vatican Council showed that merging or dividing dioceses are not the only ways to address restructuring.
Other possibilities such as the deployment of episcopal vicars to oversee specific regions of a large diocese and the better use of the metropolitan/provincial structure needed to be considered.
He argued that reorganising dioceses in terms of managerial efficiencies could compromise the pastoral nature of the episcopal ministry and “any sense of the diocese being a people who share a common life”.
He suggested that the Catholic Church in Ireland could learn from the experience of the Anglican Church of Ireland, which has merged most of the dioceses on the western seaboard, as well as from other dioceses abroad and religious orders who have extensive experience of merging their provinces.
In December 2019, the former Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin told The Tablet that he favoured a reduction in the number of dioceses in the Irish Church. He pointed out that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2010 Letter to Irish Catholics, had said a rationalisation would proceed.
Archbishop Martin revealed that there had been opposition as “depriving a town of its cathedral is a very sensitive thing”.