Is it time to reduce the number of Catholic dioceses in Ireland?


The closure of Catholic churches has become increasingly common in many countries as declining church attendance highlights the oversupply of religious infrastructure.

While few Catholic churches have closed in Ireland so far, one church has been torn down and replaced by a much smaller one. This was the Parish Church of the Annunciation on Cappagh Road in Finglas west Dublin.

The new church has a capacity of about 10 percent of the old church. Arrangements are made for community facilities, including meeting rooms, offices and a coffee dock. Parish authorities have entered into discussions with Dublin City Council over the provision of social housing on the site.

This is the kind of discussion – between parish and council – that should benefit the community.

Across Ireland in 2017 there were 26 dioceses, covering 1,365 parishes with 2,646 churches, almost twice as many churches as parishes. Many parishes with two or even three churches are rural parishes where a church was built at each end of the parish before the arrival of the automobile.

While the number of parishes has remained fairly stable over the past 40 years, the number of active diocesan priests has dropped from 3,801 to 1,728, a drop of more than 50%.

Opinions are divided on the closure and consolidation of parishes and parish churches. Some see the closures as inevitable for economic reasons.

Bishop Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore believes that too many resources have been expended in the past on maintaining church buildings and insufficient resources on evangelism.

Others emphasize the importance of local churches and see the local church as having a role beyond the sacramental and important to community life.

Jesuit sociologist Micheál Mac Gréil described the parish as “the only community structure that covers all of Ireland”.

Debate

A debate is taking place in the Church of England regarding the closures. Charles Moore, a convert to Catholicism and former editor of The Spectator, spoke of the ‘widespread sadness over parish decline’ in the Church of England which has galvanized those who value parochial life to start a group campaign, Save the Parish.

The campaign has been joined by Monty Python actor Michael Palin, who says “churches remain a vital and much-loved part of UK history and heritage”. The Archbishop of York described the parish as “the beating heart of community life in England”. Yet, according to The Spectator, he and the Archbishop of Canterbury both support a change in church law to make it easier for parish churches to close.

Willem Eijk, Dutch Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop of Utrecht, is a fervent defender of closures. Around 150 of Utrecht’s 400 churches have been closed, with more expected to close in the coming years.

Eijk believes that spending money to maintain nearly empty churches is unjustified and can limit the missionary reach of the church.

The Congregation for the Bishops of Rome says dioceses with less than 100,000 people are not viable

Another archdiocese where closures are occurring on a large scale is the Archdiocese of New York. Seven years ago, at the end of 2014, the archdiocese announced that it would merge 112 parishes, about a third of the total, into 55 parishes.

A striking example of closure and consolidation is found in the town of Widnes in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. In 1951 there were five parishes in Widnes; by 1990 the number had risen to 10. In 2015 there were eight parishes with eight churches and only five priests.

Falling church attendance, combined with an average age of priests of 72 in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, has indicated the need for action.

On the first Sunday of Lent in 2015, all eight existing parishes in Widnes, as well as four churches, closed. A new parish was established with the remaining five priests and four churches. The priests go to the four churches to say mass.

The future of dioceses is linked to the future of parishes. The Congregation for the Bishops of Rome believes that dioceses with fewer than 100,000 people are not viable.

Eleven dioceses in Ireland have declared Catholic populations below 100,000 while three dioceses – Achonry, Clonfert and Killala – have Catholic populations below 40,000.

In November 2021, the Vatican decided that Galway and Clonfert would share a bishop in the future.

Meanwhile, the sheer size of Dublin, where 1.2million people identify as Catholic, raises questions. Is it too big for one man?

Former Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin drew a comparison between the Archdiocese of Dublin and local authorities in Dublin. From the point of view of the civil authorities, Dublin has been divided into four: Dublin City, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal and South County, but the Archdiocese remains intact.

Finola Kennedy is an economist and author of the 2011 biography Frank Duff: A Life Story

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