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Downsizing won't save the Irish hierarchy

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 23, 2011

According to the Irish Catholic, the Vatican is considering a radical reform of the Irish hierarchy, perhaps calling for the elimination of half of the country’s 26 dioceses. George Weigel applauds the idea. I don't understand.

The need for some sort of reform in the Irish Church is quite clear. Mass attendance is down, Catholic influence is down, the faith is sinking into desuetude. In what was quite recently a very Catholic country, hostility toward the faith is becoming the norm. As I told an audience in Dublin last year, in watching the collapse of Irish Catholicism from a distance, I have often thought that I was watching a speeded-up replay of the disaster that unfolded in my native Boston: a sad story that I recounted in The Faithful Departed.

The Irish bishops have proven unable to respond to this crisis. Indeed, since the onset of the sex-abuse scandal, the Irish hierarchy has been spectacularly tongue-tied, unable to offer any explanation or encouragement to the faithful. So if you propose to remove many Irish bishops, and replace them with more vigorous leaders, I shall applaud. But why eliminate their dioceses?

My friend George Weigel argues that the size of the Irish hierarchy reflects “an overgrowth that has, over time, become an impediment to the Church’s mission.” Maybe it has. Maybe the sheer size of the episcopal bureaucracy discourages any real effective action. But the proposition is not self-evident.

Couldn’t an argument be made in exactly the opposite direction? By increasing the number of dioceses—expanding the episcopal pool—don’t you increase the odds that one strong leader will emerge somewhere, to take appropriate action in a time of crisis? (Unfortunately, I look in vain for a single Irish prelate who could serve as an example to illustrate my point.)

The proliferation of dioceses also brings bishops closer to their people, and thus (in theory, at least) more accountable to them. In Ireland an ordinary Catholic might run into his bishop having lunch at the local pub, and strike up a conversation, whereas in the US a faithful parishioner often must wait for weeks for an opportunity to speak with his diocesan ordinary.

Now in fact the Irish hierarchy has not responded to the needs of the faithful. So I will concede that having an unusual number of diocesan bishops is not a solution to the problems of the Irish Church. But is it the cause of those problems? I doubt it.

The fundamental cause, I suspect, is not the number of bishops but the selection of bishops. The hierarchy in Ireland (and not just in Ireland) has been filled with prelates who are inclined to defend the episcopal “club” rather than the institutional Church—to serve the needs of the chanceries rather than those of the People of God. Pare the size of the irish hierarchy, but fill its ranks with the same sort of clerics, and the decline of the Church will continue. Find the right leaders for the Church—bishops who think of themselves as pastors rather than administrators, and evangelists rather than fundraisers—and Irish Catholicism will soon be on the road to recovery.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 28, 2011 1:09 PM ET USA

    Reminds me of my Dad's observation that he lost a nickel on every unit the company sold, but they made it up in volume.

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