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One bishop, two dioceses: can that work?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 28, 2022

Yesterday’s news included the curious report that in two different cases—one in Ireland, one in Wales—Pope Francis had appointed one bishop to head two separate dioceses. In each case, we are told, the dioceses will remain distinct and autonomous. Over at The Pillar, Ed Condon wonders whether this could be the beginning of a trend, “in the face of declining numbers of clergy and Mass-going Catholics.”

We have already seen several rounds of diocesan “restructuring” campaigns, in which parishes are merged into pastoral cooperatives, with one pastor responsible for two or more churches. The arrangement is far from ideal: the priest is forced to jump from one town to another, and parishioners have to keep track of his movements if they want to know where Mass will be celebrated on a given day. But it beats never having Mass celebrated in the local parish. A part-time priest is better than no priest at all.

At least in theory, the cooperatives allow for parish churches to remain open despite the shortage of both priests and parishioners. No doubt that fact makes the solution attractive to diocesan administrators, who are less likely to face canonical challenges from Catholics protesting the closing of their beloved churches. Moreover—again, at least in theory—the cooperative approach leaves open the possibility that at some future date, when the Church enjoys a new burst of evangelical zeal, the pews are crowded again, and the seminaries are full of young candidates for the priesthood, those churches could become healthy independent parishes once again. That option would be foreclosed if the churches were closed down entirely, and the properties sold off to developers to be remodeled into condos.

Does the same logic apply to dioceses? There might be economies of scale, if—if!—diocesan bureaucracies could be streamlined. But that doesn’t necessarily happen, when one bishop presides over two diocesan staffs. In practice the bishop might need more help to handle the details of administering two dioceses.

More importantly, I question whether a bishop, charged with the responsibility for handling two dioceses, could be close enough to his people—close enough to have “the smell of the sheep” that Pope Francis wants. Or to look at the same question from the other perspective, would the faithful of the dioceses have sufficient opportunity to become acquainted with their shepherd?

Even now, faithful Catholics find it difficult to arrange a meeting with their bishops. Prelates sometimes complain that they are often ambushed at funerals or Confirmations, by parishioners who have some axe to grind: a complaint about some diocesan policy, or some unpopular priest. It’s true that celebrations and ceremonies are not the appropriate occasions for raising these concerns. But how many of these concerned Catholics have been unable to schedule an appointment with the bishop? How many have been frustrated by the diocesan gatekeepers, or received pro forma responses from the bishop’s aides?

Diocesan bishops are often asked to serve temporarily as administrators of neighboring dioceses, after the death or resignation of another bishop. But the role of a temporary administrator is quite different from that of a permanent bishop. A bishop’s relationship with the people of his diocese is like that of a father with his children. Under special circumstances a father might take another family into his household. But it’s not reasonable to ask a father to head two separate families. By the same logic it might be necessary in some cases to merge two dioceses into one, but I cannot believe that it is desirable to ask one bishop to preside over two dioceses.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 28, 2022 10:47 PM ET USA

    Growth of diocesan bureaucracies would be disastrous side effect if this kind of trend spreads. Perhaps the underlying idea is to have as like-minded bishops as possible to run the whole Church? And that goal would necessarily lead to having fewer bishops. Bishop Daniel Torres was suddenly removed last month from his diocese for "not having been in sufficient communion with other bishops of Puerto Rico" Groupthink appears to be the most essential virtue on the Left. Both political and religious.