Synodal boundaries for dioceses?

Below I am reposting an article I wrote for the old CathNews CathBlog in 2011 on the issue of the size of Melbourne Archdiocese in particular and the failure to heed an exhortation from the Vatican II to review its boundaries.

What I did not realise at the time was that the Vatican request was based on the Vatican II Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops, Christus Dominus, which calls in §22 for diocesan boundaries to be revised in order to make them of a more humanly governable size.

The extent of the diocese and the number of its inhabitants should generally be such that, on the one hand, the bishop himself – even though assisted by others-can officiate at pontifical functions, make pastoral visitations, faithfully direct and coordinate all the works of the apostolate in the diocese and know well especially his priests, and also the religious and lay people who are engaged in diocesan projects.

Fourteen years later, nothing has changed! It’s another example of not only the Vatican but also many dioceses around the world failing to heed the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

In this instance, it’s an issue directly relevant to the development of a more synodal church in which the bishop remains in direct contact not only with his priests but also with religious and lay people involved in the work of the diocese.

Time for another look at this issue, I think!

The excellent proposal to change the boundaries of the Wilcannia-Forbes and neighbouring dioceses reminds me of a possibly apocryphal story that I once heard from a group of priests who recounted how Rome had proposed to divide the Archdiocese of Melbourne into several smaller dioceses.

According to the story, the archbishop of the time wrote back saying asking the Vatican authorities to share their experience of how they were transforming the massive Diocese of Rome.

In other words, don’t tell us to do here what you are not prepared to do there. It must have been an effective reply because Melbourne still reigns as the “largest archdiocese” (not diocese) in Australia!

In fact, the Melbourne Archdiocese stretches from west of Geelong well into Gippsland in the east and up to the Great Dividing Range in the north. That probably made sense in 1876 when Ballarat and Sandhurst which were created in 1874 or when Sale was hived off two years later, the last time Melbourne was split.


But how much sense does it make today to find that Berwick, now an outer southern-suburb of Melbourne, still belongs to Sale which is centred on the town of that name 170 km further east?

Moreover, why is Geelong a major regional city with its own dynamic as the gateway to the “Surf Coast” and western district of Victoria still a part of Melbourne?

Some may respond that Melbourne has regional bishops but there are currently only two regional bishops (Bishop Long for the west and Bishop Elliott for the south) after Bishops Costelloe and Tomlinson were recently transferred.

And even if we can have regional bishops, the question has to be asked, why can’t they be bishops of their own dioceses? Surely that would be more satisfactory in ecclesiological and theological terms.

For example, I have long thought it highly significant that the bishop for the western region, which includes Geelong, has his base in Kingsville, which if you look at a Google map is only a few minutes from the centre of Melbourne over the Westgate bridge.

And that’s the issue. Rather than acting as a true pastor of his own region or diocese, the regional bishop finishes as little more than a relay point for the Archdiocese.

I hasten to add though that none of this is a criticism of the many bishops who have worked their hearts out for Melbourne’s regions over several decades.

Indeed, a similar argument could be made for Brisbane which has not been subdivided since it gave up Toowoomba in 1929. For example, the Gold Coast already has a population of over 500,000 and this is projected to rise to 730,000 by 2026.

Elsewhere, one might ask what sense it makes that Uluru forms part of the Port Pirie diocese? Why not create a diocese centred on Alice Springs, for example?

As my opening anecdote indicates, I don’t think we can blame Rome for the inertia on making changes in Australia. If we look overseas, we can find many examples of major world cities that have taken the plunge.

In the developing world, Brazil’s Sao Paulo has given birth to a whopping sixteen new dioceses since 1892. In Asia, Manila has fostered five new dioceses over the last ten years. Meanwhile, historical Paris, which traces its roots to the third century, has generated three new dioceses since 1966.

True, Brazil, the Philippines and France are at least nominally “Catholic” countries. But we also have our own Australian example of Sydney.

Personally, I think that the western Sydney diocese should have been based at Blacktown rather than Parramatta. I even seem to recall that Bishop Bede Heather was himself based there prior to the establishment of Parramatta diocese in 1986. The AFL’s choice of Blacktown as the seat of its Greater Western Sydney team illustrates the foresight of Bishop Heather. Still at least a choice was made and historical inertia did not win out.

Since we are speaking of the Catholic Church, it is also worth considering the relevance of Pope Pius XI’s famous “principle of subsidiarity”.

One aspect of this principle was expressed in the dictum that “higher/larger body should not usurp tasks which can be performed successfully by lower/smaller bodies”. Applied to the Melbourne context, one might say that the archdiocese ought not to usurp functions that could be performed by the regions transformed into dioceses.

I know there are some theologians who manage to conclude that the principle of subsidiarity does not apply to the Church. But Pope Pius XII had no doubts.

In 1946, he characterised the Quadragesimo Anno account of the principle of subsidiarity as “luminous words” that are “applicable to social life in all its degrees and also to the life of the Church, without prejudice to its hierarchical structure”.

It is hard to imagine how the creation of new dioceses and/or bishops could cause any prejudice to the Church’s hierarchical structure.

Moreover, with the Victorian Government about to embark on a full scale enquiry into the clerical abuse scandal, surely it is worth at least raising the question as to whether dioceses of smaller and more manageable size might not offer a greater possibility of better supervision?

In any event, let’s hope that the Wilcannia-Forbes initiative might awaken some new thinking on how the Australian Catholic Church could be better re-organised for the 21st century.

Stefan Gigacz

Originally published on CathNews CathBlog in 2011.