Churches in danger of being shut down and sold can be saved, says Brody Hale, but it requires education, more cooperation from Church leaders, and a greater emphasis on the importance of the sacred.

A U.S. independent consulter on church preservation, Hale says there are “many aspects” behind the often-traumatic decommissioning of churches – a phenomenon that has rapidly increased in recent years in the West. 

But he stresses there are ways the faithful can succeed in preserving them against seemingly impossible odds.   

In this Dec. 1 interview with the Register in Rome, Hale, a lawyer who has worked voluntarily to save churches since 2011, explains what can be done, and why it’s vital to have both a thorough examination of why churches are closing and a focus on the sacred rather than the secular. 

Hale was attending a Rome conference at the end of November that looked at the decommissioning of places of worship and managing ecclesiastical cultural heritage (see more on the conference here). 

 

Mr. Hale, what did you think of the conference? What were the highlights and how helpful was it to you and the work that you do in dealing with closed churches?

It was disappointing to see that there is not more being done to actually work to save closed churches as sacred spaces.

I have been working in the U.S. on a pro bono basis, to assist parishioners for many churches across the country to form organizations that would be valid under canon law, to raise the funds necessary to maintain for a parish church, such as a chapel, oratories, or shrines, in order that they could avoid permanent closure.

This conference, to me, seemed more focused upon sort of thinking of churches as places of museums or places of art, or what have you. It looked at all of the secular aspects of churches, rather than the sacred aspects of them, in my opinion. I felt there was not nearly enough emphasis on the sacredness of Catholic places of worship as defined by Canon 1214. That canon makes it clear that they are sacred spaces. There was a great deal of emphasis on secular use, but not enough on the Catholic parts of it, in my opinion.

 

Why do you think that is? Do you think those who were present kind of lost a sense of the sacred aspects of the church?

I think that sense of the sacred has been lost, I won't say by all church leaders, by any means, but I'm afraid some have lost it. Just in speaking with various people that came, tons of people are thinking about how to turn a church into a museum or a concert venue, but not enough thought on how to keep it a church, even if it functions in a different capacity. That's sort of what I do or try to do in the U.S. 

I was speaking to a gentleman from the Netherlands who attended this conference, and he was telling me that they were going to close two-thirds of the churches there. I said, “Why?” He said, “No one is going.” I said, “Have you ever considered why in the last 50 years no one is going?” His response to me was, “No, I've never considered that.” That was what he said. I was simply very, very surprised by that. 

If it's a sign of the times, as the Pope has said it is, what is it signifying? Is there something deeper at play here? I'm pretty sure there is. Personally, I would say that we've fallen away from adherence to true Catholicism, but I tend to be more traditional in my outlook. 

I think there are many, many aspects of this. I stated [at the conference] if I can save 13 churches in the U.S., I'm sure this could be replicated throughout the world. And I intend to do that. I intend to continue to work to assist churches in the U.S. and internationally as well, if there are such times as I'm able to do so.

 

What have you done to achieve that, to keep 13 churches alive?

I basically check Google News every day to look and see which churches are facing closure. If it looks as if there is a group of Catholics able or willing to keep the church but perhaps not quite sure how, I will then go ahead and find their contact information and reach out to them.

I'm fairly well versed in canonically valid alternatives to the closure of a church. You know there are many different ways that a church can exist. Here in Rome we have churches that were never built as parish churches, they were always chapels or shrines or what have you. In America, we have mainly the parish model who are churches who were built specifically and only to serve parishes.

And what I have done is explain to Catholics that a church can exist for other reasons, as a chapel or shrine or something, and basically worked with them to figure out how to raise the funds necessary and set up a group that will perpetually raise the funds necessary to make it possibly for the diocese which owns a church to be relieved of the burden of caring for it.

And where those bishops have agreed, we've had great success. [But in other dioceses] no matter what a parishioner tries to do to save a church, the diocese is diametrically opposed in my opinion to allowing any church to be preserved outside of a parish model… The law will be interpreted in one place in one way and in another, another. There will be, there already is, complete inconsistency in how a church can be saved.

 

And how much of this is to with sexual abuse and having to pay the large payouts? Is that something you've seen too that it's a direct consequence?

I wouldn't be surprised if that is motivating some of this. It's interesting, though, because the Congregation for the Clergy has made clear that a Catholic church should remain a church building if at all possible. It's not supposed to be something sold off. Churches are not poker chip in Vegas.

One other thing that I would say, though, is that I've been in situations where there have been churches in the middle of the countryside that are worth absolutely nothing. And there are some bishops who have still fought tooth and nail to make sure that efforts to preserve them ran into as many obstacles as possible.

 

What are the reasons for that do you think? 

I would love to know. No one will ever say. Control is my suspicion. Perhaps fear. I don't know. It is a very, very significant issue. 

 

What about churches that are misused after they've been deconsecrated? Do you cover that as well?

Yes, it's happened. I mean I've not personally dealt with it, but it has happened a number of times. 

I know of a specific case where there is a group that would like to acquire a closed Catholic church which has been deconsecrated. It could be re-consecrated and they wish to use if for Catholic purposes. The bishop has adamantly refused, and sold the church, without any problem, to be turned into a mosque. 

 

Have you seen the film Foreclosing on Faith which documents church closings in parts of America? 

Yes, it is an excellent film. It captures the issues very, very well. 

It is traumatic. I lost my own church and that's what got me involved in all of this, my own church where so many important things in my own family had happened. It's now an art gallery, that's what it was turned into, which truly disgusts me to be honest with you.

But I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to stop it and it is traumatic and something that I will never fully get over. And that is why, in my own time, I don't charge for this, I don't get paid for this. I have done as much as I can to help other people avoid that same fate.

 

Lastly, what are your hopes for the future in this regard? Do you think there can be a turnaround, a kind of effective resistance to this?

I think that there can absolutely be a turnaround. I think there are parishioners and Catholics who would be very interested in doing a lot more to keep churches Catholic [but] they don't know what to do. Many of the Catholics I speak to in America have never even heard of canon law. They don't know anything about their rights, their alternatives. They don't know that they can form groups to save churches.

So I think what it will take is more education, more cooperation from Church leaders, and the Vatican finding again a way to emphasize and to grasp the importance of the sacred — the “sacred” in sacred space, and that's the key word with regard to these churches.

If we keep talking about secular questions and reducing all of this to the secular realm I'm not optimistic at all. I think there is a great, untapped reserve of interest out there to keep these churches Catholic and, quite honestly, I believe that these historic churches are an integral part of the new evangelization.