Vatican Conference Grapples With Issue of Decommissioning Churches

The conference aimed to develop ‘best practices’ for addressing the touchy question of how to handle the growing number of closed churches and sacred places.

A view of the chapel of the former Ospedali Riuniti Hospital in the middle of a construction site, where a new Guardia di Finanza Police Academy is being built. The empty Catholic church was put up for sale. The seller assumed that the Romanian Orthodox community, which has been using it on loan for years, would secure the church. At the last moment, however, the Association of Muslims in Bergamo bought the sacred space.
A view of the chapel of the former Ospedali Riuniti Hospital in the middle of a construction site, where a new Guardia di Finanza Police Academy is being built. The empty Catholic church was put up for sale. The seller assumed that the Romanian Orthodox community, which has been using it on loan for years, would secure the church. At the last moment, however, the Association of Muslims in Bergamo bought the sacred space. (photo: Alvise Armellini/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

VATICAN CITY — As secularism spreads in the West, the number of churchgoing faithful dwindle, and diocesan funds dry up due to sex-abuse claims and other causes, what should be done with the consequent effect of an ever-increasing number of closed churches and sacred places?

This was the subject of a Nov. 29-30 Rome conference that brought together bishops and specialists from 23 European countries and some from North America and Oceania.

The conference, entitled, “Doesn’t God Dwell Here Anymore? Decommissioning Places of Worship and Integrated Management of Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage,” was co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Italian bishops’ conference.

Explaining the extent of the problem, Father Paweł Malecha of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest judicial authority, noted that since the year 2000, more than 500 Catholic churches have closed in Germany, a third of which were demolished, while the remainder were sold or used for other purposes. Meanwhile, more than 500 churches will close in the Netherlands over the next decade. 

“Many adverse cases of closure are arriving at the Signatura, which suggests that the phenomenon is spreading,” Father Malecha said.

According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of parishes in the United States fell sharply from 2000 to 2017, from 19,236 to 17,156, a drop of 2,080, compared to a decline of just eight parishes from 1985 to 2000.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, told the conference that the issue represents a “serious challenge,” adding that a distinction has to be made between churches and other ecclesiastical structures.

“A key consideration” is the use of these buildings, he said, which should “take into account the diversity of individual countries.”

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told the Register Dec. 6 the Vatican has been “working to avoid the abandonment or decommissioning of churches.” The conference was aimed at helping discover “real, adequate solutions and sharing best practices,” he said.


Unstoppable ‘Wave’?

Attending the conference from the United States was Patrick Hayes, an archivist for the Redemptorists in Philadelphia and a board member of the American Catholic Historical Society.

He told the Register the deconsecration and decommissioning of churches is happening with “vigor” and that there’s “no drawing back from it.” It’s a “wave that just can’t be stopped,” he said.

If no one is using a church for sacred services anymore, then it has become an “object just taking up space,” he said. “That’s to be lamented, but it’s a reality,” he continued, and he noted there “wasn’t much of a pushback against it” at the conference, but it was “sort of accepted.”

Brody Hale, an American independent consultor on church preservation who also attended the conference, said he found the event “disappointing,” due to a lack of emphasis on what is being done to “actually save closed churches as sacred spaces.”

As a lawyer who has assisted parishioners on a pro bono basis to save churches across the United States, Hale said he was saddened the conference was more focused on viewing churches “as places of museums or places of art” and their “secular aspects,” rather than on the “sacredness of Catholic places of worship,” which, he said, canon law emphasizes are “sacred spaces.”

Hale said he was concerned that some Church leaders seemed to have lost a “sense of the sacred” and was saddened to learn from many conference delegates that a large number of people are today thinking about “turning a church into a museum or a concert venue,” but they are not thinking enough “on how to keep it a church.”


Pope Francis

In his message to the conference, Pope Francis stressed that ecclesiastical cultural assets are “witnesses to the faith of the community that has produced them over the centuries, and for this reason they are in their own way instruments of evangelization that accompany the usual tools of proclamation, preaching and catechesis.”

In further comments, the Pope said the perception that “many churches” are no longer seen as necessary — either due to a “lack of faithful and clergy” or population shifts — “should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt.”

But the Pope also said that decommissioning “must not be the first and only solution to be considered, nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful.” If it is deemed necessary, he said it should be part of “ordinary pastoral planning,” carried out with “adequate information,” and be a “shared decision, as far as possible.”

Hale, who has been advising on church preservation since 2011, said “many aspects” are related to why churches close or are threatened with closure, but what disturbed him most at the conference was how few delegates had asked themselves why the phenomenon was happening in the first place and what those “signs of the times” that the Pope had mentioned were signifying.

“Is there something deeper at play here? I’m pretty sure there is,” Hale said. “I would say we’ve fallen away from adherence to true Catholicism.”

Hayes said he did not think the Pope’s comments meant that the Holy Father was “throwing in the towel,” but that it is a “matter of making the best out of a bad situation.” He said the Pope’s message was “actually helpful in some respects,” as he “tried to stress how important it is to be sensitive to the place where liturgy took place,” that the “sacral character is important to our community,” and that all care is taken “to try and honor that memory.”


Solutions Are Possible

Hale, whose own parish church closed and was turned into an art gallery, also appreciated such a perspective. Church closings can be “traumatic,” he said, but a turnaround can happen if all is not reduced to the “secular realm” and instead bishops and lay faithful “grasp the importance of the sacred.” He said he always tells audiences that churches “are not poker chips in Vegas,” but embody a “sacred and everlasting space” and yet there are bishops who “treat them as something totally different, as something that can be bought and sold.”

He also said parishioners are often totally unaware of their rights or never heard of canon law and don’t know what to do. “They don’t know that they can form groups to save churches,” he said.

Hayes said “it is possible to keep churches open, even older ones, even dilapidated ones, as long as there’s money and a will.”

One reason for selling church property, especially after the sex-abuse scandal in Boston, when many churches were closed in 2004, has been to settle expensive lawsuits. But Hayes was surprised that the scandal was “never brought up in any of the public sessions by anyone” at the conference, despite, in the United States at least, the issue being “the big elephant in the room.”

Part of the reason may have been what Hayes felt was a Eurocentric emphasis at the conference, and he had hoped for a more “global perspective.” In response, Cardinal Ravasi told the Register the conference theme mainly concerned “Europe and the West,” but other “similar meetings are to take place in the future.”


Proper Uses

Also discussed at the conference was the problem of profane use of churches and sacred buildings once they are decommissioned. Numerous cases exist of closed churches being used as nightclubs, restaurants, a mosque or even, in the case of a deconsecrated 12th-century frescoed church in Cascia, Italy, for a pornographic exhibition.

Cardinal Ravasi stressed in a Nov. 28 interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that a former church can be “secularized but not desecrated.” To make it into a pizzeria is blasphemous,” he said, but “it’s okay for it to be a museum or a meeting place on also secular themes and values.”

Hayes pointed out that even though pastors and bishops can and should make every effort to ensure former church property is not abused once sold, canon law has no jurisdiction after that happens. “Civil law takes over,” he said. “There are no guarantees.”

Father Malecha told the conference that as the future of a disused church is “a matter of civil law, so it is important to maintain good relations with the civil authorities.”

Cardinal Ravasi noted his dicastery would be publishing the outcome of the conference in “Guidelines for Decommissioning and Cultural Reuse of Churches,” which was released on its website Dec. 17. The cardinal said the document “was accepted after a synodal process involving experts and European episcopal conferences.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.