When Can a Church be Used for Non-Liturgical Events?

Q: There are things taking place in the “sanctuary” of my parish church that I feel are inappropriate… and not in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The modern worship space was built in the early 1990s….  The worship space, because it is so open, is used as an auditorium for various parish activities.  The “sanctuary” is made into a stage where the Fall Festival talent show and drawing for prizes are done, and Vacation Bible School large group activities are held each summer.  There are also monthly concerts put on by the parish music director performed in the worship space.  The altar is pushed to the back wall, along with the crucifix, and ambo.

I sent a letter to the Archbishop… as of today, I have not received a response.  Is there something in Canon Law that says that the sanctuary is a sacred place because that is where Holy Mass is celebrated and the bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ?  It concerns me that there is little reverence shown for what is supposed to be a holy place. –Eileen

A: One frequently encounters parish churches which play host to social events that can hardly be described as liturgical.  Sometimes, it seems that this practice may be an indirect result of modern church architecture, with a chapel for the Blessed Sacrament that is separate from the church itself, which is often then referred to as a “worship space.”  This type of arrangement can tend to lead to a diminution of the sense of the sacred in the main area of the church—which is, despite its contemporary architecture, still a consecrated Catholic church.

Older/more traditional parish churches, however, can also fall prey to the same sorts of issues—particularly when it comes to musical concerts, which are often held in the church proper because of its fine acoustics.  And any sort of church building, old or new, can seem the ideal location for all manner of social events involving large crowds of people, simply because of its large size.

But is any of this permitted under canon law?  Let’s see what the law tells us about Catholic church buildings, and what may—and may not—take place in them.

First of all, canon 1205 defines a term that is directly relevant to this question: sacred place.  Sacred places are those places which are intended for (1) divine worship, or (2) the burial of the faithful, and are specifically designated for this by the blessing or dedication that is prescribed in the liturgical books.  In a typical parish church like Eileen’s, a special liturgical ceremony was held back when it was first built, specifically consecrating the building for divine worship.  Thus Eileen’s church is a sacred place—and so all the canons pertaining to sacred places are to be applied to her parish church.  They include canon 1210, which holds the answers to Eileen’s questions.

Canon 1210 tells us that in a sacred place, only those things are to be allowed which serve to exercise or promote worship, piety, and religion.  The canon further explains that anything out of harmony with the holiness of the place is forbidden—but the bishop can, in individual cases, permit other uses, so long as they are not contrary to the sacred character of the place.  There’s quite a lot going on in this canon, so let’s take it apart and examine each piece.

Firstly, a sacred place (as defined in canon 1205) is supposed to be used for sacred things.  There’s nothing earth-shattering about this: a parish church is, by its very nature, intended to be used for Masses and other liturgical events like baptisms, confessions, weddings (which, as we saw in “When Can You Have a Catholic Wedding Without a Mass?” don’t always involve a Mass), Eucharistic adoration, recitation of the rosary, etc.  The same can of course be said of chapels and oratories (see “Is Every Catholic Church a Parish?” for more on this).  Catholic cemeteries are sacred places too, as is also mentioned in canon 1205, and their specific purpose is obviously to provide a resting-place for the remains of deceased Catholics.  These usages, therefore, are the norm.

But canon 1210 speaks in broader terms than these, because it tells us that events “which serve to exercise or promote worship, piety, and religion” are permitted in sacred places.  There are definitely occasions where the interpretation of this phrase can get tricky—but in general, it’s safe to assume that such things could include (among many, many other things) concerts of sacred music, if they are intended for spiritual edification; or perhaps lectures by someone describing his conversion to the faith or his missionary work, or encouraging the parish youth to consider a religious vocation.

Events like these are not of course “liturgical,” in the strict sense of the term; but assuming that their purpose is to “promote worship, piety, and religion,” canon 1210 permits them to be held in sacred places.  These sorts of things can thus take place in the parish church without obtaining permission from the diocesan bishop.

But other events can often be a bit harder to pigeon-hole.  What about graduation exercises for the parish-school students?  A graduation ceremony is, by definition, an entirely secular affair; but at a Catholic school it normally includes prayers and a final blessing, and often a priest, religious, or other Catholic leader might give an address to the graduates which could easily amount to a spiritual sermon.  If the graduation exercises are designed to emphasize the need for young Catholics to actively live their faith in the world today, or the importance of making sound moral choices in their lives to come, it’s easy to see that they can “promote worship, piety, and religion.”  But if this is less than clear, the canon requires that the local bishop first give his permission for the church to be used for such a purpose.

There are also plenty of other occasions when some might feel it would be awfully convenient to be able to use the parish church—but the law clearly forbids it altogether.  A dance recital, a rock concert, a school play on an entirely secular subject… these sorts of events cannot be held in church, period.  They are, to quote canon 1210, contrary to the sacred character of the place; and therefore not even the diocesan bishop can grant permission for them to be held in a sacred place like a parish church.

On paper, canon 1210 seems quite clear—but in real life, there’s a lot of gray area.  That’s why in 1987, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) clarified the issue even further, by sending a letter to the presidents of all episcopal conferences and national liturgical commissions worldwide (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what an episcopal conference is).  The letter—which can be read here in English, starting on page 3 of the original text (page 10 of the electronic file) —focused particularly on “Concerts in Churches”; but it provides a lot of useful, general guidance on what is/isn’t permitted to take place in church, and it reaffirms the abovementioned reasons why/why not:

Churches… cannot be considered simply as public places for any kind of meeting.  They are sacred places, that is, “set apart” in a permanent way for Divine Worship by their dedication and blessing. (5)

When churches are used for ends other than those for which they were built, their role as a sign of the Christian mystery is put at risk, with more or less serious harm to the teaching of the faith and to the sensitivity of the People of God, according to the Lord’s words: “My house is a house of prayer” (Luke 19:46). (5)

The CDW’s letter rightly points out that classical music isn’t necessarily sacred music—although it might be.  The original purpose of the music and the intent of its composer are directly relevant.  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, for example, would thus be suitable for a performance in church; his Paris Symphony would not:

The principle that the use of the church must not offend the sacredness of the place determines the criteria by which the doors of a church may be opened to a concert… the most beautiful symphonic music, for example, is not in itself of religious character.  The definition of sacred or religious music depends explicitly on the original intended use of the musical pieces or songs, and likewise on their content.  It is not legitimate to provide for the execution in the church of music which is not of religious inspiration and which was composed with a view to performance in a certain precise secular context… (8)

The letter strives to emphasize that a church should always be seen first and foremost as a place of worship—and therefore it should be clear to everyone (Catholic or not!) that any other use to which it might be put is secondary and incidental.  Therefore it’s only logical that, in keeping with canon 1210’s reference to “individual cases,” using a church for non-worship on any sort of regular, recurring basis is not allowed:

When the proposal is made that there should be a concert in a church… these concerts should be occasional events.  This excludes permission for a series of concerts, for example in the case of a Festival or a cycle of concerts. (10)

And when the church building is used for a concert or other, approved non-liturgical purpose, care is to be taken that nobody—including both the presenters and the audience—ever loses sight of the fact that this is indeed a church building:

In order that the sacred character of a church be conserved in the matter of concerts, the Ordinary [who has given permission for a concert to be held in church] can specify that:
…Entrance to the church must be without payment and open to all.
The performers and the audience must be dressed in a manner which is fitting to the sacred character of the place.
The musicians and the singers should not be placed in the sanctuary.  The greatest respect is to be shown to the altar, the presider’s chair and the ambo.
The Blessed Sacrament should be, as far as possible, reserved in a side chapel or in another safe and suitably adorned place (cf. c. 938.4). (10)

Now that we’ve seen the Church’s rules on this subject, it should be easy to assess the events that Eileen says take place in her parish church.  It is never permissible for “the Fall Festival talent show and drawing for prizes” to be held in church, and “Vacation Bible School large group activities” cannot be held there either.  Since these events are “contrary to the sacred character of the place,” not even the diocesan bishop can grant permission for them to take place in church.  One gets the unmistakable impression that at Eileen’s parish, the church building is being used for these things simply because it’s the largest indoor space available—but that is absolutely no justification for these usages.  It sounds like what is happening with the parish church is exactly what both the Code of Canon Law and the CDW letter tell us is to be avoided.

Similarly, when “the altar is pushed to the back wall, along with the crucifix, and ambo,” as Eileen describes it, this sends a clear message to everyone attending these events that the importance of these sacred objects is secondary to the talent show, prize drawings, and activities for the summer bible school.  This is, once again, diametrically opposed to the CDW’s letter, which (as we have just seen above) explicitly mandates that “the greatest respect is to be shown to the altar, the presider’s chair and the ambo.”

It seems painfully clear that Eileen’s church is, as the CDW letter puts it, being “considered simply as [a] public place for any kind of meeting,” in complete violation of the law—and this abuse needs to stop.  So when Eileen wrote to her bishop about these things, why didn’t he respond?

It was possible to see exactly what Eileen told the bishop in that unanswered letter, because she submitted a copy of it together with her question.  Unfortunately, her very valid concerns were explained far less succinctly in the letter, and were buried among many other complaints which were unrelated and far more minor.  One wonders whether a hurried bishop would even have noticed the critical issues (on my first read-through, I myself missed them completely!).  It could very well be that we have here another example of a letter to a bishop that received no response, because it was not sufficiently clear and to-the-point—a problem that was discussed in “How Can You Tell a Real Catholic Monastery From a Fake?

If Eileen were to write another letter, describing the issues as unambiguously as she did in her email, it’s hard to imagine that it would be ignored—because the violations it describes are so blatant.  But if the unimaginable did happen, and Eileen’s bishop chose to disregard these serious abuses, the appropriate next step would be to take it to Rome.

As we’ve just seen, there are lots of special occasions when a sacred place like a church building can be used for non-liturgical purposes.  But there are set parameters for what is acceptable and what isn’t—and Eileen’s parish has clearly crossed the line.

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