Canon Law and Closing a Parish

Q:  The church I was baptized and confirmed in back home is closing down due to lack of attendance.  What happens to the artifacts and all the official records when that happens? It makes me sad.  I loved my parish… –Donna

A:  There are lots of different reasons why a Catholic church building would be closed down.  For one thing, it might have been so seriously damaged by fire, flood, or tornado that it’s impossible to repair.  Or the church might be so old and decrepit that it is now structurally unsound, and in such cases it’s often much easier to demolish it and build anew.  Alternately, sometimes a parish has grown so much that the original church building is simply too small, and so it’s necessary to erect a larger one in its place.

But from the sound of things, there’s more going on in this case than “just” closing a Catholic church.  What appears to be happening here is that the diocesan bishop is closing down an entire parish—which isn’t exactly the same thing, and is more complicated. Closing the church building is of course a part of closing a parish, but it’s only one part.  Let’s take a look at how it works.

As was discussed in “Can Our Pastor Kick Us Out of the Parish?” parishes are as a rule territorial (c. 518).  Your membership in a parish, in other words, depends ordinarily on where you live.  Every diocese is divided into parishes (c. 374.1), and only the diocesan bishop himself has the authority to establish them (c. 515.2).

Normally, the bishop determines the boundaries of a parish based on the size of the Catholic population, but the number of priests in the diocese is also an important factor.  It makes little practical sense to (let’s say) create a parish that has only a dozen Catholics residing in its territory, or to establish 200 parishes in a diocese that has only 20 priests.  For these reasons, bishops often have to do a sort of balancing-act: if either the demographics of an area or the number of available diocesan clergy changes significantly, the bishop may reasonably conclude that parish boundaries need to be redrawn.  Donna references “a lack of attendance” at her old parish church, which in this particular case was caused by a gradual decline in the Catholic population within its territorial boundaries.  The bishop has therefore concluded that the parish should be eliminated entirely.

In this sort of situation, one of the most important issues has nothing to do with the actual church building itself: the bishop must redraw the boundaries of the parishes of his diocese, incorporating every bit of the territory of the eliminated parish into the neighboring parish(es).  Let’s imagine that St. William’s parish is bordered on the north and east by the parish of Our Lady of Fatima, while to the south and west it abuts St. Lucy’s.  And let’s say that Bishop X has determined that St. William’s parish has to be closed, because there are now too few Catholics living in its territory and (among other things) their financial donations are inadequate to cover the costs of operating the parish.

Depending on the size, shape, and population of the parish of St. William, Bishop X might decide to divide its territory between Our Lady of Fatima’s and St. Lucy’s parishes.  Or it might make sense to attach the entire territory to the parish of St. Lucy, if perhaps the size of that parish is dwindling too.  There are, in theory, numerous possibilities—and the final decision belongs to the bishop.  But there’s one canonical requirement which has no flexibility whatsoever: leaving the Catholics who live in the territory of St. William’s out in the cold, and closing their parish without including them in another one, is never an option.

As Donna rightly mentions, closing a parish also requires attention to the preservation of its records.  Canon 535.1 requires that every parish maintain baptismal, marriage, and death registers; and these records have to be carefully conserved somewhere.  Usually the bishop will state in writing, when he officially redraws parish boundaries, that the sacramental registers of a parish that he is closing will henceforth be kept at a parish that is subsuming some or all of the closed parish’s territory.  In the imaginary example described above, Bishop X might declare that the registers from St. William’s will from now on be preserved at St. Lucy’s.  It’s critical for the former parishioners of St. William’s to know this—because in the future, they might need to request copies of their own records, and they obviously have to know where they are.

It goes without saying that any clergy assigned to a parish which a bishop is closing must be reassigned.  It sometimes happens that a bishop will wait until the current pastor retires before closing a parish, in which case this can end up being a non-issue.

As for the closing of the parish church building itself, what’s required will depend on the particular situation.  We already saw above that there are a number of reasons why a parish church might be torn down, which don’t involve the closing of the entire parish.  If, for example, the diocesan bishop has approved that a parish church be torn down and replaced by a new one, what happens can be pretty straightforward: items which have been blessed and/or dedicated to sacred use will presumably be removed from the old church and inserted into the new one.

So what objects in a church have been blessed or dedicated?  The blessing/dedication of a building or an item intended for sacred use is more a liturgical matter than a canonical one, but the code does give us at least some basic rules.  A building (ordinarily a church) that is to be used for divine worship is to be dedicated by the diocesan bishop, with the liturgical rite specifically designed for this purpose (cc. 1205-1206).  A Catholic church is supposed to have at least one altar which is fixed, as opposed to a moveable/portable one (c. 1235), and this fixed altar is likewise to be dedicated, and the relics of saints are to be placed beneath it (c. 1237; cf. also c. 932.2 and see “Canon Law and the Private Ownership of Relics (Part I)” for more on this).  Note that in current law and liturgical rites, the term dedication has replaced the word consecration that was used in the past, but the theological concept is the same.

So if churches and fixed altars have to be dedicated by the bishop with a liturgical rite, how do they lose that dedication?  In the case of a church building, there is no specific ceremony involved: canon 1212 tells us that sacred places lose their dedication if (a) they have been largely destroyed (e.g. by fire or flood), or (b) if the diocesan bishop has decreed that the church building is no longer going to be used as such.

But dedicated altars are a bit different, and the rules might best be illustrated by a concrete example.  Imagine that a Catholic parish church containing one fixed altar has been horribly damaged by an earthquake, and cannot be repaired.  If the altar itself has also been significantly damaged and can no longer be used as such, canon law tells us that it thereby loses its dedication (c. 1238.1).  If, however, the altar is useable and is eventually transferred to a new church, it does not need to be dedicated again, as its original dedication was not lost (c. 1238.2).

There are, of course, plenty of other items in a Catholic church building which have been blessed for exclusive use at Mass and other liturgical events, objects like chalices/patens, crucifixes, etc.  Canon 1171 states that such sacred objects are not to be made over to secular or inappropriate use, even if they come into the possession of private individuals.  So, for example, it’s possible that a ciborium (the covered, chalice-like object which contains the Eucharist inside the tabernacle) might eventually end up in the hands of a private person, either cleric or lay, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with this fact.  But it would be very wrong for the private person to use it as a flower-pot or candy jar—and yes, incredibly, this has actually happened.

That said, the law is more rigorous when it comes to items which have special value because they are artistically or historically significant: canon 1292.2 asserts that such items cannot be sold/given away without first obtaining permission from the Holy See.  Thus the bishop of Assisi, Italy, cannot unilaterally decide to remove from his cathedral the baptismal font (seen here) where both St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized in the 13th century.  Likewise, Rome would have to approve any decision by the bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, to sell or otherwise transfer any of the priceless Rubens paintings which hang over several of the altars in his cathedral there.  (Rest assured that in any case, neither scenario is going to happen any time soon.)

For the record, there is no question that when the contents of a church that is closing down are transferred/sold to other parish churches or other dioceses, or even (with regard to unblessed items) to the highest bidder, there is unfortunately a lot of room for abuse.  Years ago, a now-deceased parish priest described to me the closing of a large parish in his diocese.  “I have asked around, and nobody knows what happened to the bronze bells [in the steeple]!” he said.  “They weren’t transferred to another church in the diocese, and there’s no record of their sale … they were worth a fortune!”  Although it is highly unlikely that the diocesan bishop personally oversees the closing and dismantling of a parish church himself, ultimately the responsibility for the proper carrying out of the process rests with him.

Let’s return now to Donna’s specific case, which involves the closing of a parish and the parish church.  Since the parish boundaries will be redrawn so that the people of the former parish are now included in a new one(s), it’s very probable that moveable items that are blessed specifically for liturgical use will simply be taken over to the new parish(es), and used there.  There is normally no need for buying or selling in this case.

The fate of larger items which by their nature have not been blessed—like the pews, the organ, the light fixtures and stained-glass windows—will have to be determined.  If they can be used by another parish in the same diocese, that’s great, and in that case it’s also a relatively simple administrative matter to transfer them there.  Otherwise, they ideally can be sold or donated to another Catholic church in a different diocese.  Here’s an example of a new parish church in a US diocese, which was constructed using sacred furnishings from a church that was closing in another diocese.

All this being said, it does sometimes happen that a diocesan bishop eliminates a parish by redrawing the territorial boundaries, but doesn’t do a thing to close the church.  It may be that the church is in perfect condition and is particularly lovely, so it may be designated a chapel attached to another parish.  Let’s return to our imaginary scenario above, and say that St. William’s parish is closing, but St. William’s church is going to be left as-is, and the land where it is located is now going to be part of the parish of Our Lady of Fatima.  The church might perhaps be designated a chapel (since it isn’t a parish church any more, right?), and used for weddings, weekday Masses, and/or the Masses attended by the children of the parish school.  An arrangement of this sort of course presumes that the newly redrawn parish of Our Lady of Fatima will be financially able to support the maintenance of both its parish church and the chapel.

By now we can see that there are quite a few possible reasons for closing a church, and the fate of its contents will depend on the situation.  But a couple of things should be safely assumed: (1) if the parish itself is closing too, the territory will be included in one or more other parishes nearby, so that no Catholic of the diocese will ever be left living outside of a parish; and (2) dedicated altars and other blessed, sacred items for liturgical use are ideally going to be taken to another church, or at the very least will not be used inappropriately.

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