Q: Peace! Lately, members of a local sect had posted online their acquisitions of supposed Catholic parishes in the US and UK. I wonder if that is canonically lawful, selling Parish Churches especially to sects? —Chadwick
A: In “Canon Law and Closing a Parish,” we looked at some of the possible scenarios that can play out when a diocesan bishop decides that a parish has to be eliminated. Sometimes—but as we saw, not always!—the closing down of an entire parish also brings with it the closing of the parish church.
If a parish is closed, and its parish church building is old and dilapidated, it may make practical sense simply to tear it down. On the other hand, if the parish church is in fine condition, it might be put to continued use within its new parish: as we saw in the abovementioned article, once the parish boundaries have been redrawn by the bishop, the church of the closed parish will now by default be standing within the territory of another parish—and it might conceivably become a chapel, perhaps for daily Masses or weddings. This presumes, of course, that the parish within which it is now located can afford to maintain it.
As sad as it may be for long-time members of the closed parish, it frequently happens that the current parish simply cannot afford to maintain two church buildings, and/or it may have no justification for holding onto the second one. If the closed church’s structure is sound, it would make little sense to demolish it—and so the diocesan bishop may conclude that it should be sold.
So if the bishop decides to sell a former parish church, how is that supposed to work?
Such situations are addressed by canon 1222.2, which speaks of a church that will no longer be used for divine worship. There are quite a few components to this canon, so let’s take it apart and look at each one separately.
First of all, the canon states that there must be “grave reasons” for relegating a Catholic church to a use other than the divine worship for which it was built. The phrase is obviously subject to interpretation; but at a minimum it should be clear that a diocesan bishop cannot randomly decide on a whim that he’s going to close a church and sell it off. “Grave reasons” might include the financial impossibility of maintaining a church that is no longer a parish, and/or the fact that there genuinely is no longer any need for it. By way of contrast, it would be difficult to argue that selling a church building to real-estate developers, simply because the land it sits on is very valuable and the diocese will make a fortune from the sale, constitutes a “grave reason” justifying the act.
Secondly, the canon mentions that the diocesan bishop must hear the presbyteral council. The existence and make-up of a presbyteral council (also known as a council of priests) is described in canons 495-501: in a nutshell, it consists of a group of diocesan priests, who are obliged on specific occasions to assist the bishop with their input. Note that in this particular case, when the bishop wants to unload a church building, canon 1222.2 tells us that the bishop must “hear” the council. This verb is significant, as it indicates that the opinion of the priests on the diocesan presbyteral council must be sought, and the bishop is required to listen—but ultimately, the council’s opinion is not binding, and the bishop alone makes the final decision.
So, to invent an imaginary example, let’s say that a bishop has only had the care of his diocese for a year or two; and some member of the presbyteral council, who has been a priest of the diocese for 50 years, might point out that the church in question is the oldest one in the diocese, and thus has some historical value which perhaps the bishop knows nothing about. Or maybe a priest on the council could object that this will be the third church which has been shuttered and sold off within the past five years—and he might know personally that many of the lay faithful are still bitter (justifiably or not!) about the previous two incidents, virtually ensuring that this time around there will be a firestorm. In short, there could conceivably be issues which the bishop hasn’t considered, and the presbyteral council may help tremendously by bringing them to his attention. But at the end of the day, if the bishop and the presbyteral council disagree, the priest-members of the council cannot force the bishop to side with them. The final call is always the bishop’s.
Thirdly, canon 1222.2 states that the bishop can relegate a church building to “profane but not sordid use.” This terminology, which is not specifically defined in the code, was already discussed in “When Can Parish Buildings be Rented Out for Secular Use?” but in short, the church can be sold and used for a secular purpose (which would constitute “profane use”), but it cannot be used for any purpose that is immoral or scandalous (or in other words, “sordid”). Under certain circumstances, for example, it could be permitted that a church building be deconsecrated and turned into a museum or an auditorium; but deconsecrating a church and then selling it to someone who intended to transform it into a bar, an abortion clinic, a brothel, etc., would never be allowed because the new purpose would be “sordid” and inherently objectionable on moral grounds.
Fourthly, the bishop must obtain the consent of those who could claim lawful rights over the church building. In practice, this clause frequently does not apply; but on those occasions when it does, it tends to refer to religious institutes which may own/operate the church in the diocese. If, for example, the diocesan bishop decides to redraw parish boundaries and thereby eliminate the parish of St. Francis of Assisi, he has the authority to do that, as we saw in the abovementioned “Canon Law and Closing a Parish.” But if the church itself was erected centuries ago by the Franciscans themselves—who were already taking care of it financially long before the diocese even existed, and whose priests have always been ministering to the faithful there—the Franciscans can “claim lawful rights over the church building” and must give their consent before the church can be closed and sold. (Note that in our imaginary example, the Franciscans could not block the bishop from closing the parish, which is the bishop’s prerogative; but they could, in this specific situation, claim a stake in the church building itself.)
And finally, the bishop must be sure that the good of souls will not be harmed by selling off the church. It could be, for instance, that the closure and sale of a church will mean that for hundreds of diocesan faithful, the closest Catholic church is now 80 miles away—virtually insuring their inability to practice their faith on a regular basis. In missionary territory, where Catholic priests are unfortunately few and far between, this is often the best the Church can do; but if it’s possible for such a scenario to be avoided, the bishop naturally should do so.
Armed with this information, let’s now look at Chadwick’s specific question. He says that he has heard about Catholic churches which were sold (presumably by their respective dioceses) to non-Catholic “sects.” It’s not completely clear how Chadwick is defining the term “sect,” but he probably means that protestant groups have purchased these Catholic churches and are using them for their own, non-Catholic worship services. Is this permitted, or does it constitute a violation of the law?
We have here an example of the kind of judgment-call which is not specifically addressed by the Code of Canon Law. Lots of Catholics would instinctively hold that handing a Catholic church over to a heretical group of non-Catholic Christians—so that they can use it to worship according to their own beliefs, denying the Sacrifice of the Mass, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, etc.—would be an outrage, and thus amount to “sordid” use.
At the same time, many Catholics would argue that selling a church building to protestant Christians, who intend to use it to worship Jesus Christ in the way that they sincerely believe to be best, is infinitely preferable to selling it to someone who will turn it into a mere museum or a concert hall, where by definition God will not be worshipped at all. Hopefully readers can appreciate that the proponents of both sides of this issue make some valid points!
It so happens that just this past year, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture helped to organize a conference in Rome which discussed, among other things, the decommissioning of church buildings and the uses to which they can/should be put. The conference eventually issued some guidelines, which the President of the Council emphasized “are intended mainly for internal ecclesial use,” and are not to be regarded “as norms but as practical orientations for dioceses” and other Catholic entities faced with this issue. In other words, the guidelines are the fruit of their discussions, and are meant to be helpful—but they do not constitute binding law, since the Pontifical Council has no authority to act as a legislative body.
The conference discussed a variety of related issues, such as repurposing church buildings which are many centuries old and thus form part of a nation’s cultural heritage, and the civil laws which may apply in such cases (mostly in Europe, where as everyone knows, the numbers of actively practicing Catholics have long been in dramatic decline). But a fair portion of the guidelines pertains to our discussion here: to begin with, paragraph 15 on page 4 acknowledged a number of different ways that canon 1222.2 has at times been directly violated, “even when acting in good faith.” (It may be interesting to read that there are purely secular institutions, such as UNESCO, which readily promote the preservation of buildings pertaining to a nation’s religious heritage, and urge that they not be reduced to uses which blatantly conflict with a building’s originally intended purpose. At least sometimes, it seems that these non-Catholic entities have been more adamant about preserving Catholic churches than church officials have!)
Of particular relevance to us are the Final Recommendations, especially paragraph 7 on the last page:
As far as possible and compatibly with the original intention of the building, it is desirable that when it can no longer be maintained as a religious building as such, an effort be made to ensure a new use, whether religious (for example, entrusting it to other Christian communities), cultural or charitable. Commercial for-profit reuses seem to be excluded… What should be preferred are reuses with cultural aims (museums, conference halls, bookshops, libraries, archives, artistic workshops etc), or social aims (meeting places, charity centers, healthcare clinics, foodbanks for the poor etc.)…. [Emphasis added]
Since these guidelines have no legal weight, a diocesan bishop is certainly free to disagree with those of its recommendations which are simply the suggestions of conference-attendees. But of interest to us is the fact that the possibility of selling a Catholic church to non-Catholics, for use as a place of worship, was regarded as entirely legitimate. As the guidelines rightly observe, there are far worse things that can happen to a decommissioned Catholic church.
In contrast to the Pontifical Council for Culture’s nonbinding guidelines, here’s a heart-breaking case that should stand as a “good” example of what not to do with a Catholic church that is no longer going to be used as such. This former Catholic parish church in the U.S. was sold to a restaurant-owner, who reopened it as a religious-themed dance club. It later became a bar (apparently still with a religious theme), and after many years it was sold to a nondenominational Christian group for use as a church. We don’t have the details of the church’s sale by the diocese; but if it was known that the buyer intended from the start to use the church as a dance club, it seems that this would have constituted a clear violation of canon 1222.2, as the church was definitely relegated to sordid use. Relatively speaking, surely selling it to a non-Catholic church group, for Sunday worship, is preferable to its use as a venue for performances by rock bands?
To sum up: the code does contain basic rules that must be followed when selling a Catholic church building, and there are some possibilities (like the example just seen) which are clearly contrary to the law. Still, bishops do have room for discretion; and sometimes there is going to be honest, legitimate disagreement among Catholics about the way such a church will be used in the future.