The Buildings Are Sacred

A number of churches in the diocese of Allentown that were ordered closed because of consolidations took their case to the Apostolic Signatura. In nine of those cases, the Vatican court overruled the diocesan decision to close the buildings, even though the decision to close the parishes was upheld. The buildings, the court ruled, enjoy sacred status, even though the parishes “were suppressed.”

Diocesan communications director Matt Kerr, quoted in the Standard Speaker, said “What that means going forward is unclear to the diocese. The Congregation for the Clergy based its decision to uphold the sacred nature of the churches based on a canon (church law), which requires the diocesan bishop to present a ‘grave cause’ for closing a church building. The Congregation holds that the grave cause was not present even though the parish is suppressed.” The diocese is appealing the ruling.

This case is one to watch, as more dioceses are seeking to consolidate parishes and maintain fewer church buildings for worship.


  1. That is amazing! Does the Congregation, with this ruling, provide the Diocese of Allentown with the funds needed to maintain these “sacred” spaces? I think I know the answer….kind of like those notorious “unfunded Federal mandates” on the States, hun?

    Gotta love bureaucracy, even in the OHCA Church!

  2. The Vatican bureaucrats will most probably change their turn when the 30% of the Italian Catholics (of the 90% Catholic population in the country) begins to eliminate their tax contributions to the Church

    Italian law requires that 0.8 percent of the income tax revenue be allocated either to religious purposes or to social interest purposes. The individual taxpayer can choose whether his tax is applied to the religious purposes or to the social interest. The social interest purposes include extraordinary measures against famine in the world, natural disasters, aid to refugees, conservation of cultural monuments, etc. Money funneled to the Catholic Church is used for the worship necessities of the population, the support of the clergy, and welfare measures benefiting the national community or third world countries. Money can also be channeled to one of the other six denominations that have signed an agreement with the Italian state.

    The second principle of the financing system is the possibility of off-setting, from taxable income, donations of up to Lit. 2,000,000 to the Catholic Central Institute for the Support of the Clergy, or to other denominations that have entered an agreement with the state.

    I would imagine that many of the Catholic churches and shrines that are national tourist attractions most probably get help with their conservation and maintenance.

    1. Ray, I thought of the “shrine and tourist attraction” angle too. But is there any reason to think that the parishes thus affected in Allentown fall into this category?

  3. The purpose of Canon Law, as I understand it, is to set some ideals and use legal processes to encourage bishops to come to mutually agreeable decisions about closure of parishes and churches with their congregations.

    A lot of parishes have taken their cases to Rome. I suspect Rome wants the bishops to close parishes and churches in ways that reduce the number of cases coming to Rome. Forcing a diocese to have to appeal their case is one way of sending a message to dioceses to be more careful in how they do these things in the first place.

    Many people have gone to extraordinary lengths in terms of time and money to oppose the closing of their church building, including occupying the building for years, or if evicted conducting prayer services outside the building again for years.

    See my post last summer on the situation here in Cleveland

    This behavior interests me as someone trained in psychology and sociology, especially since the attachment to buildings seems to be so closely allied to prayer.

    1. I think people cling to the buildings as a symbol of the parish community. More than the diocesan flunkies sent out to lecture us, we understand it’s the people who are important, not the building.

      The people of St. Peter’s in Cleveland took the bishop at his word when he declared that building was not as important as the community.

      I wonder how many other parishes might take this route?

      1. Brigid, I think you have misunderstood the original post.

        The people aren’t the subject of this ruling. The Vatican completely supports the disbanding of the communities, the parish as human organization. What it has ruled against is the closing of the buildings. The precise message here is that the buildings are important, not the people.

        The bishop of Cleveland is right. The people ARE more important than the buildings. But the decision of the Apostolic Signatura runs really quite the opposite of this.

        Protests groups have been interested to see that the Vatican “supports” their petitioning to keep their buildings open. What they don’t seem to see is that the fetishizing of real estate is not an advance on the basic question.

      2. Sorry but the issue of how people in closed parishes are responding is not very simple nor should it be judged so easily either in a positive or negative manner.

        On the one hand, they are not simply trying to maintain their community and seeing the church as the symbol. There are deep questions in these closings about the nature of all parish communities, namely being overly dependent upon pastors as well as buildings.

        On the other hand, it is not simply “fetishizing of real estate.” The people opposing church closings are spending a lot of time with one another in common activities especially common prayer, even when their physical structure has been closed. In other words they are behaving in some ways very much as communities without a church or a pastor.

        Let me rephrase my original post on this issue: is the church the pastor, the people or the building? Canon 515 “A parish is a certain community of Christ’s faithful stably established within a particular Church whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor.”

        Many people see the suppression or merging of their parish as essentially a rupture of the relationship of their pastors to their community, i.e. that they have been betrayed and abandoned. They see themselves as being asked to join another certain community in the case of a merger, or to find a community on their own in case of suppression. What has become of their prior existing community? Does it vanish? does it become something else like the building? All of this raises important issues for the vision of the parish as community provided in Canon 515.

        The Vibrant Parish Life Study gave us abundant evidence that people want community, but they are not getting it very well done even in their vibrant parishes.

        Finally buildings are closely connected to standing patterns of behavior that maintain social networks.

      3. Jack, you misconstrue my statement. I am not talking about the people who band together after their parish is closed. I am talking about the decision of the Apostolic Signatura, which does indeed separate the people from the building, and rules in favor of the building not the people. That is what I am referring to as “real estate fetishism.”

        Are you arguing that the Apostolic Signatura is actually supporting Catholic lay communities functioning without pastors and outside of parochial structures? I don’t doubt that there are lay people who would want to do something like this. At the same time I don’t believe for one moment that the highest court in the Vatican is countenancing such a move.

      4. Since the definition of a parish is closely tied to having a pastor, it seems to me that the Congregation of Clergy could easily agree that the bishop has made a case that he lacks the priests to maintain as many parishes as in the past.

        In regard to keeping churches open, they might easily ask in an affluent country whether of not the church could have been kept open for prayer, for a daily communion service, for the rosary and Stations of the Cross, for one or more weekday Masses, and used for funerals and weddings.

        In many cases, I suspect this minimal presence might have gone a long way toward reconciling people to going to Mass on Sunday in a different church. In fact, one of the principal bloggers for the people opposing the church closing here in Cleveland researched the history of church use in the diocese and found that is exactly what used to be done, i.e. “a chapel of convenience” when buildings were no longer suitable as the center of a parish life.

        “It used to be difficult to extinguish a parish. There were many parishes that continued to exist with numbers far lower than those supposedly necessary now. What did happen, were parishes reverted to mission status or chapels until they became larger.”

        In terms of community a minimal presence may have done much to keep up the social networks of the old parish while people slowly absorb and got absorbed into new parish networks. As American Grace has shown, the social networks (as measured by family conversations about religion, congregation based friendships, and congregation based small groups) are the key elements in all the positive effects of church attendance (health, life satisfaction, charitable giving, etc). Those who simply sat in a pew without relating to anyone did no better than those who prayed alone.

        The fundamental problem is that we do a poor job of being community.

      5. Dear Brigid,

        What happened to the original Cathedral? The picture of the building where they meet makes me think they are being severely overcharged!

        I think the Vatican may not be being ‘practical’, but forcing a slow down on demolishing old churches does at least slow down people who are trying to erase the past.

  4. NCR has a more detailed explanation of the Canon law and the rulings with regard to parishes that clearly indicates that they are focused as much upon the rights of the faithful and the good of souls as upon the status of the building.

    “Cafardi (a Canon lawyer) pointed to the second paragraph of Canon 1222, which says the bishop, after consulting with his priests’ council, ‘can relegate it [a church] to profane but not sordid use, with the consent of those who legitimately claim rights for themselves in the church and provided that the good of souls suffers no detriment thereby.’
    ‘Canon 1222 requires the consent of those with rights in the church,’ Cafardi said.
    ‘This is a substantive and not a procedural right,’ he added. ‘Procedure cannot trump substantive rights.’”

    “Of 19 Vatican decrees in Allentown and Springfield this January and February..11 have produced split verdicts that the parish can be suppressed but the churches must reopen. The other eight upheld the local bishop’s ruling both on suppression of the parish and the closing of the church, he said.”

    “If, in fact, the parishioners prevail among the options for reopening is designating the churches as missions, chapels or oratories: The main point would be that they still must be available for use as places of Catholic worship.”

    Up until the recent decades, churches were usually kept open even when the parish was no longer vibrant, staffed or was suppressed or merged. The bishops liquidation of parish buildings into money is a new practice.

    “..the new series of Vatican rulings affirms a right of parishioners — a right explicitly vested in the new Code of Canon Law — to contest the loss of continued use of a church for religious purposes even if the parish that the church serves is suppressed for legitimate pastoral reasons.”

    1. This is helpful, Jack. “The bishops liquidation of parish buildings into money is a new practice,” says it all. If there are people to use the buildings for prayer and worship and they are able to maintain them, it’s certainly a good thing to restrain a bishop from a capricious decision to close or sell them. I wonder what happens in bankruptcy cases. There was a diocese in Canada a few years ago that sold all of its buildings.

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