It’s becoming a more and more common occurrence across the globe. As demographics shift and the needs of Catholic communities change, some dioceses have to make the difficult decision to close down a church. When that decision is made, what exactly happens to a church that is to be closed down?
Parishes, and their associated churches, close for many reasons. Sometimes, an urban parish or church may close as demographics shift and people move towards the suburbs and vice-versa. Other times its a matter of houses of worship being structurally unsafe to be used to celebrate Mass and other parish activities.
Historically, a church was formally closed with the destruction of the majority of its exterior walls. Today, when necessary, the bishop of the diocese has the power to close down a church in a process called deconsecration.
“Sacred places lose their dedication or blessing if they have been destroyed in large part, or have been turned over permanently to profane use by decree of the competent ordinary or in fact.” – Code of Canon Law 1212
To close a church, a diocesan bishop must issue a formal decree that removes the consecration. However, the bishop must obtain permission from any person who can lay claim over the church. Usually, consent is given by the parish through the pastor. If the church grounds are the property of a religious institute, permission must also be obtained from the religious institute’s authority. An exceedingly rare case can occur if a person donated a significant grant on the condition the church remain sacred for a set period of time.
Once permission is obtained, the diocesan bishop can issue the formal decree. While not required, a closing ceremony and procession may take place. With the decree, the church is relegated to profane use and is no longer an official church building, able to be sold for any use as long as it is not sordid.
“The diocesan bishop … can relegate it to profane but not sordid use with the consent of those who legitimately claim rights regarding the church and as long as the good of souls is not thereby impaired.” – Code of Canon Law 1222§2
Prior to being relegated to profane use, items such as consecrated hosts, relics, the altar, and any sacred art are removed from the building. Afterwards, any remaining items are usually given to other parishes or Catholic institutions as a sign of the continuation of the faith and respect. However, the bishop is able to offer up for sale to the proper outlets the church furnishings to raise funds for the diocese.
After the church closes, its associated parish is said to be suppressed. The parish can then be merged with surrounding parishes in a manner that best distributes the remaining parishioners in a process ultimately decided by the diocesan bishop.
“It is only for the diocesan bishop to erect, suppress, or alter parishes. He is neither to erect, suppress, nor alter notably parishes, unless he has heard the presbyteral council.” – Code of Canon Law 515§2