When a Church Is Desacralized

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When a Church Is Desacralized

ROME, 18 DEC. 2007 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I am from Pennsylvania and due to significant demographic changes in the last couple of decades, many Catholic houses of worship have been closing, oftentimes being converted to secular (and, sadly, unseemly) purposes such as nightclubs. My question: While the Anglican usages provide for a "desacralization" of a house of worship in the book of "Incidental Services," I understand that in Roman rite there is no such rite or office, not even in the so-called Tridentine usage. My understanding is that the mere removal of the altar, relics, and other appurtenances performs this function. If this is correct, it seems at the least peculiar; if so, why would there not be such a rite? — K.Y., Butler, Pennsylvania

A: I have not been able to find anything regarding a specific rite of relegation to profane use, probably because, until recently, a Catholic church rarely lost its consecration, even if no longer frequently used.

In the past a church would lose its consecration or solemn blessing in two principal cases.

One case was through the destruction of the greater part of its walls. But even in this case it was not desacralized if the walls were destroyed and rebuilt in several stages. Nor was it desacralized if new walls were less than the original.

Another case is if the local bishop reduces the building to profane use, as is still foreseen in Canon 1222 of the Code of Canon Law, to wit:

"§1. If a church cannot be used in any way for divine worship and there is no possibility of repairing it, the diocesan bishop can relegate it to profane but not sordid use.

"§2. Where other grave causes suggest that a church no longer be used for divine worship, the diocesan bishop, after having heard the presbyteral council, can relegate it 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."

This relegation to profane use takes place only after the bishop issues a formal decree removing the church's dedication or consecration.

The subsequent removal of relics, altar and other items of sacred art is a consequence of this decree, but not necessarily the cause of the building losing its consecration.

In order for the decree to be valid, the bishop must first obtain the consent of any persons (juridical or physical) who can claim rights over the church. In practice this means the consent of the parish usually through the pastor unless the parish has already been suppressed.

If the church or the land on which it is built is the property of a religious institute, then the consent of the competent religious authority is also required.

In some rare cases a physical person might have a claim on a church such as a major donor whose grant was accepted on condition that the church would remain a sacred place for a certain period.

The bishop must also determine that the proposed use of the place will not be sordid. This is a prudential judgment that can vary according to time and place. But every effort should be made that no unseemly activities should be allowed in the future.

In at least one country in which the Church has had to close several relatively modern churches, it has preferred to have them demolished rather than turned over to unseemly use. This is not usually possible when closing churches that have significant architectural or historical merits.

As far as possible the artistic treasures of relegated churches should find a new home in other churches in the diocese or in other Catholic domains. This is both a sign of continuity of the faith in spite of demographic changes and an act of respect for those generations who built the original churches with so much love and sacrifice.

The beauty of no small number of modern church buildings has been greatly enhanced at relatively low cost by incorporating altars, stained glass windows, statuary, and other decorative elements from older no longer used churches.

* * *

Follow-up: When a Church Is Desacralized [1-1-2008]

After our recent article on Church closings (Dec. 18), a reader from Massachusetts asked: "You made the following comments: 'As far as possible the artistic treasures of relegated churches should find a new home in other churches in the diocese or in other Catholic domains. This is both a sign of continuity of the faith in spite of demographic changes and an act of respect for those generations who built the original churches with so much love and sacrifice.'

"I was wondering if you could comment in a future article on the sale of religious items, statues, altars, etc., by the church itself. What exactly does the Church's legislation have to say about these types of sales."

The reader offered examples of two sanctuaries from suppressed parishes being offered on eBay and concluded: "Even if the church itself sold these items to a 'reputable dealer,' should not this be a practice that would be considered improper? If nothing else, it is an affront to the hardworking people who built these holy places and often sacrificed personal wealth to establish a temple to the glory of God."

In most cases these sales would be covered by specific norms issued by the bishop who would be the proper authority to decide what is appropriate.

Many dioceses that have had to close down churches have placed sacred items in storage and give priority to selling them to other parishes and institutes within the diocese itself.

If the diocese has no likely outlet for them, then they may be offered for sale beyond the diocese.

These sales, rather than just donating the church furnishings, are justified in order to defray the costs of dismantling and storage as well as providing funds for building new churches or other charitable purposes.

Even in these cases the asking price is frequently well below the cost of commissioning new sacred art of similar quality. Indeed, some churches have been beautified for a relative pittance with reused artwork that would have cost millions if newly commissioned.

The reason for this is because most sales are motivated by a desire to see the artwork used once more for its original purpose rather than languishing in storage. To our mind this solution is more respectful of the donor's original intention.

Regarding the offer on eBay, I would say that, if this is merely a system of putting someone with a legitimate right to sell these objects into contact with those who have a bona fide reason for purchasing them, then as such there are no more objections to the practice than to placing an advertisement in the diocesan newspaper.

If, however, the sale is an open auction with no way of controlling whom is bidding and the definitive intended use of the purchased object, then it would certainly be an unsuitable means for selling a sacred object and an affront to the memory of those who contributed to its making.

Assuring the specifically religious and Catholic use of sacred objects should be a condition of sale so as to avoid any danger of such objects ending up in unseemly or profane environments. This has sadly happened in some cases with altars used as bars, tabernacles as jewelry cases, and even confessionals converted into television or book cabinets.

Finally, it is important to remember that a sold sacred object loses any blessing or consecration it may have had. Even if an altar is purchased to be reused as an altar in a different church, it should be blessed or consecrated anew before use.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe http://www.zenit.org/english/subscribe.html
or email: english-request@zenit.org with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field