Q. What is your opinion on consecrated churches? Can these buildings be closed and torn down? (Brookville, Ind.)
A. Recent years have seen a shifting landscape with regard to Catholic churches in America. A number of factors — demographic shifts, fewer priests and financial constraints — have led to the closing or merging of many parishes and the conversion of a fair number of former church buildings to secular use.
Perhaps no decision creates more headaches or heartaches for a diocesan bishop than to close a church. The loyalty of parishioners lingers long. Some have strong emotional bonds to the church of their childhood.
To answer your question, consecrated church buildings can be closed (and even torn down) provided the proper canonical procedures are followed. It is critical to note that there are two separate issues here: One has to do with the closing of a parish (technically, its “suppression,” or a determination that the parish no longer exists), while the other involves the closing of a building and its conversion to a different use.
Two different canons in the church’s Code of Canon Law govern these decisions. Canon No. 515 gives a bishop wide discretion on the closing of a parish. The only requirement is that he must consult with the diocesan council of priests. (Their consent is not required — they need only be consulted.)
The conversion of a church building to “profane” use, however, is regulated more rigorously, says Canon No. 1222, and requires broader study and discussion. “Grave causes” must be shown, which rule out continued use for worship and the “good of souls” must suffer “no detriment thereby.”
Over the past two years, the Vatican ruled (upon appeal by parishioners in U.S. dioceses) that canonical procedures were not properly followed when some churches were closed and the buildings were reopened — although sometimes for only limited use, such as funerals for deceased parishioners or Mass on the patronal feast day.
It seems that what a diocese can do, in deciding to release a former church building to a secular use, is to demonstrate that continued use for religious purposes would put a financial strain on the successor parish and preclude needed programs and services.
Q. I have been a practicing Catholic for the past six years. My husband is not Catholic. Both of us were married previously, and both marriages ended in divorce. I want to know if I would be denied a Catholic funeral Mass because of our present circumstances. (Virginia Beach, Va.)
A. You would indeed be able to have a funeral Mass. A Catholic who is divorced and remarried without an annulment is not excommunicated and is surely still a member of the church. In an exhortation which he wrote in 1981 (“Familiaris Consortio”), Pope John Paul II said this in No. 84: “I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the church. For as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life.”
Many people are confused about that status of divorced people who are members of the church. Sometimes even divorced people who have never remarried feel they have alienated themselves from the Catholic community. That is untrue. They are welcome to share fully in the spiritual and sacramental life of the church.
Someone such as yourself — divorced and then remarried without Catholic approval — is entitled to participate in certain ways. For example, you can and should attend Mass, but not receive holy Communion; you may receive the anointing of the sick in danger of death; you may have a Catholic funeral and be buried in a Catholic cemetery; you can have your children baptized and enrolled in a Catholic school or religious education program.
My guess, though, is that — especially as a fairly recent convert — you have a strong desire to receive the Eucharist. Why not speak to a priest about the possibility of annulments for your prior marriage and that of your husband, so that you would be able to share fully in the church’s sacraments?
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at email@example.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.