WASHINGTON (CNS) — Rarely is closing a parish easy.

Even though the task has been undertaken countless times in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church as neighborhoods change and faith communities evolve, the process has received wider attention in recent years as the number of closings has escalated, prompted by changing demographics, fewer priests and tighter finances.

A parish closing more often than not is an emotional experience, particularly for parishioners feeling dejected, disappointed and even angry with the loss of their spiritual home.

But bishops, too, have found that whether they are faced with closing one parish or dozens, it is hardly an enjoyable task to undertake.


When a closing is considered, the process is guided by specific steps outlined in canon law, or church law. Broadly, canon law plainly states that bishops alone have the authority to erect (open) or suppress (close) any parish. The canons also explicitly assert that a bishop must consult with the diocesan presbyteral (priests’) council prior to making a decision and that parishioners have a right to express their views before a final decision is reached.

Further, canon law allows for an appeal of a bishop’s decision on a closing — as well as other decrees — through a complex set of actions that can take parishioners on a laborious trek through the inner workings of the Vatican.

The issue of parish closings and the steps outlined in canon law was discussed during a workshop sponsored by the Canon Law Society of America prior to its annual convention last October.

The workshop was developed to help canon lawyers better understand the procedures for possible parish and church closings after the Vatican had issued decrees to seven dioceses calling for the reopening of parishes or churches because the steps taken failed to follow canon law.

Cleveland-based FutureChurch, a national Catholic coalition seeking changes in the church, compiled statistics showing the Vatican calling for 28 parishes to reopen by the end of 2012: 11 in Cleveland, nine in Allentown, Pa.; four in Springfield, Mass., and one each in Kansas City, Kan., Grand Rapids, Mich., Camden, N.J., and Buffalo, N.Y.

Until the recent cases, the Congregation for Clergy or the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican supreme court, rarely reversed a closing on appeal, so the decisions gained the attention of bishops, parishioners and canon lawyers alike.

One of the two canonists invited to review the process established under canon law for Canon Law Society of America members described for Catholic News Service what he told workshop participants.

Father Lawrence A. DiNardo, episcopal vicar for canonical services in the Pittsburgh Diocese, said he examined canon law’s requirements of a bishop — and by extension his staff — before closing a parish or merging parishes; the particulars of drafting the formal decree announcing a parish closure; and parishioner rights of appeal under canon law.

Dioceses are faced with resolving two questions, according to Father DiNardo.

“There really is a difference in the (canon) law between the reorganization or restructuring of parishes and the closing of church buildings,” DiNardo explained.

“Keeping the church building open does not necessarily imply keeping the parish open,” he said.

The intricacy of canon law requires a bishop to determine if the closing of a parish is warranted by just cause, which is not specifically defined Canon 515. At the same time, canon law requires a bishop to hear from the parishioners involved and to consult with his presbyteral (priest) council before making a decision. A bishop has no obligation to follow the presbyteral council’s recommendation.

Closing a church building — which canon law describes as relegating it to profane use — is a separate issue and is guided by another canon. Outlined in Canon 1222, the procedure requires a bishop to determine what grave reason exists to close a church before taking such action. The canon specifically mentions a church badly in need of repair for example.

Again, under the canon, if a bishop determines a grave cause exists, then he must consult with the diocesan presbyteral council prior to making a final decision on closing a church building.

Each parish closing or merger decision must be based on information specific to each case, Father DiNardo said. “Decrees should not be generic, but should be specific to this particular situation,” he explained.

Parish closings are not unusual. Largely defined by the ebb and flow of the Catholic population, closings always have been part of the administrative responsibilities of bishops. But the pace of closings has picked up during the last two decades, particularly in America’s urban cores.

While many suburban and exurban communities have seen rapid growth, dioceses have been forced to look at parish allocations in central cities as Catholic populations have dwindled. Citing any combination of a shortage of priests, financial difficulties and changing demographics, bishops have taken steps to suppress parishes in an effort to make better use of limited diocesan resources.

In years past, parishioners by and large accepted the closings and eventually joined another parish. However, more recently, parishioners have felt emboldened to challenge a bishop’s reasons for closing a church and appealed those closings to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy. Usually with the help of canon lawyers, these aggrieved parishioners built their appeals as interested parties under canon law.

Until recently, it had been unlikely that the Vatican at any level would uphold an appeal. But 2011 and 2012 proved to be different, with parishioners in several dioceses welcoming news that their recourse had been successful.

The issue of parish suppressions and church closings has become such a concern among U.S. bishops and Vatican officials that that the topic was readily discussed during the U.S. bishops’ “ad limina” visits to Rome late in 2011 and early in 2012.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said after his “ad limina” visit in November 2011 that no bishop likes to close a parish, but that shifting demographics have changed the Catholic landscape. The “ad limina” visits allowed bishops to explain their perspectives and get a better handle on what the Vatican expects of them.

The cardinal also told CNS at the time that the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy was preparing a document that it hopes will offer “crisper and cleaner and more consistent” guidelines on parish closing and mergers, both for bishops and for the faithful. That document has not yet been finalized.

The process itself can be trying, according to parishioners who have filed appeals after failing to convince their local bishop to reverse course. The first appeal comes through the Congregation for Clergy. If a closing is upheld there, parishioners can appeal to the Apostolic Signature. An appeal must be filed within a set number of days at each step of the process, but a case can take years to resolve.

“It was extremely unlikely in the past that anyone would make appeals to Rome,” said Mary Gauthier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. But that has changed, she said.

Gauthier said bishops are facing difficult choices as “Catholics don’t live where they used to.”

“They (bishops) are rightly concerned about access to the sacraments,” she said. “It does put bishop in a corner because resources can be spread so far, both financial and human resources.”

The Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., is one place where church officials have worked to reach a happy middle ground. Since 1988 the diocese has preferred merging parishes over a period of time rather than outright sudden closings and has kept open as many worship sites as possible, said Mark Mogilka, diocesan director of Stewardship and Pastoral Services.

“It’s only in dire circumstances that we would even consider closing a parish,” he said. Mergers have reduced the number of parishes from 219 in 1988 to 157 today, but the diocese maintains 175 worship sites.

Parishioners are involved in every step of the process, Mogilka added.

“We found that when you take an aggressive top down approach to closure, the likelihood of alienating and losing people to the faith is pretty high,” he explained.