Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

A flood of closing churches

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 05, 2015

Church closures have reached flood stage in northern Europe. According to the Wall Street Journal (“Europe’s empty churches go on sale”, unfortunately available only to subscribers), some 515 Catholic churches have been closed in Germany over the last decade and it is estimated that two-thirds of the 1600 Catholic churches in the Netherlands will be closed over the next decade. Seven hundred Protestant churches are also slated to close there over the next four years.

This trend creates obvious pressure to repurpose many large, old, expensive and high-maintenance structures. Churches are being converted to civic cultural uses where possible, such as libraries, art galleries, concert halls and fitness centers. St. Joseph’s Catholic church in Arnheim, Netherlands has become a skateboard hall for kids, and of course churches of all denominations have been converted to shops and restaurants.

Even where I am writing, in Manassas, Virginia, we have one old downtown church (not Catholic) which has been a restaurant for years. I do not know whether it is a judgment that no restaurant has ever prospered there, but different proprietors and chefs keep trying.

In England, an Anglican church, with its nice high ceilings, serves as the circus training school for Circomedia. In Scotland, a Lutheran church has become a Frankenstein-themed bar. The hot new idea is to sell unused churches as homes for rich people who abhor the bourgeois boredom of standard dwellings. Considering the spatial volume, old churches come cheap. But it does take money to convert and maintain them.

Demographic shifts are always hard on churches with dwindling congregations, and if one of the demographic changes is widespread loss of faith, the churchly consequences are harder still. A Catholic church may be relegated to profane “but not sordid” usage by the decree of the competent Ordinary (see Canon 1222), at which point the sacred objects, particularly the altar and its relics, would be removed, and the church would lose its sacred character. This solves the problem of sacrilege for ordinary non-sinful uses. But the loss of a church, and the inevitable distortion of its symbolism, remains hard to bear.

Ideally, churches which no longer have significant congregations would be repurposed as centers of Catholic evangelization and service to the larger community. They would become missionary outposts, working—as Pope Francis would say—on the spiritual “peripheries” even in once-Catholic cities. But where the trickle has become a flood, there are far too many abandoned churches to sustain in this way. We also need to realize that in many places not particularly hard hit now (such as the United States), the waters are projected to rise rapidly over the next thirty years.

It goes without saying that the predictable future is powerless against Providence. Still, this is one more sign of the need for a new evangelization, and evangelization requires the right perspective. Which brings us to today’s lesson: The Gospel does not depend on church buildings; church buildings depend on the Gospel.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jan. 21, 2017 12:53 PM ET USA

    Great Book, "Last Testament"is hard to put down. Deserves re-reading at some point.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Jan. 20, 2017 9:06 PM ET USA

    He was indeed a great worker of truth. The Church needs that strength now but all we get a tongue lashing and harsh words. This Pope has great ideas but is kind of full of himself and gets off on things he has little knowledge and makes outlandish statements. Whether he knows it or not he is making deals with those who are hand in hand with the devil. They also do not like the Catholic Church. But what do we little guys know. God help us.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 18, 2017 3:21 PM ET USA

    Since Papa Benedetto does not know, I can tell him: You are the best explainer I have ever known. You know stuff I never heard about my beautiful Catholic faith, then weave it into more stuff that is so clear and beautiful I pray about it for days on end. One more thing: Thanks.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 05, 2015 8:46 PM ET USA

    Churches depend on the Gospel and on faith. Recently at a traditional rite baptism the priest asked the godfather "What do you ask of the Church of God?" Without a booklet in hand, he replied "Baptism." Father replied "Wrong answer" with a reassuring smile. Upon looking it up, the godfather replied with confidence: Faith! Indeed. Belloc famously claimed: The faith is Europe and Europe is the faith. Yes, these losses are hard to bear.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Jan. 05, 2015 6:15 PM ET USA

    And a diocese near you, some parish is constructing a hideous new building from scratch!!! Fathers/parish council members: There are companies who will literally pick up and move one of these closed churches to your parish for a price comparable to what you'll pay for the "UFO Attacking the Junior College" or "Hay Barn Mortuary" design you've been sold by your local architecture firm specializing in 'worship spaces.' See for examples.