What's the difference between closing a parish and closing a church?
Different rules govern a bishop’s right to eliminate parishes and churches in a diocese—and determine parishioners’ chances of a successful appeal.
When we talk about churches and parishes on a day-to-day basis, we often use the terms interchangeably. But there is a big difference—especially when it comes to a bishop’s decision to close one under canon law.
The distinction is especially important in recent cases where parishioners have appealed the closure of their parish or church building, as the requirements for the closure of each differs. According to canon law professor Father Pat Lagges, the difference comes down to this: “A church is simply a building built and consecrated for divine worship. The parish is the community of the faithful who gathers there.” So a parish, he explains, may be comprised of multiple churches.
Lagges, who teaches at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, claims that Rome is actually somewhat reluctant to “close” parishes. They always prefer the term “merger,” because “the parish is really a perpetual entity, because it is people. It is a community, and a community of people doesn’t just cease to exist.”
Under Canon 515, however, the diocesan bishop has the authority to “erect, suppress, or alter parishes” provided he obtains the approval of his presbyteral council. An appeal of a parish closure can be filed on procedural grounds—meaning the bishop missed a step in the process, such as consulting his priests—or substantive grounds, which Lagges explains as the reasoning behind the action. “A substantive inquiry would ask whether there was sufficient reason for the merger or closure,” he says. “If, for example, a parish could demonstrate good numbers, there would be substantive reasons to reverse a merger.”
To close a church building is to “reduce it to secular use—(to) take it out of service,” says Father Jim Coriden, a canon lawyer who taught at the recently-closed Washington Theological Union. Canon 1222 permits a church to be closed when it “cannot in any way be used for divine worship and there is no possibility of its being restored.”
Bishops may also allow churches to be “used for secular but not unbecoming purpose” if grave reasons suggest he should do so, and only after consultation with his council of priests. “A church is a dedicated place of worship,” Coriden says. “In Rome, they take it very seriously.”
According to Peter Borre, who formed the Council of Parishes to fight widespread closures in the Archdiocese of Boston and has assisted in appeals cases in several other dioceses, Catholics who fight the closure of a church building have a much better chance of winning an appeal than those who oppose a parish closing. A bishop must have a "just" reason to restructure a parish, Borre says, but he must have a "grave" reason to close a church.
While the recent reversal of parish closings in the Diocese of Cleveland remains a unique case, church closures in several U.S. dioceses, including Syracuse, Allentown, and Buffalo, have been reversed by the Vatican. “A bishop has much more power to close a parish than to close and deconsecrate a church,” Borre says. “From the Cleveland decision, along with churches reopening in Syracuse, Allentown, Buffalo, you can say that you have a respectable chance of getting your church reopened.”
Image: Tom A. Wright