Just as there are different standards of proof that are required under American law to prove guilt in a criminal matter (guilty beyond a “reasonable doubt,”) and in a civil matter (responsible based on a preponderance of the evidence,”) so too are there different levels of causation contained within canon law that justify the occurrence of actions or conversely do not permit them to occur. The two levels of “cause” which come into play with regard to parish and church closures are “just” and “grave.” Just as it is the case that the standard of “a preponderance of the evidence” is lower than that of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” so too is it the case that something which constitutes a “just” cause under canon law can be said to be something which is of lesser magnitude than a cause that is considered to be a “grave” cause. If this is confusing to you, don’t worry. It has been confusing to many people over the years, myself included. To this end, the Vatican’s “Congregation for the Clergy,” a “dicastery” (department) of the Holy See, released a set of guidelines in 2013 which were written in part to clarify this issue.
The 2013 guidelines issued by the congregation for the Clergy were sent to the bishops of the world to help them understand under what circumstances it was acceptable to close parishes, and separately, when it was permissible to close Roman Catholic churches. Additionally, these guidelines dealt with which entities current and former Roman Catholic churches could be sold or transferred to. These guidelines make clear that while a “parish” can be eliminated by a bishop based on the presence of a “just” cause, a church itself is not supposed to be permanently closed unless either a “grave” cause is present that justifies the taking of that action, or several “just” causes sufficient to be considered together as having the magnitude of a “grave” cause when combined are present. Thus, the Congregation for the Clergy in its guidelines makes clear that such reasons as shortages of priests, decreases in the number of parishioners, and a general plan of a diocese to reduce the number of parishes it contains are not in and of themselves “grave” causes which justify the closure of a church, even though they are “just” causes which may justify the closure of a parish.
Generally, two reasons in and of themselves are considered “grave” enough to justify the closure of a church on their own (the canonical term for the permanent closure of a Catholic church being its “relegation to profane but not sordid use.”) These are that the church has been damaged beyond any point of repair (such as through “complete” (not partial) destruction, such as in a tornado, flood, fire, or some other cataclysmic event,) or that there is no source of funding (either from within the parish in which the church is located or from any outside source) that can continue to support the church’s maintenance and upkeep. To better understand the difference between “just” and “grave” causes which can justify the closure of Roman Catholic parishes and churches, click here to read the Congregation for the Clergy’s guidelines. If you are still unsure of how these guidelines relate to your specific situation, or have other specific questions related to the possible closure of your own parish or church, contact me, and I will personally help walk you through this question. It is probably a good idea for you to read the Congregation for the Clergy’s Guidelines before you proceed any further in this article.