A northeastern Pennsylvania bishop has decided to stop challenging the Vatican on the fate of six closed churches in his diocese, but said the churches would remain shuttered, disappointing parishioners.
Bishop John Barres of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown withdrew his request Thursday that the Vatican's highest court allow the churches to remain closed. The Vatican had ruled that they be "maintained as Catholic worship sites."
In a statement, the diocese said it believes "the decrees that were issued do not require the reopening of the churches." The statement also said the diocese plans "to explore other canonical options in this matter."
An emailed request to a diocesan spokesman seeking additional details was not immediately answered.
Peter Borre of the Council of Parishes, which has spent years appealing church closures in the Boston area said the Vatican can prevent a church from being deconsecrated and sold by ordering it to remain a "worship site," but the church also gives bishops a large amount of leeway in making decisions about their own parishes.
"Under canon law, there is a limit to how far Rome can go in telling a bishop how to run his diocese," Borre said. "Strictly speaking, Rome cannot say, `Reopen the church.'"
In 2008, then-Allentown Bishop Edward Cullen cited a growing shortage of priests in his decision to close 47 churches in the five-county diocese. Parishioners appealed from 14 shuttered churches, many in small ethnic enclaves in coal-mining regions, asserting the bishop did not meet the high standard under canon law for shutting down those church buildings and converting them to secular use.
Barres, who succeeded Cullen in 2009, said he was in "complete accord" with the decisions of his predecessor and adopted them as his own. The Vatican has traditionally given bishops a wide berth to make decisions about church closures, consulting with parishioners but ultimately having the final say.
In a highly unusual reversal of a bishop's decision, the Congregation for the Clergy _ the Vatican office in charge of the world's 400,000 Catholic priests _ ruled earlier this year that the diocese failed to come up with a "grave" reason for closing nine of the 14 churches.
The diocese in March appealed six of those cases to the Vatican's highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, before withdrawing that appeal Thursday.
"The bishop appears through his spokesman to be saying, `They can't make me reopen it,'" Borre said. "Talk about a lose-lose outcome."
Church law unmistakably requires the churches to be open for worship no matter how the diocese tries to parse words, said Washington, D.C. attorney Joseph Fuisz, a Bethlehem native whose longtime parish, St. Joseph, is one of the six affected churches.
"The canon (law) cited by the congregation's decree specifically affirms the right of public worship in the suppressed (closed) churches," Fuisz said. "That means the Mass and we will have the Mass in the suppressed St. Joseph's site."
The Vatican also recently rejected attempts by the diocese of Springfield, Mass., to convert three church buildings from religious to secular use, in what could be a signal of a policy shift on U.S. church closures. However, the Allentown diocese's interpretation of the Vatican's decree has not previously been asserted, Borre said.
"So now we'll have a standoff for a while with half a dozen churches," Borre said. "This has huge implications through Catholic America and by the luck of the draw, Allentown is first in line; it's the test case."
Diocese of Allentown: http://www.allentowndiocese.org