Q. Many parish churches have closed in our state and other parts of the country in recent years. Some are torn down, but many are sold, sometimes to other non-Catholic congregations who use the buildings for their own worship. We know churches are blessed when they are built, but how do you unbless a church? I always thought that when something is blessed, it stays blessed. Is that wrong? (Wisconsin)
A. Normally what you say is true. Often a time comes, however, when it is impossible to use a blessed or consecrated object any longer for its original purpose. As you note, that happens with churches as well as other buildings. Because of deterioration of the structure, lack of money, lack of sufficient numbers of Catholics in the area or lack of priests, bishops and their advisers may decide a parish church should be closed.
Church law provides for that situation. When one or more of those conditions exist, or if another serious reason suggests that the church no longer be used for divine worship, the bishop can, as the law says, "relegate it to profane but not sordid (repugnant or disreputable) use" (Canon No. 1222).
The word "profane" (from a Latin word which means "outside the temple" or "outside sacred use"), has acquired a more negative, disrespectful implication in English than this canon law intends. In this case it basically means merely that the particular church building is from now on not a place where official communal Catholic worship and liturgy will be celebrated.
According to advice from the Canon Law Society of America, "unblessing" a church, as you put it, is simple. After advice from the priests’ council and others who may have a right to be consulted, the bishop need only decree that the building will no longer be designated for Catholic worship, is consequently no longer dedicated or blessed, and is thus no longer a Catholic church. The building may then be sold for worship by another religious denomination or for other appropriate uses. (CLSA Advisory Opinions 2002, pgs. 130-131)
Your comment that once a thing is blessed it stays blessed is worth a brief comment. Some blessed items, such as books, can wear out. Others get past the point where they are useful. Unless one has unlimited space, there are only so many rosaries, Bibles, statues, medals, crucifixes and holy pictures one can accumulate over the years.
So what to do? When a blessed article is taken apart, melted or otherwise has its identity changed, it is no longer considered blessed. One proper way to dispose of unusable holy oil, for example, is to burn it.
The same is true for other blessed or consecrated articles. Unusable blessed statues, books, scapulars and so on may be broken or torn so they lose the identity for which they were blessed, and then discarded. When they have served their spiritual purpose and have become worn out or replaced, there is no irreverence in disposing of them appropriately.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.