Closed churches have some success in plea to Vatican

Nine Catholic churches in the Diocese of Allentown may not close after all following a decision by the Vatican. It’s the latest step in an ongoing fight between bishops and congregants.

Like many dioceses in New England, the Allentown Diocese has been closing churches in response to a shrinking Catholic population. Two years ago, congregants from 14 parishes closed by Bishop Edward Cullen appealed directly to the Vatican to block the mergers.

In nine cases, the Vatican ruled in favor of the people…sort of.

In a split decision from Rome, the Congregation of the Clergy decreed that the parishes should remain closed but the physical churches should be maintained as “sacred spaces.”

It’s a ruling which pleases neither the diocese nor the congregants entirely. Both have an option to appeal.

The ruling is a rare move for the Vatican bureaucracy.

“Not because of the reality of what has happened, but because of the procedures used by the diocese,” said Rocco Palmo, a journalist who covers Catholic politics for the blog, Whispers in the Loggia. “Ninety-five percent of what Rome overturns is not on the merits of the case, but on the procedures employed.”

The decree arrived in Pennsylvania in January. A spokesman for the Allentown Diocese said officials have been studying the decree to figure out how to comply, and how to define a “sacred space.”

The church of St Joseph’s in Bethlehem, a parish that was merged with a neighboring parish, has continued to be locked since the Holy See made its decision.

“They are ignoring the decree which is telling me the church is open,” said Stephen Antalics, a St. Joseph’s parishioner who filed the original appeal to the Vatican. “But they are not giving me that access. So there’s a conflict there. Either they are ignoring the decree, or defying it.”

Palmo said that hostile tension between diocese officials and congregants could soon come to pass in Philadelphia. Like bishops in the Scranton, Allentown, and Camden dioceses, Cardinal Justin Rigali of the Philadelphia Archdiocese has started a study to determine how parishes can soon be merged here.

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