Church closures have reached flood stage in northern Europe. According to the Wall Street Journal, unfortunately available only to subscribers), some 515 Catholic churches have been closed in Germany over the last decade and it is estimated that two-thirds of the 1600 Catholic churches in the Netherlands will be closed over the next decade. Seven hundred Protestant churches are also slated to close there over the next four years.

This trend creates obvious pressure to repurpose many large, old, expensive and high-maintenance structures. Churches are being converted to civic cultural uses where possible, such as libraries, art galleries, concert halls and fitness centers. St. Joseph’s Catholic church in Arnheim, Netherlands has become a skateboard hall for kids, and of course churches of all denominations have been converted to shops and restaurants.

Even where I am writing, in Manassas, Virginia, we have one old downtown church (not Catholic) which has been a restaurant for years. I do not know whether it is a judgment that no restaurant has ever prospered there, but different proprietors and chefs keep trying.

In England, an Anglican church, with its nice high ceilings, serves as the circus training school for Circomedia. In Scotland, a Lutheran church has become a Frankenstein-themed bar. The hot new idea is to sell unused churches as homes for rich people who abhor the bourgeois boredom of standard dwellings. Considering the spatial volume, old churches come cheap. But it does take money to convert and maintain them.

Demographic shifts are always hard on churches with dwindling congregations, and if one of the demographic changes is widespread loss of faith, the churchly consequences are harder still. A Catholic church may be relegated to profane “but not sordid” usage by the decree of the competent Ordinary (see Canon 1222), at which point the sacred objects, particularly the altar and its relics, would be removed, and the church would lose its sacred character. This solves the problem of sacrilege for ordinary non-sinful uses. But the loss of a church, and the inevitable distortion of its symbolism, remains hard to bear.

Ideally, churches which no longer have significant congregations would be repurposed as centers of Catholic evangelization and service to the larger community. They would become missionary outposts, working—as Pope Francis would say—on the spiritual “peripheries” even in once-Catholic cities. But where the trickle has become a flood, there are far too many abandoned churches to sustain in this way. We also need to realize that in many places not particularly hard hit now (such as the United States), the waters are projected to rise rapidly over the next thirty years.

It goes without saying that the predictable future is powerless against Providence. Still, this is one more sign of the need for a new evangelization, and evangelization requires the right perspective. Which brings us to today’s lesson: The Gospel does not depend on church buildings; church buildings depend on the Gospel.