A culture expresses itself in what it chooses to build. Ancient Egypt gave us the pyramids, tombs of their god-kings. Medieval France gave us the Gothic cathedral. Twenty-first century Texas gives us a $1.2-billion football stadium.
Recently the Quebec provincial government and the Quebec City municipal government announced $400 million in funding for a new hockey arena. It will be the new home of what remains, as of now, an imaginary Quebec City NHL team.
Juxtapose that with the news, reported in The Catholic Register last week, that Quebec’s Catholic bishops have asked the province to assist with the maintenance of the hundreds of historic churches that are no longer sustainable by the dwindling number of Quebeckers who practise their faith.
There is plenty of money for an arena which no one doubts will be filled by a congregation with no team yet to worship. There is a dire lack of money for houses of God which have no one to worship Him.
That management of decline is not a happy task. Yet for most of Canada’s bishops it constitutes an important part of their ministry. There are vibrant and growing parts of the Church in Canada, but there are also places where the decline in Mass attendance, the lack of priestly vocations and shifting populations mean that the Church is in decline, sometimes terminal decline.
The situation in Quebec is more severe because when the province was devoutly Catholic even the smallest village built a grand church. Today, when rural areas are depopulating and urban areas are increasingly secular, parishes often find themselves unable to maintain their buildings. The result is that church properties are either abandoned and shuttered, or sold to developers who turn them into artistic spaces or condominiums.
“The Church is rich in patrimony, but not in monetary capital,” Quebec’s bishops said. “She does not benefit from fixed revenues, nor does she have the power to tax.”
Nor should she. The Church depends on the freely given offerings of the faithful; a healthy Church will have more than enough for her buildings and programs — churches, music, art, schools, hospitals and social services.
John Zucchi, a McGill historian, notes that the request of the Quebec bishops to maintain churches as part of the province’s cultural heritage raises broad questions about whether such houses of worship are “museums that essentially speak to our past.” A museum preserves the past; a church lives in the present. The conversion of a church into a museum is a sign that the church is moving from the present into the past, from the living to the dead.
A museum is not a bad thing in itself, and it may be that hundreds of Quebec towns and villages wish to preserve relics of how their grandparents used to live. That’s a matter for Quebec civil society — which, in practice, means the Quebec state.
For the Church the question is different. The mission of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel — to build a culture which has at least as much desire for the things of God as it does for an NHL hockey team. Buildings are a necessary part of any institution, especially culture-shaping institutions, which need a tangible expression of the intangible purposes they serve. Yet buildings can also become a burden, an obstacle to evangelization by absorbing all available energies. There are thousands of parish councils across the land whose principal work is in maintaining their buildings and not spreading the Gospel.
The church building points to the city of God in the midst of the city of man. So the faithful are rightly reluctant to abandon it for religious reasons alone, let alone cultural ones. Yet it is hard to see how an empty church can convert the city. Quebec’s bishops are right to consider whether the preservation of buildings is rightly the mission of the Church.
The conversion of a church into an art gallery or concert hall or condominium block is enormously sad. But the real sadness came much earlier, when the church lost its congregation; the closing down and selling off of the building is the physical expression of that spiritual death. It’s like a reverse sacrament — an outward sign of a lack of inward grace.
Earlier generations of Quebec Catholics built the magnificent steeples that mark every skyline in the province. The faithless generation that has succeeded them must decide whether to preserve these reminders of what they have chosen not to be. That’s an existential question of some depth; it’s easier just to watch hockey.