In recent years, thousands of local parishes and congregations throughout Christendom have disbanded due to dwindling attendance. One issue that arises when a congregation disbands is deciding what to do with existing church buildings.
Some church buildings are grand and stately, others quite modest. Some are country churches, others occupy desirable locations on principal streets or near key intersections of cities and towns. With “location, location, location” being the three most important factors in real estate values and the cost of construction being so high today, many closed churches present attractive opportunities to entrepreneurs who envision new uses for them.
Repurposing consecrated property for secular usage can elicit strong feelings. When my country church folded not long ago, my sadness was mitigated somewhat by the fact that another Christian congregation in need of a church home purchased our building. The small group of us who disbanded had realized that our small building could be converted into professional offices, an insurance agency, or some other type of business, but our earnest hope and prayer was that the gospel of Jesus Christ would continue to be preached there.
Our prayers were answered, but for the members of many disbanded congregations, they have to see their former church converted to less lofty purposes.
In a recent article, The Christian Science Monitor reported on efforts by church leaders, architects, and developers to look for ways to repurpose church buildings that respect their spiritual heritage. These efforts don’t always succeed. Church buildings have been converted into bars, restaurants, nightclubs, strip clubs, luxury condominiums, and so on.
Pope Francis has expressed his hope that “deconsecrated churches could be given ‘a new life,’ preferably in service of the poor,” according to the article. Expanding on this, a professor of Catholicism and moral theology in Nova Scotia explained that the desire is not to “surrender to the power of capitalism.”
This wording is bizarre. To present capitalism as a threat here is uncalled for. It is misleading, unfair, and possibly ignorant. It is a distraction from the worthy goal of searching for nobler uses of formerly consecrated properties.
Not the Enemy
First, let me state that, personally, I sympathize with those who lament the transition of a church to, say, a casino. In fact, several years ago, a nearby church was converted into a brewery and restaurant. Out of respect for its past as a church, I never entered that establishment. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. That brewery recently shut down, although likely not just because it wasn’t being patronized by folks like me.
Now, let’s untangle the confused thinking that casts capitalism as an unholy enemy of Christianity. Capitalism is simply a system based on private property. The principle of private property is a theme that runs throughout the Bible, most explicitly in the commandments “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not covet.”
I understand why the pope and the professor object to certain uses of former church buildings, but they should at least acknowledge that they are acting within their rights. As St. Peter himself said (referring to a piece of property) when rebuking the dishonesty of Ananias and Sapphira, “When it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And even after the sale, was the money not yours to do as you pleased about it?” (Acts 5:4, James Moffatt translation).
If Christians don’t want their church buildings to be turned into sites for degrading or unwholesome activities, they have several options. They could pay for its conversion into something that will bless others—perhaps a homeless shelter, a safe place for children to play after school, or a senior citizen center. If that isn’t feasible, they still could refuse to sell their building to anyone whose proposed use for it offended them. As a last resort, they have the option to demolish the structure rather than sell it for uses of which they disapprove—in effect, giving a decent burial to a hallowed structure.
Another point worth making in defense of capitalism is that it isn’t a system of private property that tempts people into sinful or inferior pursuits. Humans sin and yield to temptation under socialism as readily as they do under capitalism. No political or economic system has the power to remove sin from the human heart. The difference is that, under capitalism, ownership of property tends toward its most highly valued use.
If a buyer converts a church to a casino, I would agree that such a choice may indicate spiritual sickness in the society—all the more reason for churches to redouble their efforts to spread the gospel of salvation and convey the message that worshiping God brings more blessings than worshiping chance.
Under socialism, buildings are used according to the preferences of the ruling elite, since the state outlaws private ownership and dictates the uses of buildings. Those uses may be just as evil if not more so than those chosen under capitalism. Under socialism, the state may decide to convert a church building into a prison, a psychiatric “hospital,” or a school for indoctrinating children into unchristian principles or even explicit atheism.
Several years ago, I made a trip I had never believed I could make: I visited countries that had been sealed off from tourists by the Iron Curtain. In Prague, just down the street from Wenceslas Square, the Czechs had converted a secret police prison and torture facility into a museum of communism, to preserve the record of the atrocities against human rights that had made a mockery of “the peoples’ republics.” Next to it was a McDonald’s restaurant. Right next door to where life and freedom were extinguished, people used their freedom to place a business that nourishes life. That is capitalism in action.
Do human beings always make right and moral choices under capitalism? Of course not. As already stated, human beings are neither flawless nor sinless regardless of whether they live amid capitalism or socialism. But capitalism has blessed far more people than socialism, starting with having lifted billions of people out of wretched poverty over the last few centuries. And capitalism will accomplish even more for the benefit of humankind if Christian churches succeed in spreading Christian values.
The bottom line is that capitalism is not the enemy of Christianity, nor is it the reason that some church buildings are converted to purposes of which Christians may disapprove. On the contrary, to the degree that people in capitalist countries bring their Christian values into the marketplace, blessings will abound.
Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics at Grove City College. He is the author of several books including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.