A row about church closures has prompted one politician to leave Catholicism

Last month the medieval church of St Walburga in the Dutch city of Arnhem (pictured) was sold for almost one million euros so that it could be converted into flats. First used in 1375, the church had been elevated to the status of basilica minor in 1964, but in 2013 it was closed because of a decline in the number of Mass-goers. The parish decided to concentrate its activities in Arnhem’s two other churches.

This is not unique to the city, or the Archdiocese of Utrecht in which it lies. Most of the seven Dutch dioceses are confronted with such choices: trying to keep open all their churches at sometimes high costs, or closing excess buildings.

In a recent interview, Cardinal Willem Eijk, the Archbishop of Utrecht, discussed this problem, and not for the first time. He had previously estimated that, by 2028, when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75, his archdiocese would have no more than 20 churches in use. In his most recent comments, he lowered that number further to 10 or 15. Yet today the archdiocese, which is about as large as that of Birmingham, has more than 250 church buildings in use.

The problem boils down to economics. As Cardinal Eijk said: “Ten per cent of the parishes are very rich, 10 per cent are essentially bankrupt. The maintenance costs for these churches are too high … Eighty per cent lie somewhere in between.”

The great majority of churches in the Netherlands are parish property and a significant number are classified as monuments. Some are medieval, but more were built in the 19th and 20th centuries, after the hierarchy was restored in 1853 and Catholics were able to exercise their faith in public. And they did so with gusto.

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