Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, warned Italian bishops to exercise the “greatest caution” after he announced that churches with only a handful of worshippers in attendance could be sold or even demolished.
"Faced with falling number of worshippers, a phenomenon which we are also unfortunately witnessing in the centre of Rome, churches without any artistic value and which need significant work can be sold or destroyed," he was quoted as saying by AFP.
He cited the example, however, of a church that was sold in Hungary only to be “transformed into a nightclub and where striptease took place on the altar”.
He added that the Vatican would not issue guidelines on the sale of churches.
The trend of deconsecrating churches and selling them off to become flats, restaurants, cultural centres and nightclubs has spread right across Europe, where the sharp decline in church attendance in recent decades has left near-deserted churches struggling to meet maintenance costs.
In the UK, 13,000 out of the Church of England’s 16,000 buildings are listed by the Government as being of special architectural or historic interest, making up around 45 per cent of the Grade I listed buildings. Yet it receives no direct government funding to help cover running costs, meaning that individual parishes must raise the funds for their upkeep.
Some churches with architectural or historical significance have taken to charging entry fees to help meet costs, while still allowing people to come in for worship services for free.