02/21/2012 04:05 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

A Bright Idea: Invite Worship Groups Evicted from Public Schools to Worship in Shuttered Catholic Churches

This week in New York City, more than 50 churches renting space in public schools are faced with finding alternate venues in which to worship. Should churches be able to rent space for religious services in public schools? I don't know.

On one hand, the erosion of the "religious" (for lack of a better term) rights of atheists and agnostics worries me. I am deeply concerned about the way "God" creeps into speeches delivered by my president, governor and mayor, and alarmed by what I see as the escalating prejudice toward those who do not believe in God. This tyrannical disposition strikes me as the opposite of enlightenment.

On the other hand, I have strong religious feeling. I attend (I'm Catholic) worship services regularly and pray daily. I am grateful, also, for the exquisite sacred spaces in which my family gathers to celebrate, meditate and worship. Too often, I take the beauty of our sanctuaries for granted.

Although I feel strongly that a public school should never be identified with any one religion, I tend to think a church group has as much right to rent space in a public building as a theater group has. Further complicating my analysis of this question is that I come to it as a parent of public school students. A desire for diversity drove my thinking as I chose the schools my children attend; I don't want their schools to be identified with any church.

In New York City where I live, many Roman Catholic parishes are closing. Why?

Money is the main cause. The choice of Catholics fed-up with hierarchy's response to the sexual abuse scandal and disgusted with its positions on gay marriage, women's ordination and contraception is beginning to get expensive. I believe we (Catholics) have barely begun to experience the full force of the fiscally ravaging effects of this great exodus. Many parents of young children now take part in parish life just long enough to ensure that their children prepare for first Holy Communion and, then, leave parish life. (Children can complete preparation for First Eucharist by seven or eight years of age.) A growing trend towards substituting time and talent (for financial contributions to parishes) increases lay participation -- which is a good thing, mostly -- but this practice is poised to take a big bite out of Sunday collections. As legislation creates increased opportunity for victims of pedophile priests to prevail in court, dioceses proven to have abetted predator priests stand to loose millions.

When dioceses are called upon to tighten their belts, poor parishes (not the Vatican City kickback) are the first to go. This is sad for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is poor families and the elderly who most need parish life. Many elderly New York City Catholics walk to daily mass and tithe beyond their means; for them, the closing (and "merging") of their parishes often marks the beginning of their lives as "homebound" Catholics.

What, then, becomes of the many lovely churches that sit empty in the wake of this religious austerity plan?

What an act of generosity it would be were the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens to offer these churches to religious groups who have recently lost their worship spaces in public school buildings!

Many shuttered Roman Catholic churches in New York City are fine works of contemporary, modern and Victorian architecture. They should not be razed. Nor should they remain empty and unused while our neighboring Christians are scrambling for somewhere to worship.

If the New York ad Brooklyn/Queens dioceses were to offer these spaces to churches in need of worship spaces, everyone would win. It is likely that congregations renting or borrowing the Catholic-owned spaces would, in time, be able and eager to help to maintain these structures; this gesture would be great for Roman Catholic public relations; and New York's Roman Catholic community would enjoy the chance to "throw down" in genuine good faith, with the kind of ecumenism that is spelled out in Pope Paul VI's 1965 Nostra Aetate:

Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men....

New York's Catholics bishops should figure out how to share our surplus of sacred spaces in Christ's name, but I doubt they will; I think they'll prefer choose lucrative solutions over light-bearing ones. But I'd sure love to be wrong about this.