I am not saying the Catholic Church can solve the housing crisis, but it should show leadership, writes Victoria White

I have a dream in which the churches in Ireland are surrounded by modular homes.

The churches look like the ones in paintings from the Middle Ages, peeking out of clusters of small homes. They look alive.

I got the idea after reading the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s pastoral letter on homelessness, ‘A Room at the Inn?’ which was published this week.

“Catholic social teaching”, says the letter, “demands justice for our fellow citizens.” The letter quotes Pope Francis saying,

There is no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.

He’s right, isn’t he? So what are we going to do about it?

More specifically, what is the Church going to do about it?

I am not saying the Catholic Church can solve the housing problem, but it should show leadership, by giving over, definitively or on loan, its serviced sites.

It’s not as if they haven’t thought of this. They have. The Catholic Church is in the process of a major audit of its properties, in accordance with the Charities Act.

The Presentation Sisters on George’s Hill, Dublin 7, have made way for sheltered housing in their convent. The Jesuits handed over three properties on Sherrard St to the Peter McVerry Trust, and the Mater Dei Institute’s former site was donated by the Dublin Archdioceses for use as a family hub.

The Catholic Church inspires most of the best work done for homeless people in Ireland, of which Brother Kevin Crowley’s Capuchin Day Centre, in Dublin, is only one example.

Pope Francis told the service users at the centre, when he visited it in August, “Do you know why you come here with trust? Because they help you without detracting from your dignity. For them, each of you is Jesus Christ.”

The point is, though, that the hand-over of land and properties has to happen on a grand scale that befits the scale of the crisis. Sure, it takes a while to get planning permission for change-of-use or for modular homes, particularly if there are objections.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, though. And I don’t see enough will at all. The Catholic Church is gasping to be relevant to people’s lives again and how better than by being true to the Gospel message and covering their suitable sites with affordable homes?

The property group Glenveagh reported, last year, that the Catholic Church had 30 sites, worth about €500m, which were sale-ready and could accommodate 6,500 housing units. Glenveagh said Church-run institutions were among the biggest sellers of property on the market.

They have it to sell. While the audit of its properties is in progress, we still don’t know exactly what it owns and where, but research by this newspaper, in 2011, revealed that the Church once occupied more than 10,700 properties across the State and controlled 6,700 religious or educational sites.

Clearly, they have to sell some property to keep their elderly priests and religious into the future, to fund their charitable activities and, in the case of some orders, to pay into the redress scheme for abuse of minors.

So far, these orders have paid out about €200m, of the €470m which they themselves said they would pay. But that’s not my point. I’m not on about taking, nor even about what’s owed. I’m on about giving.

Giving is joyful. It is empowering. This is something which the Anglican community discovered elsewhere in the world some time ago. In the UK, Faith in Affordable Housing has been working with the charity Housing Justice to leverage Church of England land and property for social and affordable housing.

While the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, did point out, last year, that it is the Church Commissioners, separate to the Church itself, which disposes of land assets, he acknowledged that his Church had a “huge responsibility” when it came to housing.

What of the Church of Ireland, which has massive property assets, relative to the numbers of its congregation? We don’t even know exactly how extensive those assets are, given there has not been a public record of them since ‘disestablishment’, in 1867.

‘Disestablishment’, for those at the back of the history class, was what happened when the Church of Ireland stopped being the official State religion, supported by means of taxes on every taxpayer in the country, most of them Roman Catholic. If it’s a question of owing something back to the community that supported it, I hardly think the Church of Ireland can excuse itself.

At disestablishment, the Church had 1,630 churches and 900 ‘glebes’, or pieces of adjoining land. No-one can tell me how much of this property remains, a century and a half later, but the Church of Ireland clearly holds more property than it requires to serve its some 126,400 adherents in the Republic.

The Church needs to urgently examine its Christian conscience and give over land for social housing. Loaning land for modular homes, in the grounds of working churches, would be a very good start.

We have a massive housing shortage, with, at the very least, 35,000 new housing units being required every year, while, last year, we managed about 14,000. Experts make different estimates, but many reckon we could have an annual shortfall of 20,000 housing units.

Church property won’t solve the housing crisis. Nor would the use of Church property for social housing solve the crisis in the churches. But it would help.

Churches and church lands are often dearly loved and defended as locations of memory, even when they have few adherents. The writer and academic Martin Maguire wrote in a 2004 edition of the magazine Landscapes that the loss of this property remained “traumatic”, their abandonment being a rupture with history as great as that of the dissolution of the monasteries:

The attachment to these churches expresses the power of a sacred reality within the landscape.

The Bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran, stated, at the launch of ‘A Room at the Inn’, that it is not right for State property to be sold to make profits for “commercial entities”.

It is still more unfair to all of us if our “sacred spaces” are built over by commercial interests, obliterating forever our historic relationship with them.

They need to be opened up, where possible, to help house some of the nearly 10,000 who are currently homeless in this country and who want a home, not a room at the inn.

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