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Growth of a 'new church': the Dutch experiment
The story of Dutch Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council has prompted reactions among Catholics around the world ranging from exhilaration to appalled horror. Those who regarded Vatican II as merely the launching pad for a Brave New Church look upon the Dutch experience as the wave of the future; at the other extreme, orthodox Catholics see what happened in Holland as nothing less than a second Reformation.
The most detailed analysis of the causes and effects of the triumph of the "New Church" in the Netherlands was prepared by Dutch Jesuit theologian-sociologist, Fr J. Bots, SJ, and titled Dutch Catholicism, on the Eve of the Papal Visit.
An American bishop who read this account remarked that there were parallels between the Dutch and American churches on almost every page. The implications of this are obvious when we consider how closely Australian Catholicism has been emulating that of the United States.
During the 1950s, the Netherlands possessed a higher ratio of priests and religious to Catholic population than any other European country. Its Sunday Mass attendance rate was among the highest in the world at the time of the Council; as late as 1967, the figure was still 63 per cent, including 84 per cent in rural areas. The Dutch Church's missionary activity before Vatican II was unequalled in the world: with two per cent of the world's Catholics, it provided 11 per cent of it missionary priests.
Yet within scarcely ten to fifteen years there was almost complete collapse. For example, between 1960 and 1977, ordinations to the priesthood fell from 318 to 16, a far worse drop than in neighbouring Belgium and West Germany. Mass attendance fell to less than 20 per cent of the pre-Vatican II high of 70-75 per cent; again a much worse decline than elsewhere. At the same time, 4300 nuns and brothers left religious life and over 2000 secular priest defected or were laicised: this was three time the world average.
By the 1980s, the Church in Holland was in a condition of de facto schism. The Papacy and the Vatican were viewed with undisguised hostility or disdain by a big proportion of nominal Catholics while Catholic doctrines and teachings were widely rejected.
In this study, Fr Bots identities the process of "pillarisation" - the establishment of separate Catholic social institutions to insulate the faithful from "pluralism" - during the post-World War I period as the basis of the later Dutch 'reformation', In such a compact nation, this tight network of Catholic "pillars" would allow any dominant ideology to speedily indoctrinate the entire Church.
The Dutch Church by the 1950s possessed its own newspapers, radio stations, television channels, journals, universities, schools, unions - in fact, every imaginable type of organisation. In 1955, for example, 97 per cent of Catholic adults subscribed to Catholic newspapers.
This tightly-knit church, insulated for a couple of generations from secularising trends or questioning or criticism within its ranks, would be subject to profound social and economic changes in the lead up to the Second Vatican Council. The first of these emerged as a result of closer contacts with other religions and ideologies during the World War II struggle against a common foe.
This, in turn, led to a "breakthrough" mentality, particularly among the intellectuals, which sought more co-operation among all Dutch religious groups to rebuild the country after the war.
The years after World War II saw a dramatic growth in Dutch economic prosperity with Catholics, relatively speaking, the greatest beneficiaries. Accompanying this came a massive extension of social welfare schemes which, by the 1960s, had contributed to a weakening of bonds between generations, allowing more independence for the young.
As a result of these changes, there emerged a new class of nouveaux riches Dutch Catholics, committed to materialism and updating everything, including their Church. A dominant ideology of "emancipation" from old ways emerged. This "new church" ideology would soon capture the Dutch Church's internal network of "pillars".
By the 1960s, the Dutch mass media, Catholic included, would be exposing members of the Church to "alternative lifestyles", including demands for acceptance of contraception, euthanasia, homosexuality and abortion on demand. The once sheltered Dutch Catholics were, according to Fr Bots, exposed to "massive internal secularisation", a process quickened by a traditional Dutch trait of submissiveness to authority. The Dutch would simply swap loyalties from Pope and Bishops to a new class of local ideologues.
Throughout the 1960s, during and after Vatican II, Catholic newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and a myriad of Church-sponsored organisations became bearers of the new ideology. For Dutch Catholics previously isolated from doubts and criticisms there would be a "blanket indoctrination" as over 15,000 "discussion groups" sprang up, keen to debate every conceivable religious topic: the Resurrection, the divinity of Christ the priesthood, the papacy and the Real Presence.
The most popular embodiment of the new ideology was the so-called Dutch Catechism. Published in 1966, it exuded the confident humanist optimism of a newly prosperous and questioning Dutch Church: the human race was essentially good; a rosy, accommodating stance towards the world was advocated; love replaced law; meal and community replaced sacrifice in the Mass; and feelings and experience replaced truth and doctrine.
Presiding over this process of pseudo-renewal, Fr Bots notes, was the Dutch Church's eminence grise, and official interpreter in residence of the "spirit" of Vatican II, Belgian-born Fr Edward Schillebeeckx.
Disintegration, dissent and corruption soon raged across the Dutch Church like a forest fire. Official copies of the reformed Roman liturgy were withheld or buried in editions of "alternative" rituals as experiment and improvisation became the order of the day for over 700 active liturgical "workshops". There would be no such thing as a bottom line in the Dutch liturgy.
Corruption of religious life was given de facto legitimacy by the influential Fr P.
Leenhouwers, OFM Cap, Provincial of the Capuchins, and a key figure in gatherings of higher provincial superiors. He was to offer tacit support for the "third way" which allowed for carnally lived sexual relationships within the vow of religious chastity.
Emphasis in Dutch religious life centred on "becoming a person", relating, social emancipation, experiencing, peace movements, women's movements and general emancipation from rules. Fr Leenhouwers interpreted the Gospel "Good News" as essentially redemption from earthly poverty and oppression. Dutch religious orders, in the absence of vocations, grew wealthy from the sales of empty monasteries as their ageing memberships became eligible for generous government pensions.
The near extinction of religious life in Holland was highlighted by the decline of the Divine Word Order. Despite its flourishing condition in neighbouring West Germany, the Order has received no new Dutch postulants since 1967.
A similar story of decay and decline followed in the case of seminaries. During the 1960s, all 50 minor seminaries vanished, some of them converted into high schools. The major seminaries in each diocese were consolidated into theology institutes in the five larger cities. While links between bishops and seminarians were broken, half of the intake at these institutes would be young women and those only marginally attached to the Church.
These Dutch theology institutes, according to Fr Bots, would be aptly described as "abortion clinics for priestly vocations" with the presence of married ex-priests on staff (undermining the concept of priestly celibacy), and widespread questioning of Church teachings by lecturers. In 1973, 331 students at the theology institutes responded to a survey. Of these, 126 stated that they originally intended to become priests but only 36 intended to do so. Only two were eventually ordained.
From the 1970s on, all dioceses save Rotterdam and Roermond (these two were led by "conservative" bishops) have made extensive use of the large pool of over 2000 ex-priests to fulfil pastoral functions. In the absence of priestly ordinations, the Dutch Church has been making increasing use of lay pastors most of them laicised priests or graduates of theology institutes, unattached to particular dioceses, and generally hostile towards the official Church.
As lay pastors have gradually replaced parish priests, so has a new class of experts and professionals assumed the reins of power from the Dutch Bishops. Dominating the old "pillars", they have effectively isolated bishops from the faithful and propagated their version of renewal in every area of church life.
Between 1965 and 1970, six sessions of the Dutch Pastoral Council took place in order to "implement" Vatican II. Members of this Council were heavily representative of the "breakthrough" mind-set. Their selective, biased interpretations of conciliar documents laid the ideological foundations for liturgy, mass media, catechetics, diocesan administration and social justice. With their monopoly over the tight network of Catholic communications, the Pastoral Council elites imposed their ideology of "self-emancipation" and "self-liberation" on a submissive Church.
Since then other elites have pursued similar goals. "Critical Communities" concentrated on employing the Church as a change-agent to overturn "unjust structures". In 1979 a Pastoral Workers' Union, consisting of priests and lay pastors, formed itself in order to operate independently of the Dutch Bishops. Meanwhile, Catholic Radio (KRO), intensified its propaganda in the "new spiritual climate" of support for abortion, sterilisation, contraception, euthanasia and homosexuality. One observer described KRO's function as that of a "tranquilliser for disturbed consciences", allowing those rejecting Catholic teachings to still "feel" Catholic.
Rather like Sorcerer's Apprentices, the Dutch Bishops have watched helplessly (or benignly), as social, economic and conciliar forces swept inexorably through the Church. Thanks to policies of "masterly inactivity" or tacit support, the Dutch Church was already in a state of virtual schism by the mid-1970s. Until 1983, in fact, with the exception of Rotterdam and Roermond, the Dutch Church would remain in the hands of bishops at least tacitly sympathetic or tolerant of the "new church" revolution.
Pope John Paul II had signalled in 1980 that he intended to treat Holland as a high priority in his long-term program of what Paul Johnson called the Catholic "Restoration". The seven Dutch Bishops were called to Rome for an exceptional Synod presided over by the Pope, in order to be reminded of their pastoral obligations in a run-away Church. The central theme of the Synod was to focus on the essential distinction between the baptised lay person and the ordained priest.
The immediate result of the Synod, noted Fr Bots, was further "radicalisation" of the middle management elites. Meetings of diocesan organisations were called to discuss measures to guard their "independence" from the bishops; a "pastoral workers' workshop" called for a boycott of the Synod's decisions while the Pastoral Council and Assembly of Major Superiors of the Den Bosch diocese rejected the Synod's "hierarchical decisions". At least, suggests Fr Bots, the New Class and the New Church had to flaunt their illegalities more blatantly.
The readiness of the Dutch Church's elites to challenge Rome had been demonstrated as early as 1970 when Pope Paul Vl appointed Bishop Simonis to the See of Rotterdam. At the time, the elites expressed fierce opposition via press, radio and television; yet when petitions were sought, there would be twenty times more signatures in support of Simonis from the pews than the elites could muster against the new Bishop.
In 1983, Pope John Paul II radically tilted the balance within the Dutch hierarchy towards orthodoxy and loyalty to Rome with appointments of reforming bishops to Haarlem, Den Bosch and Utrecht. However, the presence of strongly pro-Vatican Dutch Bishops has had only a marginal effect on well-entrenched new church bureaucrats and professionals.
One might well question whether the Dutch Church has any future; whether in fact the present Dutch hierarchy, however loyal to Rome, now presides over an empty spiritual shell, administered by an elite group of religious commissars and their ideological fellow travellers. If Catholicism has not been totally extinguished, it is because the Church in Holland had considerable spiritual reserves. But nowhere in the world has a branch of the Church so squandered and corrupted its Catholic heritage in the name of post-conciliar renewal.
A minority of orthodox, pro-Vatican Dutch Catholics has been, as Fr Bots puts it, exiled to a kind of "spiritual diaspora existence" within their own Church. Disparaged as conservative, rigid, intolerant, extreme or dogmatic, their influence over the day-to-day running of the Church is effectively nil. Otherwise, there are but small oases of untainted Catholicism, notably some flourishing Benedictine communities who have recently revived the cloistered life.
One of the more enduring examples to hold the line has been the major seminary established by Bishop Gijsen of Roermond in 1974. Since then, this orthodox seminary, based faithfully on the norms of Vatican II, has produced more ordinations - albeit, few enough - than the other six dioceses combined. However, the odds are still firmly stacked against an early come-back by Catholic orthodoxy.
The logical consequences of some current trends in Australia point to an outcome only marginally different to what has already occurred in the Netherlands. In many respects, we are more than halfway there. Do we want to go the whole way?
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 1 No 4 (July 1988), p. 14
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