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Theme: The Dutch Experiment

August 14, 2007

From “Declaration of Independence” Time Magazine, Jan. 17, 1969:

The church in The Netherlands is perhaps the most independent and autonomy-minded in the Roman Catholic fold. Time and again, it has challenged Rome’s ideas of orthodoxy. Last week the Dutch defied the Vatican again, this time with particular force. Meeting in the North Sea town of Noordwijkerhout, the Dutch Pastoral Council, a 109-member assembly of laymen, priests and bishops chosen two years ago to outline policy for the country’s 5,000,000 Catholics, rejected Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae as “not convincing on the basis of the argumentation given.” That statement was all the more imposing because it was signed by the nine bishops at the meeting, including Bernard Jan Cardinal Alfrink, primate of The Netherlands.

From “Dutch Defeat” Time Magazine, February 11, 1980:

For each of the 15 days of deliberations, a white-robed Pope John Paul II sat Sphinxlike, jotting down notes but never saying a word. Or so went the official version of the extraordinary synod of Dutch bishops at the Vatican, an account intended to play down the Pope’s role. But as the synod ended last week the truth leaked out. John Paul had spoken often and, it was obvious, decisively, to persuade the bishops to enforce Vatican policy in their rebellious land.

At the closing Mass in the Sistine Chapel, John Paul said he took satisfaction in the bishops’ “clearer awareness” of the universal church. Translation: the Vatican had won on each of its eight major complaints. The handling of priestly celibacy was typical. Though Rome closed the question long ago, two liberal Dutch bishops have permitted open discussion of allowing married priests, and another bishop has said publicly that he would welcome such a change. In one of the more dramatic moments around the synod table, archtraditionalist Silvio Cardinal Oddi of the Vatican pointed a finger at each bishop in turn and demanded: “Do you believe in priestly celibacy?” Each said yes. But when liberals later told the press of this new united front, Bishop Johannes Möller of Groningen admitted, “There will be problems in Holland, where a majority of priests and laymen are against the rule.”


Initial reaction in The Netherlands was muted, probably because the strategically placed liberals figure it does not much matter what Rome says. Father Walter Goddijn, a sociologist who was secretary general of the now dissolved Dutch Pastoral Council, thinks it is impossible to reverse what he calls Holland’s “do it yourself Catholicism. “The Dutch bishops have been roped in by Rome but they will be untied as soon as they are back in Holland,” he says. “The Swiss Guard of the Vatican is not the CIA. They only have rubber bullets.”

From “Growth of a ‘new church’: the Dutch experiment” Michael Gilchrist, AD2000, July 1988:

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.


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.


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.

From “Pray to Allah, Dutch bishop suggests” Catholic World News, Aug. 14, 2007:

A Dutch Catholic bishop has suggested that Christians should refer to God as “Allah” to promote better relations with Muslims.

Bishop Martinus “Tiny” Muskens of Breda told the “Network” television show that “God doesn’t really care how we address Him.”

Pointing out that “Allah” is a term already used by Christians who speak Arabic, Bishop Muskens said that humans are needlessly divided over such terminology. God, the bishop said, is above such “bickering.”

The Dutch bishop admitted that his suggestion was not likely to gain widespread acceptance. But he predicted that within a century or two, Dutch Catholics would be addressing prayers to “Allah.”

Bishop Muskens has a history of creating occasional controversy within the Church. He has broken with Vatican leadership to endorse the use of condoms as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS, and in 2006 he traveled to Uganda to endorse the work of a group called Stop AIDS Now, which emphasized condom distribution.

Lent fast re-branded as ‘Christian Ramadan’ The Telegraph, February 12, 2008:

Dutch Catholics have re-branded the Lent fast as the “Christian Ramadan” in an attempt to appeal to young people who are more likely to know about Islam than Christianity.

The Catholic charity Vastenaktie, which collects for the Third World across the Netherlands during the Lent period, is concerned that the Christian festival has become less important for the Dutch over the last generation.

“The image of the Catholic Lent must be polished. The fact that we use a Muslim term is related to the fact that Ramadan is a better-known concept among young people than Lent,” said Vastenaktie Director, Martin Van der Kuil.

Three decades ago the Catholic Church was as strict as many Muslims are about Ramadan with a total ban on meat and alcohol during the 40-day Lenten period between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

Most Dutch Catholics now focus on charitable work after the Vatican loosened fasting strictures for all but the first and last days of Lent back in 1967.

Four million Dutch describe themselves as Roman Catholics and 400,000 people attend Mass every week but only a few tens of thousands still mark Lent by fasting, said Mr Van der Kuil

Vastenaktie organisers hope that by linking the festival to Ramadan they can remind Christians who may be less observant than Muslims of the “spirituality and sobriety” of Lent.

See also:
Time: The Radical, Revolutionary Church of the Netherlands (1967)
Catholic Counter-Reformation: How The Dutch Catechism Opened the Way to Heresy (1972)


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