Towards an adult faith
from THE TABLET 5 January 1980, pp. 7 – 10
by John Wijngaards

In 1966 the women’s magazine Margriet commissioned a nationwide religious survey in the Netherlands that became known popularly as “God in Holland.” This year the RC weekly De Tijd and the Catholic Broadcasting Agency KRO had a repeat study each with suitable refinements (W. Goddijn et al. Opnieuw: God in Nederland, OGN, De Tijd, Amsterdam 1979). A comparison of the data obtained from each gives a remarkably clear and comprehensive view of present-day religious belief and its decline.

The OGN study reveals that between 50 and 70 per cent of Catholics can be said to be practising in a general sort of way. They have faith (64 per cent ), agree with Church legislation (49 per cent), enrol their children in Catholic schools (65 per cent) and find prayer meaningful (72 per cent). Fifty-two per cent claim to go to Church ‘ regularly.” This does not mean weekly attendance. To the question: “Did you go last Sunday?”, only 43 per cent replied in the affirmative, and regular Mass counts suggest 28 per cent to be the weekly figure. Be this as it may, more than half consider themselves strongly attached to Catholic faith and practice.

The study also shows a sharp decline in faith if not an almost total loss of Christian values, among approximately one-third of Catholics. For them Christ is no more than an ordinary man (27 per cent). Life after death does not exist (33 per cent). The Bible is not God’s word (28 per cent). Church laws do not bind (34 per cent). Catholic education has no value (26 per cent). Nothing untoward is seen in a man and woman living together without being married (33 per cent ). Prayer is considered of doubtful value (28 per cent).The number of such “unbelieving Catholics” has more than doubled since 1966.

This regrettable decline in faith, it should be noted, is ultimately linked to the secular environment, not to internal church causes. Belief in God illustrates the point. Whereas Catholics in villages and small towns by and large believe in God (77 per cent ), this faith is shared by only about half (56 per cent ) of residents in the urban conglomerations of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague (24 per cent have doubts: 21 per cent profess to be atheists!). It confirms what has now been amply demonstrated in world-wide research: that the real causes of the present religious crisis lie in the field of the encounter between church and world, between faith and secular life.

It is worth stressing this in view of the contention sometimes heard that the crisis is due to the changes brought about in the Church since Vatican II; or in view of the accusation that in Holland a small group of liberals destroyed the faith of others. Recent changes in church policy have obviously added an element of insecurity and confusion. especially in a society as convention-ridden as Holland was, However. they have not, and could not have produced the existing crisis.

Although there are national variations, the whole of western Europe is affected by the same religious upheaval. Church attendance has sunk to a dramatic low in most countries (Belgium, England, West Germany 32 per cent; Italy 29 per cent; Austria 22 percent;France 16 percent). In big cities (Rome, Paris, Vienna, Geneva) this figure has fallen well below 15 percent. The same decline has also wrought havoc among other Christian churches. The onset of the decline can be traced to well before the Vatican Council. All these facts point emphatically to the same conclusion: the plight the Church is in is due not to conservative or progressive management but to unbalancing social factors such as World War II and its aftermath, rising living standards, urbanisation, migration to new surroundings. For those still inclined to doubt these realities, l recommend reading The Catholic Church and Europe (Pro Mundi Vita no. 73, July 1978).

Church structures and the climate of thought within a believing community either ease the tensions brought on by the crisis or aggravate them. They do not cause the crisis. Andrew Greeley rightly points to the fact that millions have stopped practising on account of the Church’s stand on birth control. Others maintain, with equal justification, that it is the liberalising trends that unsettle many Catholics. Both observations are true, but both miss the point. What we are witnessing is a crisis of faith .And faith is a free and deliberate option, a personal conquest of truth, a joyful response to God within a given situation. Pastoral competence and adapting the structures, however important, cannot guarantee the growth of faith; nor can incompetence or rigidity provide an excuse for its waning. The present crisis shows up what the faith of our Christians is worth.

Vatican II

It is hardly a coincidence that Vatican II sought to tackle the crisis at its root by focusing on the individual believer, on the family, on the people of God living a secular existence. From the labyrinth of discussions on church organisation it was existential values that emerged: freedom of conscience, respect for those of other creeds, commitment to a just society, active participation in the liturgy and in the life of the Church. The council called for a truly adult laity: “Responsible citizens of this world . . . partners in the saving mission of the Church itself. . . witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society . . . courageously taking initiatives. . . enjoying the freedom of the Holy Spirit who breathes where he wills . .. growing into adulthood according to the mature measure of Christ , . .” (passim ).

This vision found an enthusiastic response in Holland. Even before the council had drawn to a close in 1965 the Dutch bishops had decided to start implementing the Vatican Council by convoking a pastoral congress in Holland. lt was a deliberate option for renewal, for more lay participation, for openness and dialogue, for an adult church. The boldness of the step will be apparent if one remembers that hardly 13 years before, in 1953, the hierarchy had issued its Mandement against Socialism which forbade membership of the Labour Party under pain of exclusion from the sacraments! However, there had been much discussion and heart-searching since then. The council happened at a crucial and propitious moment as far as the Church in Holland was concerned.

The pastoral congress involved the whole of the laity, young and old, men and women, of all social classes. Its preparation took two full years. Religious societies, Catholic organisations and other institutions published serious studies. Fifteen thousand discussion groups, recruited from Holland’s 1,800 parishes, met regularly and an additional 4,500 workshops collated written interventions sent in to diocesan “mail boxes.” Media coverage, even in the secular press. was comprehensive and sustained. The principal debates at the six ‘’plenary sessions” in Noordwijkerhout (1968-1970) were broadcast on radio and television. Interest and participation proved overwhelming.

At about the same time other processes were set in motion that transformed and up-dated many aspects of Dutch Catholic life. A new form of catechesis was introduced in the schools. Religious societies were renewed and coordinated in national structures. A truly vernacular liturgy was encouraged. The system of supporting the Church at home and on the missions was revised. Most of the existing major seminaries were fused in five “concentrations” affiliated to universities. There was no lack of pastoral initiatives and ecumenical ventures.

Did all of it need to be done so soon and so thoroughly? Perhaps not. There are a number of areas where it would seem in retrospect that decisions were taken too hastily. The teachers were not sufficiently prepared for the switch from the memorised catechism to a freer presentation; a whole generation of children received little or no religious instruction as a consequence. In the theological “concentrations” the need for spiritual formation through Christian community living had been overlooked. Valuable devotional practices were dropped too rashly and without providing a substitute. But while conceding such mistakes, the overall impression is that the changes were needed and that their outcome is good. As to hastiness and thoroughness, this may well reflect the Dutch temper. I have always been intrigued by a German historian’s comment on the only Dutch Pope who ever ruled the Church (1522-1523): “Adrian Vl possessed the character of his compatriots who are accustomed to grasp nettles firmly and boldly.” The mood in the Dutch Church over the past 20 years has certainly been to grasp nettles firmly and “to get done” what needs to be done!

Also to be taken into account is the post-war upsurge of democratic feeling. Holland has always been a republic at heart ruled by farmers and businessmen, not by its nominal monarchies. After the war a crisis of authority rocked the family, industry, the administration of law, education and even the army. Holland was one of the first European countries to have students elected to university boards and to have a trade union for soldiers. Catholics, slowly emancipated by better education and greater prosperity, could not fail to react critically to the conformism and ‘slavish” obedience of former days. As I stated before, Vatican II’s vision of the committed, adult Christian came at a propitious moment for the Dutch Catholic. In those circumstances the Church in Holland could hardly have responded differently from the way it did.


Did the “transformation” achieve its end in making Catholics more “adult”? We have seen above that it did not halt the decline of faith for at least a third of them. But it did produce some other measurable results. A study by Dr R. Scholten et al. shows that the number of church voluntary workers has gone up to a record 230,000, a five-fold increase since the pastoral ‘ congress (Kerk Al Doende, De Horstink, Amersfoort 1978). Of the 1,797 existing parishes, all have an administrational board, 1,030 have a pastoral council, 1,100 a liturgical committee. There are 6.000 parish choirs. Other forms of involvement are: financial management, lectorship, diaconate work, parish catechesis. The average comes to 129 voluntary workers per parish or 87 per pastoral minister. Or, to look at it in a different way, one out of every seven weekly church-goers is actively involved in running the parish or one of its functions.

Another achievement. obvious for those who have livecl through the changes over the past 25 years. is the general climate of openness. Issues that affect the Church are no longer just the concern of hierarchy and clergy, but of all. Catholic affairs are conducted ‘’in public” so that many of the age-old prejudices and suspicions among non-Catholics have evaporated. Our bishops have become national figures known and respected by all. Between 1958 md 1976 Cardinal Alfrink spoke 184 times on television, an average of ten times a year; his successor. Cardinal Willebrands, is hardly less prominent. The OGN research, referred to earlier, unearthed little anti-clericalism. Ninety per cent of Catholics find their priests exercising leadership in an up-to-date and competent fashion, spending their time usefully, fulfilling a task that could not easily be dispensed with or left to others. Seventy-five per cent of non-Catholics agree with this judgment. It is a surprisingly positive image in the outspoken critical climate of Dutch society.

Talking about critical thinking, is there any evidence that Catholics have learned to think more for themselves? There is. The results of the OGN study imply a broad shift from the monolithic concepts of the past to more varied and more. personalised convictions. In matters of faith many more people “qualify” such flat statements as: ‘The Bible is God’s word,” “Whatever happens is God’s will.” “God intervenes in my life.” “There will be life after death.” Such qualifications, distinct from denials or ‘I-don’t-knows” in the enquiry, do not indicate a lack of faith, but theological sensitivity. On the moral issues too, such as: what to do when “your child joins another church, or cohabits without marriage, or wants to procure an abortion?,’’ the replies are — rightly — qualified. Catholics in Holland have strong views on church policies. Two out of every three maintain that the Church should leave the question of whether to use contraceptives or not to the conscience of parents and that celibacy should not be linked to ordination as a necessary condition. If we dismiss such qualifying or critical views as a weakening of faith or disloyalty to the Church, what do we expect the adult, mature Christian of Vatican II to be like?

The truth is that the laity too have begun to theologise, to reflect on their faith. There is much theological discussion in pastoral councils and parish groups. When the Dutch Catechism for Adults came out in 1966, more than half a million copies of its Dutch edition were sold within a few years: one copy for every four Catholic households. Edward Schillebeeckx’s recent book on Jesus is quite a bestseller even among the laity in spite of its 750 pages and twelve-syllable words. If liturgically Holland has become a singing community, theologically it is on the way to becoming a thinking Church.

I repeat that I am aware of the briars and thornbushes. The crisis of faith plagues Holland too. Mistakes have been made. Some people have lost their cherished securities in all the discussion. Ordinations have almost ground to a halt, the crisis of faith here being compounded by the celibacy issue and a number of other factors. Yet all this cannot outweigh the good achieved in trying to build an adult church. Risks had been foreseen. At the opening of the pastoral congress in 1966 Piet Smulders wrote these prophetic words: “We cannot expect spiritual maturity from all at all times after centuries of passive obedience. But here it should be remembered, first, that the only way to help people become adult is to treat them as adults; secondly, that the time is drawing near when only an adult faith will survive in the West.”

Traditionalist stand

The picture of the Church in Holland would not be complete without mention of its conservative wing. Its concern about orthodoxy, church discipline and related values is genuine. In many instances conservative opposition to change has acted as a beneficial moderating influence. In other instances its warnings have not been sufficiently heeded, at the expense of much spiritual good. The conservative point of view, however, does get a hearing in councils, institutions and through the media.

Unfortunately for the conservative cause itself, some traditionalists have organised themselves in vociferous groups that, by constantly overstating their case, by implicitly or explicitly rejecting Vatican II, by an unrelenting hunt for heretics and scandals, and libellous publications, have isolated themselves from the vast majority of Catholics. Chief among them are Confrontatie, het Michael-Legioen and Stichting Behoud RK Leven. One of their tactics is to seek out and expose real or imaginary incidents, (mis)represent them as heresy, immorality or defiance, and insinuate that they reflect the general condition. The publication of such incidents in foreign papers as juicy ecclesiastical scandals is greatly responsible for the distorted views about the Church in Holland found among many Catholics abroad.

Many traditionalists consider Bishop J. M. Gijsen—appointed by Rome to the Diocese of Roermond in opposition to candidates suggested after a wide consultation—as their champion and hero. The bishop is obviously well-intentioned and some of his initiatives may be beneficial to the church in the long run. But, however charitable and objective one tries to be, one cannot escape from the conclusion that the actions of this bishop over the past seven years have left a trail of division. Could it be that his categories of thought are too rigid, his notions of church discipline too inflexible to leave room for real dialogue with others? His diocese is the only one in which the priests’ senate and diocesan pastoral council cannot function. He shocked the whole country by threatening Catholic politicians, including the conscientious Prime Minister Van Agt, with ecclesiastical sanctions for any involvement with legislation on abortion (yet some law is unavoidable ). In an interview with a secular newspaper he denounced his fellow bishops for what amounted to doubtful orthodoxy and disloyalty to the Church. What angers Catholics most of all is the bishop’s “direct line” to Rome and his gradual breaking away from all national church organisations. Bishop Gijsen’s inability to function within the context of the Dutch Church and within the Dutch Bishops’ Conference is the immediate occasion for the forthcoming synod.

The traditionalist interpretation of events has recently found an eloquent exponent in the historian Jan Bots. Bots contends (originally in an article, now sold as a brochure: Het Nederlands Katholicisme in Historisch Perspectief, R. K. Leven, Tilburg 1976) that a flourishing Dutch Church was destroyed by a handful of newly-educated leaders of upper-middleclass background who forced their secular, liberal ideals on a silent, suffering majority.

Bots is right in stressing the role of social factors in the religious climate of Holland, including the prominence of the educated middle class. But many of the facts on which he constructs his specific theory do not hold up to inspection. His profile of the small group he deems responsible for the changes is derived from a limited analysis of one progressive organisation, the so-called Open Kerk group; this profile may not be legitimately extended to the general leadership in the Church. Moreover, the changes in Holland were carried out by all social classes alike, even if the middle class, who form 48 per cent of Dutch Catholics, took the lead. Bots claims that Bishop Gijsen is supported “by the ordinary man” or “by a majority.” The OGN study reveals that Bishop Gijsen’s hard-line views may not be shared by more than 10 per cent of Catholics; those who want church laws to be unqualified condemnation by the Church of divorce ( 10 per cent ), homosexuality (10 per cent) and the use of contraceptive (7 per cent ).

The main flaw in Bots’ interpretation , however, lies both in his diagnosis of illness and his prescription of a remedy. The crisis of faith in Holland was not caused by the attempts at renewal, nor can its cure be sought in a return to pre-Vatican II days. Traditionalists often seem to act like angry (middle class?) parents who despair at problems of their teenage children.They blame the child for growing up and its teachers for giving it ideas; then imagine that sending the child early to bed will solve its problems!

Other sources

I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of my expose. The recent history of the Church in Holland is so complex that almost any statement becomes an over-statement. Many important areas have not been covered at all; none could be covered at length. I also realise that the extensive Dutch bibliography on the subject matter will not be readily accessible to the readers of The Tablet. I presume to close, therefore by recommending two publications in English that contain much more information than I could provide.

W. Goddijn’s The Deferred Revolution (Elsevier, Amsterdam 1974) offers a sociological and theological analysis of changes that occurred in Dutch Catholicism. Since the author helped organise the pastoral congress as its secretary general, he gives an insider’s account. As professor of religious sociology at Tilburg and adviser to the Bishops’ Conference he is corisidered to be one of the best-informed observers in Holland on what is happening to the Church.

Then there is a more recent publication by an American Jesuit, John A. Coleman: The Evolution of Dutch Catholocism 1958-1974, University of California Press 1978. Using Neil J. Smelser’s framework of seven phases in structural change,he identifies and describes what has happened and what is happening in Holland. He finds the evolution unavoidable and positive in its outcome. He gives full credit to the Dutch bishops for their prudent, dynamic leadership. He maintains that the Dutch situation is not unique or “deviant” within world Catholicism, apart from the speed and thoroughness with which new strategies were implemented. “Dutch Catholicisn with its unique resources for mobilising change—provides an excellent example for analysis of the directions of change within contemporary Catholicism in general.” If Coleman is justified in considering Holland an eglise pilote — and his reviewers Bryan Wilson, Robert Bellah,and Andrew Greeley concur with him on this, Yves Congar may have been right when he stated that the ad hoc synod on Holland will have consequences for the Church elsewhere. If one man learned to swim, why should others drown?

John Wijngaards