That Dutch Church!

from THE TABLET 25 February 1984 , pp. 181 – 183

by John Wijngaards

As Fr Goddijn stressed in a recent article, there is tension between Rome and the Netherlands. Below, a Dutch Mill Hill Missionary, at present directing the “Housetop” centre in London, makes a further analysis of the controversial Church in his country, due to receive a pastoral visit from Pope John Paul II in May 1985.

In 1525 Cardinal Wolsey wrote a letter to Pope Clement VII. In it, he points out the evil consequences of the newly invented art of printing. The faith and tenets of the Church, he exclaims, are now open to wide discussion. “The laity read the Scriptures and pray in their vulgar tongue. Were this suffered, the common people might come to believe that there was not so much use of the clergy.” People might he persuaded that “they could make their own way to God”. He recommends that at all costs the mysteries of religion must be kept in the hands of priests. A passing remark perhaps; yet enough to afford us a glimpse of ecclesiastical thinking, and accurate in its foreboding of the enormous religious and cultural upheaval that would grip Europe in the centuries that followed. Was Macaulay right when he summed up that upheaval, as a liberation from priestly domination? (History of England, 1855).

I am not anti-clerical, nor do I subscribe to an anti-clerical view of history. But I do think that the Church in Europe faces the option of either remaining what could, inadequately, be described as a “clerical Church” or reverting to its original nature of being “the people’s Church”. In no way do I wish to deny the need of preserving the ministries which Christ has entrusted to his Church. These ministries have true authority. But shepherding does not mean herding passive and submissive subjects. It means guiding people according to their needs and abilities. In an egalitarian and democratic Europe it will mean making responsible use of the forms of consultation and government accepted in today’s society. It should restore to the laity their rightful position as full and equal members of God’s people (Vatican II on the Laity, 32), who have their own right and duty in the apostolate, directly derived from Christ (Laity, 25), and who enjoy the freedom of enquiry and thought, as well as the freedom to express their minds (The Church Today, 62).

The true achievement of our western civilisation is the emergence of free societies where an attempt is made to respect the dignity of every person and the welfare of all. Can the Church hope to reconquer the heart and mind of Europe if it allows antiquated structures to determine its practice? Many Catholics in England, according to research conducted by Dr Michael Hornsby-Smith of the Sociology Department in the University of Surrey in 1979, would like more control of church affairs (64 per cent); would appreciate a say in the appointment of their parish priest (50 per cent) and in the allocation of parish funds (56 per cent). Which makes it relevant to have another look at what is happening in Holland.

I realise that we Dutchmen have one grave defect. We take everything far too seriously. I remember how, in 1960, on the eve of Vatican II, Rome produced a document that prescribed that all teaching in major seminaries should be done in Latin. Ridiculous, of course; overruled by the council almost immediately thereafter. But a friend of mine, compatriot and professor of theology, heroically began to lecture in Latin on the day after the decree had been issued. The performance was a disaster; Cicero in tears; the students consulting Zulu dictionaries. But the effort to put the decree into action in this radical way was typically “Dutch”.

When decisions are taken, the Dutch expect them to be put into practice. I do not know why. Could it be centuries of competition as fishermen, merchants and world traders? When a dyke burst, the whole village had to turn out and shore it up. When herring was spotted out in the North Sea, the whole fishing fleet would sail out on an hour’s notice. Life in Holland was not maintained by speech but by action. A favourite slogan even today is: “Not words but deeds!” The typical Dutch reaction to any problem is: what can we do about it? What can we do today? The Church in Holland is riddled with action groups supporting any cause in any part of the world.

This will to translate ideas into action, however admirable in itself, brings also the less desirable consequences of tension and conflict. Having lived most of my life outside Holland and having travelled widely besides, it is this that strikes me as the single most prominent feature of the Dutch church. Consenatives and progressives, left and right, clergy and laity, all seem so terribly serious, so determined to act. Could there be a lack of humour? The inability to laugh at oneself and relativise one’s own convictions? Sometimes I wish I could inspire an encyclical addressed to my countrymen. I would then take my cue from Kohelet: “In this world fast runners do not always win the race and the brave do not always win the battle (9, 11) . . . so don’t be too virtuous or too wise—why kill yourself? (7, 16)”.

Such a personal impression would, of course, be totally unacceptable in Holland. A serious topic like this must have serious study . . . And study has been done. In the past 50 years Holland produced 600 books and major articles on the sociology of religion; thereby setting a record. Almost all universities have a chair in this science. The Dutch church was the first to establish its own permanent pastoral research institute (KASKI 1946); and ever since, all activities of the Church have been meticulously monitored.

What do these studies say? Disregarding dozens of complicating factors and thus over-simplifying the findings, we might speak of a spring flood breaking the dykes of an over protected church.

Until 1960, Dutch Catholicism was fight-ing for social recognition. Catholics obtained their rights by a policy of rigorous isolation. For all practical purposes, Catholics only dealt with Catholics. They supported a Catholic political party, listened to a Catholic radio station, took a Catholic newspaper, belonged to a Catholic trade union or evening club, went to a Catholic grocer, doctor and dentist. Then, around 1960, the dykes collapsed. Social developments forced the Church to open up and face the rest of society. Post-war rebuilding and urbanisation had reshuffled previously undisturbed communities. The welfare state demanded integration. Moreover, Catholics had become so strong by then that the earlier reasons for wanting isolation had vanished. It was clear that change was inevitable.

In other parts of the world it takes decades for the Church to digest and then slowly adjust to such a radical change. In Holland three factors cooperated to make the Church itself an active participant in the process. From 1958 to 1961 the seven dioceses of Holland received five new bishops, just at the time when Vatican II was launched. The new episcopate took part in the council, relished it and decided to implement it rigorously. These reforms in turn were enthusiastically supported by the intellectuals and the upper middle class. A spring flood with the wind behind it!


The middle class has often been the vehicle of reform movements in society. They are the backbone of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in England (F. Parkins 1968) and of the political church in Latin America (I. Vallier 1970). Middle class reforms are idealistic and ethical in nature. They spring from an appreciation of values, rather than from seeking immediate economic advantage. Awareness of one’s responsibility for the common good, respect for freedom, acceptance of critical views, willingness to initiate change are typical features of middle-class radicalism. Key participants usually are artists, professionals, teachers, clergy, social workers and journalists. In the Catholic Church in Holland, an ebullient and confident middle class formed the spearhead of the faithful. They had produced the prodigious vocations that enabled the Dutch to shoulder 10 per cent of the post-war missionary effort of the Church. They had been trained in leadership through their flourishing Catholic organisations. They ran their own educational and scientific institutions and controlled the media of publicity. No country in the world participated in Vatican II as Holland did. Every single document was analysed and discussed by four discussion groups per parish.

So what went wrong? Modernisation of a business needs to be timed well. If the organisation is overhauled just when the market falls, the slump will be blamed on your renewed premises. This was the misfortune that befell the Dutch bishops. The Church in Holland, which had so long been spared the corroding factors of secularism, now began to feel its impact. Church attendance dropped to the European average. Priests and religious left, as they did elsewhere. The combination of protective walls caving in and urbanisation taking over speeded up the process, making it visible and dramatic. Conservative voices were raised in protest. The attempt to implement Vatican II was branded as the cause of all the trouble. “The apostasy began”, says a traditionalist assessment of 198I, ‘’when priests began to call Mass the Eucharist, when lay people started to do the readings, when Latin was suppressed and communion distributed in the hand.”

With hindsight, some questions could be raised. Should the effects of secularism, so well documented in neighbouring countries, not have been foreseen? Could they have been prevented more effectively? Were some of the decisions implemented too hastily? Was sufficient attention given to the needs of other social classes? More important perhaps: but was the reform planned and executed too much as a social event, without the underpinning of an equally strong spiritual renewal? The health of the Church, alter all, depends on the health of its spirit. The defects are easy to point out now; they went unnoticed in the fervour of well-intended reformation. They did not pass unnoticed in Rome however, particularly when conservative. groups found allies in Vatican departments. Finally Rome began to stir and take sides.

It is not difficult to understand the anxiety of first Paul Vl and then John Paul II about the Dutch. What used to be a flourishing church was now seen to crumble. Alarmist reports poured in, describing the excesses of mad progressives lamenting the plight of confused and lay people. The bishops were recognised to have been genuine leaders in the reform between 1960 and 1974. They had issued pastoral letters and official guidelines. As a counter-measure reactionary bishops were selected to be their successors. When this led to an open split in the bishops’ conference which the special synod of Rome failed to heal, the policy of introducing new candidates was continued. With this difference: instead of arch-conservatives like the intractable Bishop Gijsen of Roermond, more cautious, right-of-centre moderates were chosen.

The Dutch way

Rome obviously has its reasons following such a policy. Given the limited and often one-sided information it received about Holland, its stand seems consistent and predictable. What is a pity, though, is that Rome does not at the same time give support to the many positive developments in the Church. Rome does not understand the mood of Dutch Catholics or appreciate the Dutch way of dedicated loyalty. Paul Vl’s address to the Dutch bishops on November 1977, widely publicised as a rebuke, estranged the moderates too, who felt the criticism was misdirected and unfair. The synod document of January 19 was so manifestly anti-lay that even Cardinal Willebrands, in a public interview, conceded its failure to do justice to the valuable new role assumed by the laity in the Church. The vast majority of Catholics are sick of polarisation and prize good relations with Rome. Rome responds with paternalism, not with comprehension.

In Holland, episcopal candidates were always nominated by the diocesan chapter from among the diocesan clergy. Since there are ahout 500 priests in each diocese, there seems to be sufficient scope for selection. After Vatican II the process was refined by allowing wider consultation. in which even the laity were involved. Rome has consistently disregarded this process in recent years. But obviously, there would be much wisdom in preferring candidates acceptable and recognised as true leaders.

This is especially true in a country like Holland, which has been republican and democratic in spirit since it gained independence from Spain in 1648. The more people are involved in consultation and decision-making, the more leaders are required who can handle such processes: who are respected for competence, not only for status. One might recall the experience of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, who defeated a French-Bavarian army with English and Dutch troops in Blenheim in 1704. He observed that the Dutch were good soldiers, but that the reason for every single move needed to be explained to them. His ability to lead the contentious Dutch was almost as remarkable a victory as his defeat of the invincible Prince Eugene of Savoy. Again, historians of the Boer War comment on the difference in style of Ieadership on either side. The Boers were ferocious fighters, mobile, deadly accurate marksmen, as proved by British losses at Magersfontein and Ladysmith in 1899; but they were difficult to lead. Their generals, Cronje and de Wet, required extreme democratic skill to persuade tumultuous councils of war to accept a uniform military plan. In situations such as these, leaders imposed from outside will find it impossible to cope.

Where does this leave the Church in Holland? For some years to come it will remain the target of prophets of doom, finger-wagging preachers and moralising journalists. I hope it will have the moral strength to become humble through the experience, yet remain true to its vision. I think of Leeghwater, the seventeenth century engineer, who worked for 10 years at pumping the first Dutch polder dry; then saw the dykes give way in one night’s savage storm. Not heeding derision, nor the accusation that he was defying his Creator, he started all over again. The polder is still dry today, as is 25 per cent of Holland through his vision.

I hope that people in Holland will stop wasting their energy in blaming each other —or Rome for that matter. Rather they should unite to face the real challenge: to be spiritual people in an age of technology; to be believing and committed Christians who love their own society and culture; to be the leaven of the Kingdom in an exciting new world. And I hope that at the end, having done their utmost, they take comfort from the thought: “Who can make straight what God has made crooked?” (Kohelet 7, 13).

The Christianising of secular living is a task for the Church in the whole of Europe. That mission cannot be begun, let alone brought to a successful end. unless the laity be aroused and transformed. The task can only be carried out by a joyfully committed laity that does not shrink from assuming true leadership.

On feature of the Church in Holland is precisely the position acquired in it by “the common man . Many functions in the Church. many processes of decision making and pastoral activity have been ”democratised”. I am not speaking here of a rejection of authority in the Church as given to its leaders by Christ. What we are talking about is the increasing exercise of that authority on the basis of wide consultation and participation by the whole people of God. The Vatican II principle that the laity should be more actively involved anti should be given their proper place in all aspects of the Church’s life is thus given a visible expression.

In future years and centuries, the Church of Holland will surely be remembered, and I hope blessed, for this contribution. With a little exaggeration, we may perhaps compare its achievement to what France did for Europe by the French Revolution and what England contributed through the Industrial Revolution. In both cases there was a resurgence of “the common man” which resulted in enormous benefit for European societies. In the French Rcvolution. thc ordinary people reasserted their rights. In England, it was the common craftsman and small industrialist who developed modern technology and brought it within everyone’s reach. Could it be that the Dutch church, with its enormous hankering for a true integration of the laity in all spheres of the Church’s activity, is playing a similar pioneering role?

The early Christian communities were called ecclesia. No doubt there is an allusion here to the Jewish qahal, the assembly of God’s people, a term translated by ecclesia in the Septuagint. But in its Hellenistic context, the term had a democratic origin. It connoted the official assembly of all free citizens. Participation by all was taken for granted, under guidance, no doubt, of elders (presbyteroi)and the overseer (episcopos). To effect a return to that level of involvement by the laity and to integrate the potential of our own democratic traditions will require little short of a “peaceful revolution”. Through the storms it braves now, the Church in Holland may help to chart a course.

John Wijngaards