Cover story -- Holland
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Issue Date:  December 14, 2007


A windmill at Groot-Ammers in the Netherlands
The Dutch plan

Will innovation save this church?

Stories by ROBERT J. McCLORY
Amsterdam and other cities in Holland

The 11 a.m. Sunday liturgy at St. Dominic Church in Amsterdam exemplifies the paradoxes of Catholicism in Holland. It is -- or is meant to be -- a Mass, with a soaring eucharistic prayer sung in alternative parts by the presider, the choir and the congregation. Other parts of the Mass familiar to Catholics are missing. This is an ecumenical Mass, unlike anything most Catholics would encounter at their local churches.

On a Sunday in November, the church was packed, as it is regularly, with some 600 worshipers, the majority elderly or middle-aged but with a substantial representation of younger people, including families with children. So powerful was the music and singing and so involved the congregation, it was impossible not to be moved. It did not look like something dead or dying, as Catholicism in Holland is reputed to be, but like something impossibly new.

There is a saying among Dutch Catholics these days that the situation of the church in the Netherlands is “hopeless but not serious.” This Zen-like assessment reflects dual realities of the Dutch church: It is the place where some of the most dramatic innovations in Catholic practice in the past half-century have occurred simultaneously with one of the most precipitous drops in church membership in the Western world.

International interest in the state of Catholicism in this part of the world was stirred in September when the Dutch province of the Dominican religious order sent shock waves around the world with a 34-page booklet benignly titled “Church and Ministry” and distributed to all 1,425 parishes in the country.

The booklet proposes that because of a serious shortage of priests and a revised theology of ministry coming from Vatican II, the time is at hand for parish communities to designate laypersons to preside at the Eucharist in place of priests -- a form of ordination from below. It also declares that current church law, which bars women and married men from priestly service, stems from a “historically outdated philosophy of humankind and an antiquated view of sexuality.”

Free-falling numbers

According to the Catholic Institute for Social-Religious Research, there were 4.3 million Catholics among the Netherlands’ 16 million people in 2006. That figure represents a decrease of 700,000 Catholics since 2000 and 1.3 million since 1980. The reality is even starker than the figures, since only about 60 percent of that 4.3 million really consider themselves Catholic in anything other than name. Sunday Mass attendance is about 7 percent of the Catholic population, down from 14 percent in 1990 and 24 percent in 1980. The total of active diocesan priests in 2006 was 950, compared to 2,150 in 1990 and 3,400 in 1980. Few young men attend theology schools. Ordinations have averaged 10 to 15 per year for the whole country. The Breda diocese had no ordinations for a recent stretch of almost 15 years.

Similar declarations have come from progressive theologians and other reform-minded Catholics for years, but this document, approved by an entire province of a respected religious order, is particularly dramatic and bold. What did these Dutch Dominicans hope to achieve? Some say it is best understood in the context of a country where Christianity has been on a steep downward trajectory for decades, losing 22 percent of its members in the last 17 years alone.

-- Margaret McClory

Ton Bernts

Ton Bernts, director of the Catholic Institute for Social-Religious Research in Nijmegen, traces the decline to the usual suspects -- secularization and the loss of respect for virtually all forms of institutional authority. “People just don’t accept what they’re told any more,” said Bernts. “I would say the time of the traditional territorial parish is over.” He could point to virtually no signs in Holland of Catholic institutions that are showing strength elsewhere -- no new, conservative religious orders of women, very little evangelical or charismatic activity, only sparse interest in religious movements such as Communion and Liberation or Focolare, no visible presence of Opus Dei.

The only faith that appears to be growing in this part of the world is Islam, whose adherents in the Netherlands are approaching a million, he noted.

Though he sees no new models within Christianity to justify his cautious optimism, he believes it will survive, if in “a modest way,” but only “if it can find a way to sell itself better, but I don’t really see new models,” Bernts said.

Little religion on campus

The challenge of engaging the next generation was visible at Nijmegen’s sprawling Radboud University, which is, in effect, the official Catholic University of the Netherlands. There, in sharp contrast to the vibrancy of religion on many campuses in the United States, but perhaps as a harbinger of changes to come, Dutch students interviewed by NCR repeatedly said that religion and religious issues play no part in campus life. “If there’s as much as 1 percent of Catholics here who have any interest, I would be surprised,” said one junior history major. “It’s not that we’re angry at the church; it’s just that the whole thing seems irrelevant.”

In the lunchroom, Elam Zeyrek, a 25-year-old law student raised as an Orthodox Syrian Christian, was just finishing his sandwich. “Religion isn’t discussed here except for Islam, and then it’s all about the troubles with terrorism,” he said. “Personally, I believe in God, but it’s up to everyone to choose.” Zeyrek admitted he often feels an urge to ask for a blessing when he sits down to eat, “so there’s something still there, though it’s not at the center of my life.”

-- Margaret McClory

Marit Monteiro

Appearances are not deceiving, said Marit Monteiro, professor of Catholic history at Radboud. “Those interested in changing the structure, that generation is dying,” she said, “and young people aren’t interested.” Many Catholics may still continue “believing,” she said, but “not belonging. They don’t challenge the Vatican or the Vatican’s interpretation.”

In contrast, she said, in the 1960s and ’70s hopes were high. Those were the years when “the bishops went along with the rhetoric of renewal and modernization.”

The hierarchical part of the equation began to change in the 1980s when the Vatican stepped in and appointed conservative bishops, most notably Joannes Gijsen, to the southern, heavily Catholic diocese of Roermond. Renewal efforts were discouraged throughout the country, liberal priests and other church leaders lost their positions, the popular Dutch Catechism was suppressed. Though mass protests were mounted against the crackdown, by the year 2000, said Monteiro, “Catholics had reached the bottom of their endurance.”

In 2003 the reformist Eighth Day Movement, which had once drawn thousands to its rallies and conferences, shut down for lack of interest. The enthusiasm was gone and no one would pick up the baton.

Meanwhile, the Dutch Dominicans in Holland have remained exceptionally progressive, said Monteiro, who has written a history of the order in Holland. “They are courageous,” she said, “but now they are old and frail.” She described the new booklet on ordination of the laity as “their swan song.”

Hints of a flame

It was not difficult to find lay leaders who, while acknowledging the church’s dwindling profile, are deeply involved in church affairs and see hints of flame in the embers. Some are members of the Dutch Dominican Lay Fraternity, which extends the influence of the religious order into education, journalism, theology, social work and other professions. Jan van Hooydonk, 52, is editor of the magazine Vol Zin (loosely translated as “Full of Meaning”), a joint Catholic-Protestant publication dealing with spirituality, worship and theology. “I would think only 5 to 10 percent of Catholics support official church positions on things like birth control, euthanasia and male priesthood,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s no discussion of these issues with the hierarchy.”

-- Margaret McClory

Jan van Hooydonk

But van Hooydonk believes rejection of institutional religion does not necessarily translate into full-blown atheism or indifference. “People today are looking for symbols and rituals to nourish their lives,” he said, citing as an offbeat example a tremendous popular interest in the Dutch monarchy and the doings of Queen Beatrice and the royal family.

There still exists, he said, a healthy and creative interchange between Catholics and members of the Dutch Protestant church. Informal liturgies are organized by laypeople, priests and ministers, he said, on a larger scale than the public realizes. Van Hooydonk himself is a member of such a group, which celebrates Christmas, Easter and other occasions at Nijmegen’s historic St. Stephen Catholic Church. The Netherlands branch of the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi recently merged with the Protestant-led Interchurch Peace Movement, he noted, and Catholics are active members of the Netherlands’ National Council of Churches.

The ecumenical activity that prospered following Vatican II is largely ignored by church authority today. Nevertheless, it seems clear from the abundance of surviving and ongoing ecumenical contact that the future of Dutch Catholicism, however limited, will have a distinctive, even radical ecumenical character.

Ecumenism at St. Dominic’s

A dramatic example of that is the service at St. Dominic Church. The sermon the day this writer visited was delivered by the church’s copastor, Miriam Wolthuis, a Catholic theologian, on the presence of God in daily life as understood by Martin Buber. The presider during the eucharistic prayer was a layman, and seated near the altar, wearing a sweater and tie, was 84-year-old Jan Nieuwenhuis, the man who launched this ecumenical endeavor some 40 years ago and who remains a Dominican Catholic priest in good standing. He was one of the four authors of the Dominican booklet on ordination.

-- Margaret McClory

Jan Nieuwenhuis and Miriam Wolthuis

Following the service, a Protestant woman said she and her husband have been coming for 11 years because “it’s a place where you can bring your questions and your doubts and you’re not going to be dictated to.”

“We separated some 400 years ago,” said an usher. “Now, God willing, we’re getting back together again.”

Asked if we had participated in a real Mass with a real consecration, Nieuwenhuis said, “Of course, but actually it is we who are consecrated, we who are sent forth to break our lives for others.”

Nieuwenhuis and several other Dominicans were appointed to St. Dominic’s in 1964 when the church was in poor condition and had few parishioners. “We were told to do what needed to be done,” he said. When the vernacular liturgy was introduced, the old choir, preferring Latin, left and was replaced by a local youth choir. “Immediately, the singing got better,” said Nieuwenhuis. Then a Protestant minister asked if he could join the parish and preach on occasion. The congregation voted him in, “and immediately the preaching got better.” Then a secular priest who had married asked to be involved. The congregation approved again, and outreach to the community got better. Nieuwenhuis said he and the staff then visited the bishop, who declared the situation at St. Dominic’s “impossible.”

In the 1980s the bishop attempted to close down the church and threatened to excommunicate Nieuwenhuis, but since the Dominicans are an exempt order, answerable only to their own superiors, his hands were tied. “I’ve had the support of the Dominican Order all these years,” he said, “and that is essential for this to happen.” The current pastoral staff includes copastors, one Catholic and one Protestant, and eight preachers, one of whom is Nieuwenhuis. More than 3,000 persons are associated with the church, many serving as volunteers in outreach programs.

Grass-roots ecumenism “represents the future of the Catholic church,” he said. “You can’t wait for the Vatican. You must do it.”

Hope in the present situation

Van Hooydonk, the editor, called the radical proposals regarding the Eucharist in the Dominican booklet “perfectly logical,” since “the Eucharist belongs to the community, and the community has a right to the Eucharist that takes precedence over church laws that restrict priesthood to celibate men.” The proposals stem directly from the theology of Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, whom van Hooydonk called “the intellectual father of progressive Catholicism” in the Netherlands (see related story).

In effect then, the priest shortage has brought into the light Schillebeeckx’s theology “from below,” largely veiled from public consideration for some 27 years. It is just such developments, suggested van Hooydonk, that make the present hopeless situation “not so serious,” in fact, open to new developments.

-- Margaret McClory

Peter Nissen

Peter Nissen, who appears so often on television for his insights on Catholic matters that he has been called “the Dutch John Allen,” sees the Dominican booklet as “a survival guide.” At his home in Nijmegen, the dapper, 50-year-old history professor at Radboud University said the Dominican booklet is essential for the continually increasing number of parishes without priests. The proliferation of so-called “Word and Communion” services -- using pre-consecrated hosts and led by a lay pastoral worker -- has been growing each year throughout the Netherlands (630 such services in 2004 compared to 1,900 Sunday Masses that year). As it turns out, the compromise rituals are satisfactory neither to the hierarchy, who believe Catholics increasingly see the services as an actual Mass, nor for reformers, for the same reason, though they would prefer laity to be empowered to be eucharistic presiders.

The apparent strategy of the hierarchy now is to reduce the number of these Word and Communion services, so that eventually a priest will preside at every Eucharist. The price of course will be an increasing number of already exhausted circuit-rider priests, increased import of foreign priests and a steady trend of closed or merged parishes.

The Dominican plan would allow small basic communities to flourish under the leadership of their chosen eucharistic presiders. “Maybe such Eucharists aren’t quite as full as those presided over by a pastor, but they have meaning and they have value,” said Nissen. The Dominicans realize that neither they nor the dwindling supply of other clergy will be able to preserve Eucharist as the central act of the church, he explained, so this proposal is in a way “their last will and testament to the Catholics of the Netherlands.” The challenge is “how can we continue as liberal, pluralistic and ecumenical and still preserve and protect a relationship with the broader church, the church in the world, and the church over the centuries?” Nissen did not seem to think the task impossible.

When I met Dominican Fr. Andre Lascaris, another of the booklet’s four authors, at the order’s monastery in Huissen, a quiet, tree-lined town some 20 miles from Nijmegen, he was in high spirits. Some 550 people had turned out for a hastily organized conference in Amsterdam on the controversial “Church and Ministry” document three days before and gave nearly unanimous approval to the recommendations. “I was delighted,” he said. “We wanted open discussion and we’re getting it.” At 68, Lascaris, the youngest of the authors and a bit impeded by his long battle with Parkinson’s disease, is still ready for controversy. His career as a Dominican includes early service in South Africa, from which country he was expelled for publicly protesting the apartheid system, and assignments as editor of Dominican publications, novice master, prior, co-provincial and peacemaker in Northern Ireland. He remains active with the Dominican Study Center for Theology and Society, which he founded.

Nothing new

“What we are proposing is nothing new,” he said. “Vatican II put the People of God first and the hierarchy second as ministers to the people [in the order of chapters in the document Lumen Gentium]. But the bishops are still far away from that thinking and acting that way. They don’t look or think like servants. They see priesthood as a form of monarchy.” Since the congregation as a whole “creates” the Eucharist, he said, the priest or other presider is present in an essentially “functionary role.”

-- Margaret McClory

Fr. Lascaris

Lascaris uses dramatic analogies to make his points during our discussion. Suppose, he said, we discover rational beings in another galaxy 100 light years away. We can’t possibly go there but we can communicate; they read our scriptures and come to believe in Jesus Christ as savior. So now they can baptize one another, but are we to tell them they can’t have Eucharist because we can’t send anyone with the power that far? “No!” said Lascaris. “The Eucharist comes from below.”

Later he opened his Bible to the Book of Daniel and cited the account in Chapter 2 of the prophet’s interpretation of the king’s dream about a great statue of gold, silver and bronze but with legs partly of earthenware. When struck by a rock the feet collapsed, toppling the structure.

“The church is fragile,” he said. “It would be better if democratization comes before the whole thing collapses.”

He does not believe “Church and Ministry” alone will alter church policy. “It’s dialogue we want,” he said. “We don’t expect miracles but we have to keep knocking on the door.”

A few days later Lascaris, summoned by the Dominican master, Fr. Carlos Azpiroz Costa, left for Rome in the company of the Dutch Dominican provincial and another Dominican. When I spoke with Lascaris by phone on his return, he was unrepentant. Yes, he said, Costa was “annoyed” that he had not been informed about the distribution of the booklet and he had suggested the authors redo the document to correct certain misinterpretations.

“Of course this was impossible,” Lascaris said. So it was agreed that an article critical of the booklet, which is being written by a French Dominican, will be sent to all the parishes that had received “Church and Ministry.”

“This could further the dialogue,” he said.

Robert J. McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007

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