The flood of criticism levelled by Dutch Roman Catholics at Rome and its bishops includes sex abuse by the clergy, the banning of much-loved songs from mass, and arch-conservative priests and bishops. Time to put the crisis afflicting the Dutch Roman Catholic Church in historical perspective.
“Yes, a gap undeniably exists, and it didn’t just spring up overnight, it has a long history,” says Church historian Professor Peter Nissen on the relationship between Dutch Catholics and the Church leadership, the Vatican and bishops.
The Netherlands is one of many countries in which the Catholic Church has been the focus of media attention in the past few months. The Vatican banned a number of much-loved Dutch language songs, and homosexuals held demonstrations because they were not allowed to receive Holy Communion. And here too there has been child sex abuse by the clergy.
Catholics have reacted with outrage because they feel the Church has put the abusers first. They are also angry about discrimination against homosexuals, and because they can no longer sing their own songs. Most practising Dutch Catholics have had enough of the Pope and the rest of the church leadership.
On paper, if not in actual fact, the Roman Catholic community is the largest religious group in the Netherlands. No less than four million Dutch people – about a quarter of the population – are registered as Catholics. Very few actually attend church: about seven percent regularly go to mass.
“For many people, their Catholicism has entered a semi-dormant state,” says Peter Nissen. “There is a huge grey area between those who are active in the church and those for whom the Church is history. Those in the grey area value their Catholic roots; their religion is part of their upbringing. They turn to tradition during crucial moments in their lives: births, marriages and deaths.”
Secularisation in the Netherlands started in earnest around 1970. Pope John Paul XXIII had initiated reform by calling the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which lasted from 1962 until 1965. The reform process was enthusiastically embraced by Dutch Catholic organisations and the clergy.
According to Peter Nissen, “Rome was startled by the great enthusiasm with which the reforms were implemented in the Netherlands. At the end of the 1960s, all Dutch bishops expressed support for a call to scrap celibacy. Rome reacted by launching a counter-offensive which centred on appointing conservative bishops, and the faithful are now feeling the effects.”
Between 1855 and 1960 the Dutch Roman Catholic Church was very obedient to Rome. Prior to 1855, the Church had been going through a difficult period because Protestantism was the only officially recognised religion in the Netherlands. From the Reformation and the insurrection against the Spanish rulers at the end of the 16th century, Catholics could only come together in secret churches. There were very few priests and the Vatican regarded the Netherlands as an area for missionary work.
And yet the country was home to a large number of Roman Catholics, who built their own churches and ran their own affairs without any central control from Rome. Peter Nissen says this mentality from the distant past may be part of the reason why many Dutch Catholics find it so difficult to accept central authority. In any case, the Dutch seem to suffer from a certain allergy to central authority. The monarchy has often been the object of protests, and the second day of the 1985 papal visit to the Netherlands was marred by protesters throwing tomatoes and shouting slogans.
In the past 50 years, secularisation in the Netherlands has continued apace. Many Catholic parishes have introduced reforms, including a greater say for Church members. They now feel threatened by new, stricter rules introduced by bishops acting under instructions from the Vatican.
Peter Nissen comments, “I strongly feel that the Church is in a major crisis and that tensions are running high. As a result, many people will become entrenched in their positions. People who attach great importance to loyalty to the pope and the bishops will now believe this even more important.”
After the dust has settled, the Roman Catholic Church will be much smaller and even more conservative than it is today. Many people will start looking for alternatives – Church communities which consider tolerance and freedom of paramount importance. And many people will find their own way to express their religious feelings and give meaning to their lives, without feeling the need for assistance from the Church.
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