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The Church in the Netherlands

J.P.M. van der Ploeg. O.P.

Professor J.M. van der Ploeg is a doctor and master of sacred theology, doctor of sacred Scripture and professor of Old Testament studies at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Holland, a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Netherlands and a leading authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls. This essay is adapted from a presentation at a 1996 meeting of Una Voce in Düsseldorf

The Roman Catholic Church flourished in the Netherlands before Vatican II. I would have considered anyone who predicted its present ruin a fool. "Such a thing may happen in other countries," we would all have said, "but not in ours!"
The present situation has some roots in the war, which began for us in May 1940 with the invasion of Holland by Hitler's armies. As a consequence of the occupation, the Roman Curia was no longer able to communicate with us as before; the apostolic internuncio, Msgr. Paolo Giobbe, no longer resided in the country. Centrifugal forces, always present in the Church, grew stronger. Meetings were held in various places, with the clergy participating, in which the future of the Church after liberation was discussed. The voice of Rome did not always receive much attention at these clandestine meetings. St. Michiels Gestel was a kind of concentration camp where a number of prominent Dutchmen of various religious, political and social persuasions were detained as hostages facing execution in retaliation for the killing of any member of the occupying forces by Dutch freedom fighters. The hostages discussed among themselves the future of Dutch society, from religious, social and political points of view. Now the Dutch bishops (of whom there were only five at the time) had always tried to keep their flock away from non-Catholic influences, the most dangerous of which appeared to be socialism. Protestantism did not have the attraction that socialism had. Politically Dutch society leaned on what were referred to as "pillars" (zuilen), the three mightiest of these being the Catholic, Protestant and Socialist ones. The Catholic party, enjoying the favor and confidence of the hierarchy, had in previous years successfully collaborated with the two main Protestant parties in various matters, especially education. In 1920 Catholic schools had been put on a par with state-run institutions even financially. In 1923, the new Catholic University of Nijmegen hadopened with great ceremony. More Catholic schools and similar institutions were established everywhere, and the country witnessed a tremendous expansion of all kinds of Catholic social institutions.
Meanwhile the bishops strongly dissuaded the members of their flock from becoming socialists and from cooperating with socialism. Their ideal was still a Christian society in which state and Church collaborated, in conformity to the social teaching of the Church. In this serious matter, most Catholics followed their bishops.
The objective of a dissenting minority was a "breakthrough" in the policy of the Church, in order that socialists and Catholics could collaborate on the social and political levels. Some of the dissenters had survived the concentration camp of St. Michiels Gestel. The first Cabinet in Holland after the war was composed of socialists and Catholics, among them former inmates of the camp.

In 1950 Pius XII published his encyclical Humani Generis, in which he condemned the all-too-evident reappearance of Modernism in the Church. In Rome it was hoped that the pontifical letter would find a strong echo in the Catholic world, but in the Netherlands nothing of that kind happened. The Catholic University, or at least its theology faculty, ignored it.

In 1954 the bishops of Holland addressed themselves in a long pastoral letter (called "Mandement") to their faithful, in which they insisted that Catholics should work together, not only in the Church, but also in the field of political and social activity. Their ideal was still the Christian state, in which Church and state cooperate. But it was too late. The "Mandement" was a dead letter. The mighty KRO (Catholic Radio) remained silent. I asked its president the reason for the silence of the KRO. He replied with another question
"Will you do it?" I was dumbfounded, but could not refuse. So I organized four radio lectures on the subject, given by three Nijmegen professors (I was one of them) and a well-known Catholic layman. Some things must be said even if nobody listens.
Then came the Second Vatican Council, at which the "autonomy of earthly values" was one of the important new ideas. The Catholic religion could no longer be a state religion. The new ideal was: "Freedom, but no privileges, for the Catholic Church."
In 1966, one year following the close of the Council, there appeared in Holland a "New Catechism for Adults," the first in a series of heterodox catechisms published in various countries. This "Catechism" was produced by the Higher Catechetical Institute at Nijmegen. It had been a Jesuit institution, attached to their theological faculty at Maastricht, a town situated in the far south of the Netherlands, where the modern(ist) Jesuits did not like to live. They moved their institute to Nijmegen, to a house inherited from the father of two of their priests. The originator (by his ideas), and perhaps also the principal author of the "New Catechism," was Fr. Piet Schoonenberg, SJ, second professor of dogmatic theology at Nijmegen University.
The Catechetical Institute no longer exists, having died the natural death of institutions that do not bear good fruit. The theological faculty of Maastricht was transferred, in a different structure, to Amsterdam, the beautiful house at Maastricht sold and the church closed and destroyed, as was that of the Franciscans.
Schoonenberg explained his theological principles in an inaugural lecture he gave at Nijmegen in May 1965: "God or Man, A False Dilemma." When God works in man, Schoonenberg insisted, His work is also totally the work of man. With the immanentists, he failed to distinguish in this "collaboration" a primary cause, God, and a secondary cause, man. That God gives us supernatural grace can only mean, according to Schoonenberg, "that God directs us to each other as men who love." "The supreme grace of the hypostatic union is the giving of the humanity of Christ to us, other men. For this reason there is no supernatural activity of God in man that is not also fully the activity of man (from Schoonenberg's reasoning one must conclude that they are identical). The consequence is that what man is not doing, God does not do, and this idea permeates the entire "Dutch Catechism" like a red thread. For example, when an infant is baptized, unaware of what is happening, there is no activity of the infant available to be at the same time one of God. Consequently in infant baptisms nothing happens, certainly nothing that can be called supernatural. There cannot be any question of sanctifying grace or baptismal character which the child receives, nor of any other supernatural gift. The only reality is that through baptism, the child becomes a member of the Church, 'just as a little calf joins the flock." According to Schoonenberg, there cannot be any question of a supernatural character in the soul, because it would be received without the power of man. The conclusion, drawn also by Schillebeeckx, is that the priesthood is only a function, not something ontologically supernatural. Therefore priestly ordination is not necessary to celebrate the Eucharist (or to "preside" at it as the Modernists invariably say).
According to its fundamental principles, the "New Catechism" cannot admit that the sacraments are instruments of grace in the (classical) Catholic meaning of the word, the minister being an instrument acting in persona Christi, in which the recipient obtains true supernatural grace in the (classical) Catholic sense (and not as Schoonenberg thinks). This basic false principle means that it is impossible to correct the Catechism-as its authors in fact refused to do, when asked by Rome. About 25 loyal Dutch Catholics, priests as well as laymen, addressed a letter to the Holy Father in which they listed no fewer than seven substantial doctrinal errors in the New Catechism, requesting his intervention. Then a commission of three Roman theologians was appointed. They had a meeting in Gazzada, Italy with three of those responsible for the contents of the New Catechism, including Fr. Schoonenberg, but to no avail. Then Paul VI nominated a commission of cardinals, who found even more grave errors in the text. The cardinals unanimously proposed a number of major corrections and additions, the result being a book published in 1969, entitled, Why the Corrections to the New Catechism, prescribed by Rome, are unacceptable! Cardinal Aifrinek, who had given his Imprimatur to the New Catechism (before he read it?), obtained a concession from Paul VI that the corrections be published separately and not be introduced into the text of the book itself. Was this not the same, he wondered, as allowing Catholics to use the Protestant Catechism of Heidelberg, with the addition of some pages from the Catechism of Trent in a separate volume? No! said one of my friends, a convert from Protestantism. The Catechism of Heidelberg admits the existence of the supernatural (redemption, grace, etc.), which the Dutch Catechism does not!
Paul VI intervened no further. His decision proved fateful for the Netherlands, from which all former catechisms disappeared. The true doctrine of the Catholic faith is no longer taught in any school there, though many continue to be called "Catholic." Very few children receive a Catholic education, or at least some knowledge of the Faith in any "Catholic" school. They are not even taught the Our Father and the Hail Mary.

In 1968, not long after the publication of the above mentioned Catechism, a so-called "Pastoral Council" of the Church in Holland, organized by a Fr. Walter Goddijn, OFM, was convened in a former seminary. The bishops participated as mere members of the People of God. To maintain an apparent impartiality, Fr. Goddijn invited a few conservative priests and laymen. The conservatives were not invited to the final session, and the papal internuncio, Archbishop A. Felici, refused to attend, as this session had on its agenda the abolition of clerical celibacy. But Cardinal Alfrink, having received a letter from Paul VI which he kept hidden (it was later published in L'Osservatore Romano), did not dare in the end to enter into open conflict with the Pope. It might have been the end of him. The Pope refused for some time to receive the Cardinal in Rome. The documents of this Council, dealing with various ecclesiastical matters, and containing many heterodox ideas, were all published without any ecclesiastical censorship-as far as is known. Following the council, Goddijn was dismissed from his pastoral functions, but the reason for his dismissal was never disclosed.
A number of tenets of an ecclesiastical synod held at Pistoia in northern Italy in 1786, were condemned by Pius VII in a long Pontifical Constitution. The ideas of the Dutch synod were much worse, permeated as they were with Modernism, but no Roman authority ever publicly condemned them. Nothing is known of any private condemnation, which in any case would have been an ineffective antidote to a public scandal. The revolutionary attitude of Catechism and Council, together with the public silence of the Roman authority, were nothing less than a catastrophe.
In 1995 the Dutch Catholic Biblical Foundation, founded after the last war at Boxtel and now headquartered at 's-Hertogenbosch, the capital of the province of N. Brabant and the seat of a bishop, published an entirely revised translation of the whole Bible. There had just been a completely new translation, published in 1975, but the translation of 1995 features Modernist-inspired notes and introduction. In the introduction to the book of Genesis we read, for example, that the historical character of its first eleven chapters is "practically imaginary." This applies not only to chapters 4-11, but also chapters 1-3: creation and original sin. On June 30, 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission had stated that the historical character of Gen. 1-3 could not be questioned in matters "belonging to the foundation of Christian Religion." This the new Dutch Bible flatly denies. It was said that the newest translation had become a necessity because of the development of the Dutch language in the past two decades. Knowing some Dutch, I can state that this was not the case. The 1995 translation also features far more "colloquial" language than its predecessors.

The Bishop of Haarlem, Henricus Bomers, a Lazarist and former missionary bishop in Ethiopia, publicly disapproved the new publication in a monthly periodical De Apostel, published in his diocese. The diocese has an official monthly, but what the Bishop submits is subject to the approval of the editors. This intolerable situation prompted faithful Catholics to publish another monthly, which enabled the bishop to state freely his criticisms of the lates translation of the Bible, the one to be employed for liturgical use.

One is left wondering how a translation of the Word of God in "colloquial" language, the language of the street, will promote reverence for God. Holy Scripture must lead us to God, and it is a mistake to think he use of colloquial, sometimes vulgar language will contribute deep respect and awe we must when we come into contact with God. It is not primarily a matter of language, but one of faith.
The new translation bears the names and recommendations of Cardinals Simonis and Danneels. For this reason Cardinal Simonis was not pleased with the criticism of the Bishop of Haarlem; he went so far as to attempt (in vain) to prevent De Apostel from publishing a critical article by a Dutch Biblical scholar, who wished to lend his support to Bishop Bomers. With the publication of the new translation, a trilogy was complete: the new catechism, the documents of "pastoral Council" of Noordwijkerhout, and the new translation of the Bible.
It is said that in the selection of bishops during the last ten years or so, the candidates have been warned by Rome not to change their staffs, for fear they might suffer the fate of , Bishop Gijsen of Roermond. Bishop Gijsen intended to govern his diocese according to canon law and Vatican II. He was appointed in 1972 by Paul VI who always supported him; but his colleagues in the hierarchy did not. Neither was it the new policy of John Paul II to support the bishop against his colleagues in the long run. The health of Bishop Gijsen could not stand the ordeal and he resigned in January 1993, his doctor having warned him that if he did not, he had half a year to live.

In his book The Devastated Vineyard (German edition 1972) Dietrich von Hildebrand writes that there is now a strong tendency in the Church "to prefer communion to faith; thus peace implicitly becomes the highest value." Saint Catherine of Siena wrote that peace can be worse than strife, or war. But this is not the ideal of most of the Dutch Catholics, satiated as so many of them are with worldly goods and pleasures. Modern civilization does not breed strong characters, which is one of the explanations of the present situation of the Church in the West. A Dutch branch of the international association Una Voce was formed some years ago. It was at once opposed by a Latin Mass Society, whose ideal is to have the new Mass in Latin, accompanied by Gregorian chant. The Society wishes to remain neutral in the field of doctrine, as if it to ignore it. For this reason they strongly opposed Una Voce, claiming in press statements that those who do not accept the new order of Mass are "outside the Church." Their opposition, combined with that of the hierarchy, makes it difficult for Una Voce to obtain the use of a chapel or church to celebrate Mass according to the classical rite, the rite of our fathers.
At present nearly every Dutch priest celebrates ("presides over") his "Eucharist" in the way he prefers. The concept that ecclesiastical law must be obeyed, even in liturgical matters, has vanished completely. Every priest can celebrate as he likes and include his own texts, but the traditional liturgy is taboo. One must assume that, as in other countries, the majority of the priests no longer believe in transubstantiation, the Eucharistic rite having only the symbolic meaning of a communal meal. If Christ does not become really and substantially present on the altar during Mass, He cannot be offered on it, and what takes place is no longer a sacrifice. The word, "canon," has thus been replaced by "table-prayer" (tafelgebed). Years ago a pontifical High Mass, celebrated by the Pope, was shown on television, the ceremonies being explained by a Dutch reporter. After the Sanctus the reporter commented: "We have now come to that part of the Mass which in Rome is called the 'Canon,' but which we in Holland call 'table-prayer."' I have serious doubts whether such a "table-prayer" Eucharist is a valid Mass. It can only be valid when the priest intends to do what the Church does, and she clearly intends to offer on the altar the sacrifice of Calvary. But when it is clear that reference to the sacrificial nature is deliberately removed, can the celebration still be a sacrifice? On this very important issue most of the hierarchy remains silent, as on so many other subjects.
Even a strong intervention by the hierarchy would have little effect, as the majority of the clergy would not obey. The Cardinal Archbishop could at least try to ensure that Sunday Masses broadcast by radio and television be celebrated according to the norms of the Church. Yet even this is not done, and in any case such an order would also likely meet with resistance and disobedience. On two occasions a "Eucharistic celebration" for homosexuals took place in the cathedral churches of 's-Hertogenbosch and Haarlem. The two bishops strongly vetoed the sacrilegious demonstrations, but the priests in charge of the Cathedrals permitted them and there were no canonical censures afterwards.
According to KASKI (the Catholic Social Ecclesiastical Institute), in the whole country only nine percent of the faithful attend Mass on Sundays.

In some quarters of the big cities only three percent attend. In the large industrial town of Einhoven, home of the electrical and electronic multinational Philips, situated in a formerly wholly Catholic province, six percent attend Mass on Sundays. In the countryside the percentage is higher, as can be expected.
In spite of all this, endless obstacles are presented when priests and faithful ask for the old liturgy for a funeral or any other special occasion. The main reason for this reluctance is fear of a "restoration," in which the priests would be ordered to wear priestly clothing, pray the daily Office, celebrate Mass each day (this was never required, but before Vatican II it was a general custom), hear confessions on a regular basis, visit the sick and bring them the Blessed Sacrament, teach the true Catholic catechism and so on.
I have often been asked whether the rapid collapse of Dutch Catholicism was indicative of a rather superficial character. After more than sixty years in the priesthood, most of them lived in my own country, I can testify that this was not the case. Absolutely not! In my youth, at Maastricht and in other towns, all the churches were full on Sundays, and one could find many hundreds at weekday Masses in the big towns and churches. Catholic life flourished, because the Faith was still deeply rooted. But during and after the Council, Modernists began to sow the seed of doubt in the hearts of the faithful. The traditional catechism was abolished. Above all, the introduction of a new liturgy, a new religious terminology (Holy Mass was henceforth called a "service," the priest "the one who presides at the service"), imbuing a Protestant position at best, contributed to the loss of faith and relaxation of religious life. The situation was exacerbated when priests, influenced by Modernism, began to teach the faithful that many things which they had hitherto been taught were not true. The stories of Adam and Eve in Paradise, of original sin, the Flood, Noah and his animals in the ark, the passing of Israel through the Red Sea, were said to have no historical foundation. The moral teaching of the Church was said to be antiquated and not relevant to the needs of modern man. The bombardment was continuous. For many people it had always been difficult to be chaste in all the circumstances of life; now it was claimed that God did not require chastity. In a word: Christian faith and morals were shaken hard and continuously. The press was taken over by individuals who continuously instilled the wrong principles. The sexual revolution was wholly directed against the morality taught by the Church in the name of God.

All these things taken together contributed to the development of the present situation--no longer one of crisis, but of ruin. The government of the Netherlands permits euthanasia if minor conditions are fulfilled. The number of victims is rising to thousands each year and includes many cases in which the patient (ill or not ill) has not manifested his will to die. The law regulating euthanasia was introduced in parliament by a so-called "Catholic" minister of Justice and approved by the Christian Democrats. There is no reason to be complacent about the future. "But have confidence. I have overcome the world," says the Lord (Jn. 16:33).