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Roman Catholics: More Sparks from Holland

6 minute read

Pope Paul VI issued yet another statement last week cautioning the faithful about ultra-reformist tendencies in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

The Pontiff rebuked those who are trying “to attribute to the council every type of novelty, even going so far as to question fundamental doctrines of Catholicism, declaring that truths defined by the church are matters of opinion.” The Pope’s warning was read with special interest in The Netherlands, where the church is the center of avant-garde thinking within Catholicism. At present, Dutch clerics are involved in theological disputes with Rome over two bestselling books that deal with fundamental church issues.

Out of the Vatican? Slimmer of the pair is The Grave of God, a 178-page volume about the future of the church by Father Robert Adolfs, prior of the Augustinian friars in Eindhoven. Unless the church changes, writes Adolfs, “she has no future. Imperceptibly, she will come more and more to perform functional duties within a social order which is essentially tied to an unchristian ideology. She will gradually dig her own grave, which will at the same time be the grave of God.” Adolfs maintains that the church should give up all claims to worldly power, calls on the hierarchy to divest itself of its “Renaissance splendor,” and suggests that the Pope shed his regal vestments, quit the Vatican Palace and live in Rome.

Last week, warming to his subject, Adolfs wrote in the New Christian:

“Every time the Pope speaks he reflects the old atmosphere, the old church structures. One can only conclude that the Pope is either a puppet in the hands of conservative Curia cardinals or—which seems more probable—he is himself a conservative to the backbone.”

Although his book received an imprimatur from a Dutch bishop, Adolfs was summoned by the assistant general of the Augustinian order last June to a “brotherly dialogue” at an out-of-the-way hostel for vagrants in Eindhoven. Adolfs was read a two-page assessment of his book by an anonymous reviewer, then instructed to reply to a list of ten complex questions on church teachings. Otherwise, he was warned, “you will be prohibited to write.” According to Adolfs, the questions reflected a misreading of his book and were “alien to everything that is alive in the church. In this kind of atmosphere, I would implicate myself by answering them.” Adolfs was ordered to have publication of the book stopped immediately; he left the matter to his Dutch publisher, who is now well into the book’s third edition and plans to keep the presses rolling anyhow.

Homosexuals & Calvin. The second dispute is much more serious, involving the entire Dutch episcopate and a new 625-page catechism that has been on the bestseller list since it was published last October under the imprimatur of Holland’s Bernard Jan Cardinal Alfrink.

De Nieuwe Katechismus is the work of some 150 experts and is aimed at interpreting church doctrine in the spirit of the recent Vatican Council. Written for adults, it breaks with the simplistic rote question-and-answer catechisms traditionally used for children. Instead, it is a sophisticated, often undogmatic book that frankly discusses a wide range of subjects, from homosexuals (“often hardworking people of high integrity”) to Calvin (“a man possessed by the absolute majesty of God”), and even refers to “the passion for justice of the Marxists.”

Last November a group of conservative Dutch laymen sent a letter of protest to Pope Paul asking for an official probe; old-guard cardinals in the Vatican agreed that there should be a full investigation. They particularly objected to the catechism’s comments on the virgin birth and original sin. Mirroring recent skepticism among reform circles, the Dutch theologians deliberately left open the question of Mary’s biological virginity. They also point out that original sin has been taken for granted as being inherited. To explain the concept to modern man, the Dutch catechism describes it as the collective guilt in which each human being participates. The catechism adds, “We need not attach particular significance to a ‘first sin’ since the fact that man sins today is more important.” In addition, the conservatives say that the new catechism contravenes official church teaching on the Eucharist, birth control, man’s soul, and the existence of angels.

The Dutch authors disagree that the catechism is in error. “Everything that is alive has to renew itself if it wants to stay alive,” The Netherlands’ episcopate wrote in the introduction. “The faith stays the same; the approach toward it is new.” For all that, three liberal clerics from The Netherlands were called to a secret meeting in northern Italy with Vatican theologians. At the meeting, the Dutch announced that some of the more controversial passages would be rewritten. But they made it clear that they intended to alter phrasing, not ideas. Later Cardinal Alfrink repeated essentially the same thing during a personal audience with Pope Paul.

A Deeper Problem. When translated excerpts of the new catechism were first read to the Pope, his reaction was apparently tolerant and understanding. But since preparations had been made to publish it in six other countries, the Pontiff feared that widespread distribution would make it appear that the catechism had official Vatican approval. In June the Vatican insisted that all translations be suspended until they had been cleared by a special committee of six cardinals. Although the other foreign publishers are still awaiting clearance, French and U.S. publishers last week were going ahead, but were prepared to include any revisions.

The Rev. Willem Bless, director of the Higher Catechetical Institute in Holland, expects that a compromise solution for the new catechism will finally be found, but adds, “The problem goes deeper, of course. There are certain people in Rome who would like to ban this book completely. The publication of this book comes from a completely new and more open way of thinking than they have ever witnessed. It comes from a world that is completely strange to them.”

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