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Roman Catholics: The Radical, Revolutionary Church of The Netherlands

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The Second Vatican Council unleashed a passion for change in the Roman Catholic Church that has shown no signs of subsiding. And nowhere has the urge to question and challenge the past taken deeper roots than in The Netherlands, where a branch of the church once noted for its stodgy conservatism has suddenly become the acknowledged center of avant-garde thinking within Catholicism.

“Orthodoxy is the tragedy of Christianity,” says the Rev. Joos Arts, the priest-editor of a Catholic weekly called De Nieuwe Linie. “What we need is a rethinking of all the basics of Christianity. We must break away from the formal dogma of the Catholic Church.” Methodically, Dutch theologians are doing just that. Among the first to attack the church’s traditional teaching on contraception and clerical celibacy, priests and laymen are now questioning everything from the virginity of Mary to the traditional view that premarital intercourse is sinful.

Presence in the Heart. Such challenging of accepted doctrine is not done by a handful of youthful Christian rebels but by mature and sober thinkers with considerable reputations outside their own country. Many Dutch theologians intimate that the perpetual virginity of Christ’s mother may be a myth. “It is more modern,” says one, “to believe that Christ was the son of Mary and Joseph.” Dominican Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, 52, a peritus (expert) at the Second Vatican Council, proposes that the Resurrection of Jesus may not have been the physical recomposition of his body but a unique kind of spiritual manifestation. “One generally likes to consider his Resurrection,” he says, “as being the impact of his personality on his disciples and his presence in the hearts of all Christians.”

Dutch theologians also reject original sin as an inherited spiritual stigma on the soul, instead regard the doctrine as a symbolic way of expressing the truth that man exists in a sinful, imperfect world. For that reason, some thinkers question the need for infant baptism. “To say that a human being is born damned and continues to be damned until he is baptized is utter nonsense,” says Lay Theologian Daniel de Lange, secretary of The Netherlands’ ecumenical center. Heaven and hell? Dominican Theologian Willem van der Marck shrugs them off as myth: “Heaven and hell just do not preoccupy us any more.”

Halfway House. Elsewhere in Catholicism, the subject of clerical celibacy is still mostly a matter of prudent debate. Dutch theologians assume that it is only a matter of time before priests will be allowed to marry if they wish to. Last fall, 1,700 of the nation’s 5,000 diocesan priests signed a petition urging the Dutch hierarchy to consider ending compulsory celibacy. The question is likely to be debated next summer at a nationwide synod, where clergy and laymen will join bishops in deciding the future of the Dutch church. The bishops, moreover, are notably sympathetic to the problems of the 200 priests who have resigned from office in the past three years, many of them to marry. With Vatican permission, a handful of the married clergy have been allowed to remain in their pastoral posts, and this month the bishops set up a “halfway house” to counsel priests who have decided to seek laicization.

Birth control, for the Dutch, is another closed question. Surveys indicate that 60% of Catholic women in The Netherlands practice contraception, most of them with the tacit approval of their parish priests. One of them is Mrs. Tine Govaart, a mother of three, and a leading Catholic laywoman who attended the first two sessions of Vatican II as an unofficial observer and journalist. “I started taking the pill when I was attending the council,” she says. Mrs. Govaart also challenges church teaching on the sinfulness of premarital sex. “It is ridiculous to assume that intercourse should end in marriage,” she says. Despite her startlingly open-minded views, she has suffered no censure from the Dutch hierarchy.

Once as hostile as warring African tribes, the Protestant and Catholic churches of The Netherlands have reached a remarkable degree of accord. Mixed marriages are often celebrated jointly by priests and ministers, and non-Catholics are no longer required to promise that they will raise their children in the church. Interfaith Eucharists, although forbidden by Rome, are common. Many of these have been celebrated by an ecumenical organization called Shalom, which every Friday re-enacts the Last Supper in the guise of a “Eucharistic happening” or a “love meal.” Members of the group, which includes Protestants and Catholics, take turns consecrating the elements and distributing Communion.

Behind Closed Doors. Dutch Catholics modestly insist that they have no monopoly on Catholic radical thinking. “What we discuss openly,” says Father Schillebeeckx, “is often discussed behind closed doors elsewhere.” True or not, there is no doubt that Pope Paul VI and the Roman Curia have been deeply distressed about the extent to which the Dutch have challenged doctrine and tradition. The Pope’s 1965 encyclical on the Eucharist was clearly directed against the theories of several Dutch theologians who had proposed to describe Christ’s Real Presence in the bread and wine as transignification rather than transubstantiation. Last January, when Rome issued a warning against excesses in liturgical experiment, a Vatican spokesman explained that the directive had been aimed at certain informal Communion services which had taken place in The Netherlands. Currently, officials of the Congregation for Doctrine are studying a new Dutch catechism, approved by the hierarchy, that leaves open to question the literal truth of the Virgin birth, and tacitly approves artificial birth control.

Disdainful of the Vatican’s foreboding, Dutch theologians insist that they are not on the verge of creating a schism. “We cannot become isolated from Rome,” says Schillebeeckx, “but we can tell Rome what we think.” To prevent an open breach, the Dutch church depends strongly on the diplomatic skill of its hierarchy, headed by Bernard Jan Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht. Although the bishops have publicly warned against excesses of reform, they have, in effect, tolerated the radical questioning of doctrine that is going on in The Netherlands, and have backed many priests whose views have got them in Dutch with Rome. “It is always a good thing for the church to move forward,” says Alfrink. “It is not good if the church comes to a standstill.”

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