|I just got back to Rome
from a week in the Netherlands, where I hoped to learn more about that
country’s unique social experiment: legalized drugs and prostitution, decriminalized
euthanasia, and the world’s first statute giving full marriage rights to
How, I wondered, is tolerance as the touchstone
to social policy — what fans call “the Dutch model,” detractors “the Dutch
disease” — working out?
For my conclusions, readers will have to await
a future issue of NCR. But the experience also gave me a chance
to take the temperature of the Dutch Catholic church, and I want to offer
reflections on that subject here.
There was a time Dutch Catholics seemed the most
rebellious in the world. The 1967 New Catechism, for example, was
a run-away bestseller, condemned in Rome for its liberal approach to matters
such as the Virgin Birth and angels and demons.
Prior to Vatican II the Dutch had been avidly
traditional and pro-papal. In the space of a few months in 1963 and 1964,
however, change swept through Holland like floodwater bursting through
one of the country’s legendary dykes. The theologian who seemed to symbolize
the new climate was Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, who rethought doctrines
such as the resurrection and the ordained priesthood.
So clamorous had the Netherlands become that some
observers believe Dutch Cardinal Jan Willebrands, a well-liked moderate
and head of the Vatican office on ecumenism, might have become pope in
1978 were it not for the suspicion that surrounded his nationality.
In 1980, John Paul II convened a special synod
to try to bring the Dutch back into line. Yet in 1985 he triggered another
eruption when progressive Catholics were excluded from a meeting during
his visit. In consensus-mad Holland, where a refusal to talk is tantamount
to the sin against the Holy Spirit, this was unforgivable. Out of the scandal
was born the Eighth of May movement, named after the date when the meeting
Rome’s strategy in the years since has been simple:
Appoint safe bishops, and play for time. The cornerstone of this approach
has been Cardinal Adrian Johannes Simonis, a cautious, somewhat dour conservative.
To outward appearances, the approach seems to
have worked. The raucous internal debate that marked the 1970s and 1980s
is gone. The Eighth of May movement, which once drew crowds of 13,000 to
its annual gatherings (in a nation with five million Catholics), now is
lucky to get 4,000. The group’s president, Henk Baars, frankly told me
that most members are tired of demanding reforms that never come.
Upon closer inspection, however, it’s clear that
Dutch Catholicism remains remarkably independent at the base, even if the
days of open ecclesiastical combat are past. A couple of examples, representative
of dozens of encounters I had during the trip, tell the story.
I sat down in Maastricht, a charming city on the
southern tip of Holland, with Myriam Steemers van Winkoop, a former bishops’
conference official who now works as director of pastoral services in a
teaching hospital. She once helped draft policy papers for the bishops
on euthanasia, and continues to publish on the subject. Despite Simonis’
opposition to decriminalization, Steemers is openly supportive.
I asked Steemers how many Dutch priests are willing
to administer last rites to someone going through with euthanasia, despite
official church teaching that this is illicit. “Virtually all,” she responded,
without hesitation. This tracks with what I heard time and again, including
from conservative critics of the Dutch Catholic scene.
Another day I found myself at the Catholic University
in Nijmegen, talking with Dominican Fr. Theo Koster, head of a group of
gay Catholic priests and pastoral workers.
Koster performs “blessing ceremonies” for gay
couples, despite an official ban. He carries out the ceremonies in his
church, and to all appearances they differ very little from a heterosexual
wedding rite (though Koster is careful not to use the word “marriage”).
I ask how many Dutch priests are willing to bless
gay unions. Koster says the vast majority has no problem, though many prefer
to do it quietly. Again it is an answer that tracks with what others tell
me. A recent study by the University of Utrecht in cooperation with a gay
newspaper found that 80 percent of Dutch priests support blessing gay unions
outside of church walls.
I asked Koster, a six- and-a-half foot tower of
a man reputed to play a mean game of volleyball, how he gets away with
such open defiance. “If the bishop wanted to stop me, he would have to
come with arguments,” he replied.
I was immediately skeptical: “Since when has the
absence of arguments ever stopped an authority figure from clamping down
on something he doesn’t like?”
Koster smiled, and said simply: “This is the Netherlands.”
By which Koster meant, in short, that this is
a culture based on what the Dutch call gedogen. It translates as
“tolerance,” and means that when society is divided on a question, lots
of different approaches, even some illegal, are openly accepted as a way
of working towards a solution.
It is all part of the poldermodel, the
emphasis on consensus, that defines life here. In a densely populated country
where divisions of religion and class have always been less important than
the common fight against the sea, the only way to function is to live and
let live. Important decisions must be the result of overwhelming agreement.
Hence the new laws on euthanasia and gay marriage may excite controversy
elsewhere but very little in the Netherlands, because they have been talked
about and experimented with for decades.
In such a climate, it is difficult for any leader,
whether secular or religious, to implement policies that do not enjoy strong
popular support. Quite frankly, the bishops’ line in many areas does not
command such a consensus. Hence at the base, in parishes and hospitals
and schools, Catholic life marches to the beat of its own drum, largely
unruffled by officialdom.
For the record, Simonis told me during an interview
in his Utrecht office that he believes pastoral practice diverges from
official teaching less often than people think, and that when he learns
of such behavior he always talks with the priest or pastoral worker involved.
Yet even Simonis acknowledges that in Holland,
the bishops really don’t try to force wayward priests or laity into line.
“We have to be like parents,” he told me. “Forcing
can be counter-productive. Here we try to follow the way of convincing.”
That’s gedogen for you.
There are other features of Dutch Catholicism
I also found striking. For one thing, their “extreme conservatives” are
far less extreme than in most other places, and tend to have a robust sense
of humor. The most enjoyable conversation I had in the Netherlands, in
fact, came with Nellie Stienstra, a conservative activist in Utrecht who
is the bane of Dutch progressives. She is a quick-witted, delightfully
funny individual utterly unafraid of debate.
For another thing, Holland is a small country
where people know one another personally. They may disagree strenuously
in public, but often can sit down together in private over a Heineken to
hash things out.
There are too many peculiarities of geography
and history for the local model of Catholicism to be easily exported. But
despite their somewhat unsavory reputation in certain ecclesiastical circles,
I came away feeling that perhaps the Dutch have a sort of catechism to
offer after all.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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