National Catholic Reporter ®

September 07, 2001                                                                                                  Vol. 1, No. 2

‘Dutch model’ or ‘Dutch disease?’ 

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.

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 homosexuals. 

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 some 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 took place.

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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