January 24, 2015
Catholics have practically disappeared from this heart of Europe.
Protestants are also disarmed.
They say that in order to understand the atheistic, secular, multicultural, welcoming Netherlands of today – we should need call to mind the 1970s. At that time, on the football fields of Europe, the legendary Clockwork Orange (total football) of Rinus Michels was all the rage. At Michels’ death, even Johan Cruijff put aside his proverbial haughtiness and spoke well of the technician who revolutionized Dutch football, acknowledging the greatness of the master’s leadership.
It was the first libertine National football team in history which rejected the ethical codes or pseudo-ethics that are so much the fashion nowadays and broke the almost-sacred taboo of abstinence from sexual relations before the match. So, while the other [teams] were getting ready, resigned to spend a month on blackboard-tactics and studying the moves and counter-moves to bring the trophy home, they enjoyed themselves. So boldly that they were able to alter every norm, until then codified; so vigorously, that they even put a thirty-four year old gentleman between the goalposts during a World Cup match and he wasn’t even a professional. They were the first to take their wives, girlfriends and lovers on retreat with them. “We could do what we wanted”, some of them said years later, when the team, considered perfect, would reveal itself to be a splendid utopia, seeing that they never won anything. The “Clockwork Orange” of the Netherlands elaborated the freedom of ’68, making a “must”. of “transgression.”
The fact is, that “a radical rebellion against a Christianity greatly marked by rigid moralism ensued, as radical as the character of the Dutch themselves. They aren’t even capable of believing even a little in anything. They have become the opposite of what they were”, explained Cardinal Adrianus Simonis (emeritus Archbishop of Utrecht) in an Avvenire interview of 2009. Perhaps, he added in a melancholic tone, the [Dutch] people “have forgotten the essence of Christianity.”
And that would include the local church of Cardinal Bernard Jan Alfrink’s, who made history not only with “The New Dutch Catechism” saturated with modernism and apertures to everything that was previously condemned, forbidden and repressed, but also for having impeded Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani’s* discourse during the Council, thus letting himself become contaminated by the spirit of the times.
John Paul II was made aware of all this in the mid-1980s , when he, the enchanter of great crowds, of Masses in stadiums and immense open spaces all over the world, found himself passing through Utrecht’s deserted centre. Only eight thousand spectators – among which, Catholics were perhaps a minority - gathered behind the barriers to see the Pope of Rome. Amidst the few religious present were some Dominican Friars in their habits, holding a giant photograph of Leonardo Boff, the theologian of Liberation and the Cult of Mother Earth, subsequently defrocked, theorist of the great ecclesiastical springtime and upon whom the keen eyes of the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, were cast. Perhaps they were the same Dominicans that, after the promulgation of the Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum in 2007, distributed booklets in the churches for the celebration of the Mass in the absence of a priest: “Is there no priest? Well, let it be the laity – men and women, there is no difference – who pronounce the words of consecration, which, according to the Dutch Dominicans, “are not a prerogative of the consecrated.”
Today perhaps there wouldn’t even be eight thousand to greet the Pontiff.
The following figures are up-to- date: the Netherlands is atheist. For the first time in history only 17% of the population declared themselves believers, 25% atheist, 60% agnostic - even if 53% of the Dutch are convinced that there is life after death. It is of no significance whether this is out of hope or fear. According to a survey, they are a little like the English, who believe more in UFOs than in the existence of God.
Benedict XVI had this desolating picture of the situation clearly before him four years ago. On receiving the Ambassador, Joseph Weterings in the Vatican, the Pontiff (now emeritus) said: “Freedom of religion is threatened not only by legal limits in some parts of the world but also by an anti-religious mentality in numerous countries – even in those where this freedom enjoys the protection of the law. It is therefore to be hoped for, that your government be vigilant so that religious liberty and worship, continue to be protected in the country and abroad.” Joseph Ratzinger did see the matrix of the crisis: a liberty with no boundaries, championed for decades as dogma: the legalization of drugs, prostitutes in shop-windows, abortion and euthanasia, same-sex-civil unions. “Even though your nation for some time has been the champion of freedom for the individual to make their own choices, the latter,- noted Benedict XVI – should be discouraged if they damage, the good of the individuals and society as a whole. Catholic social doctrine places great importance on the common good and the integrity of individuals and always takes care in discerning if the rights perceived are really in accordance with the natural principles which I spoke about previously.” But, history had by then, taken its predictable course.
Two years later, The Archbishop of Ultrecht, (where John Paul II was received so coldly in 1985, but which had even given the Roman, Apostolic Church a Pope, Adrian VI, the reformer who was hated by curial cardinals and who disdained concerts plus planned to ruin Michelangelo’s vault in the Sistine Chapel ) made Pope Francis a part of his heartfelt cry: in average, those who leave the Church are 18,000 a year with a record (in the negative) of 23,000 in 2010; the parishes lead by him have gone from 326 to 49. There are no more priests and only one church is used for the celebration of the Eucharist. Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk who is far from the progressives’ school of Alfrink and neighboring Belgium’s Suenens and Danneels – said: “Before 2020 one third of the churches, now open for worship, will be closed.”
The Cardinal added “The reason is that there are no financial means nor even Catholics.” The figures say that this is a common problem for all the Christian confessions. The following is reported on the site Rossoporpora.org. by vaticanist, Giuseppe Rusconi: Protestants in the Netherlands made up 35.9 % of the population in 1971, while in 2010 they had gone down to 15.6 (Catholics from 40.4 to 24.5). “In 2004, when the three main Protestant denominations joined together (the strict Calvinists, the moderate Calvinists and the Lutherans), the flock was made up of more than 2 million, 400 thousand sheep. Today there is less than 1 million and 800 thousand,” added Rusconi. “The fact is – explained Cardinal Ejik – that the Protestant Church in the Netherlands began to undergo a process of secularization already in the first half of the 20th century, whereas for the Catholic Church this started happening in the 1960s”. And the Council is not the problem seeing that “even immediately after the War, problems were also found among Catholics; the relationship with doctrine was being lost and the Faith was no longer touching everyday life.”
Certainly, the theories of Edward Schillebeeckx – the theologian defined as a “militant” in an article published in the Osservatore Romano in 2009 - didn’t help to keep the already feeble, little flame alight. Born in Anversa, studies in the Humanities with the Jesuits, theological formation in Lovanio, Schillebeeckx, was “ the privileged witness to the struggle in which the Catholic Church wanted to recover its increasing distance with the modern world,” wrote the present Bishop of Novara, Monsignor Franco Giulio Brambilla, President of the Theological Faculty in northern Italy. According to the Bishop, Schillebeeckx’s arrival in Nimega, Netherlands, during Vatican II, would have marked his turning point. As a “mediator” critic, faced with the new turmoil in the Dutch Church” he moved onto questioning the Resurrection of Christ as an objective fact of Faith. One of the reasons the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith placed him on the index list – writes Monsignor Brambilla - was also for: “his undermining of Jesus’ Resurrection as an experience of conversion and so placed doubts on the sufficiency of his historical, theological reconstruction.”
The outlook for the Netherlands, given today’s statistics, is seeing Islam become the second religion of the nation, while the Protestants will be reduced to four or five percent of the population. A mere right to a platform. The Pastor of St Catherine’s, in Doetinchem (destroyed by bombings during the Second World War) was well aware of this, when, seeing the pews perennially empty decided to hold the festivity of the “Carnival Society” amid the naves and aisles; and a pole planted in front of the altar with dancing-girls to animate the ceremony.
On the other hand, it is difficult to win over the hearts of new believers if even the pastors reveal sometimes that they don’t believe in the existence of the Divinity. “The inexistence of God, for me, is not an obstacle, but a preliminary condition to believing in God. I am an atheistic believer. God is not a being but a word that designates what might exist among people,” explained the pastor, Klaus Hendrikse, already well-known for his atheist manifesto wherein he invited his Church to outline a synod debate with the existence of the Eternal Father as its object. And this is no isolated case, seeing that according to some more or less approximate estimates, it is calculated that one Protestant pastor in six is an atheist. The case of Thorkild Grosboll, pastor of the Protestant church in Denmark, caused quite a stir about ten years ago. From the pulpit, he announced that he was tired of talking about “miracles and eternal life” and pointed out that “God belonged to the past and could be considered out-dated.” Even the lady bishop of the place tried in vain to remove him from office. In the end, even the “atheist believers” who followed his sermon shared Grosboll’s ideas. It was he who gave up everything in 2008, by withdrawing into private life.
The only thing left is to do what they do in France, already prey to secularism, where churches are closed, razed to the ground or put up for auction, going to the best offer: this is also common practice in Vienna, spiritually governed by his Eminence, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, a Dominican, who, constrained by the lack of a praying public, conceded churches to the Orthodox.
In visiting Ultrecht, a must stop is St. Jakobus’, a historic church now turned into a luxury apartment in perfect Bauhaus style. In charge of the building’s “transformation” was the Zecc Group, architects, who day in and day out do the following: they outline the map of churches that have become superfluous, take them in consignment from the diocese and restructure them into something useful. The fantasy of the interior designer is wasted. At Arnhem, the large fashion boutique, Humanoid, is nothing other than an old church going back to 1889, with size 32 women’s clothes, and suits with sequins, hanging where once pictures of the Stations of the Cross were found. In addition boxes of high-heeled shoes are there in the place of the Baptismal Font and the Pasqual Candle. “Every church closure sparks off debates”, Albert Reinstra of the Wall Street Journal said some weeks ago. Reinstra keeps an eye on the places of worship for the Dutch Culture Heritage. “What can we do with them when they are empty?” he says.
Father Clement, Prior of the Augustinians in the Netherlands, said that in 1958 the order numbered about 380 friars. Today there are only 39. The youngest friar in the monastery is seventy years old. “It is sad for me” says Father Clement, who certainly isn’t comforted looking at the Arnhem Skate Hall.
It was once a church. The altar and the organ have been taken away and sold to some second-hand dealer. Inside a very dusty wardrobe a music score is still kept. There is a skateboard attached not very well to the wall. In what was once the broad aisle, about twenty boys are running about, falling down and yelling. To the background of rap music. There is also the statue of a saint, of unknown identity: someone has thrown a tyre over it, the attentive Wall Street Journal notes. Despite all this, the visitors like the re-styling: “a great atmosphere has been created, it seems a bit Medieval”, says a youth. The old people – very few – do protest; one says that the faith is being dishonored, but the local council explains that there is no more money to keep open the place of worship, which decades ago used to host up to a thousand of the faithful. The parish priest says that, after all, the boys are not doing anything bad. And never mind that their skate contests are competed under the merciful eyes of Christ in a mosaic. “It’s hardly a casino or a den of iniquity” the priest says in a very convincing way. It’s only a hall for those who want to have some fun with a skateboard. The price of the ticket is 4 Euros.
In fact, the parish priest might have thought that it could be much worse. One only needs think of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, the oldest church in the city, built at the dawn of the XIV century, now submerged in the Red Light District. Actually, one comes out of the church’s front door, forehead still wet with holy water and immediately comes up against the young ladies exposed in the shop-windows, who knock on the glass to attract the attention of the elderly gentlemen just out of Mass.
When things go well, the churches are turned into museums, such as Nieuwe Kerk, where the King of Orange used to be crowned. “It is strange” wrote the Avvenire journalist, Marina Corradi in a report about the Dutch capital “this series of churches, no longer churches, but condominiums, business premises and mosques.”
In the Jubilee Year of 2000, Cardinal Simonis, said almost prophetically in an interview with the magazine 30Giorni, that in the last quarter of the 20th century, there was “more libertinism in the faith, and thus consequently in morals” A libertinism, however, “that leads nowhere since it has no successors. And this can be seen. Those movements and groups that practiced it are actually at rock-bottom, whereas those who stayed with tradition are still nowadays able to attract. Today in the Netherlands we say that we need a purification: of mind, of history, of all that is much too unilaterally dogmatic and moralistic.”
*Secretary of the Holy Office at the time of Vatican II
[Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana.]