While the Synod on Synodality which is to be held in Rome next October is being actively prepared, the canonist Carlo Fantappiè shows the dangers of the adventure. The first part gave the diagnosis and possible remedies. This second part presents a historical example of a similar attempt that should give one pause to think.
The Precedent of the Church in Holland
As Professor Fantappiè points out, in the third risk of a synodal Church, this reform had already been carried out in Europe, immediately after the Second Vatican Council, and resulted in failure. On this subject, the National Catholic Register on February 1 shows that the current German Synodal Path, which serves as a laboratory for the upcoming Synod on Synodality, has its roots in the Pastoral Council of the Netherlands of the years 1960-1970, the results of which were catastrophic consequences on the transmission of faith and religious practice in the Netherlands.
The Dutch Pastoral Council, which took place independently in the aftermath of Vatican II, is indeed at the origin of the massive dechristianization of that country in recent decades. The statistics on religious practice speak for themselves. Thus, the data published before the ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops in November estimates the number of practicing Catholics in the country at only 2.7%, for the year 2022.
And, according to the World Values Survey, figures “analyzed in January by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Mass attendance in the Netherlands ranks the lowest among 36 countries with large Catholic populations, with only 7% of self-identified Catholics attending Mass weekly.”
According to the latest report from the Dutch bishops, although Roman Catholics now constitute the largest group of Christian believers (20.8%) in this country with a strong Calvinist tradition, the number of practicing Catholics has fallen by more than a third (36%) during the health crisis between 2019 and 2022.
The annual decline was previously around 6%. Among other alarming figures, the number of baptisms fell from 19,680 in 2012 to 6,310 in 2021, and the number of Catholic marriages fell from 2,915 to 660 over the same period.
A few months earlier, the diocese of Amsterdam announced that more than 60% of its churches would close in the next five years, due to declining attendance of the faithful, the lack of religious congregations and donations.
Many see in this free fall of faith a direct consequence of the Dutch Pastoral Council, led by clerics and theologians who wanted to modernize the Church by modifying her doctrine.
Thus, according to Cardinal Willem Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht, in an interview with the National Catholic Register, “the decline of the Church in the Netherlands can be traced back to events in the mid-1960s, with the immediate effect that, in only a decade, between 1965 and 1975, church attendance dropped by half.”
“This dramatic trend continued steadily until today, although in a less drastic way than during the first decade. The nearly 60 years of constant erosion of the faith have led Cardinal Eijk to the bitter conclusion that “Christ has become a virtually unknown figure to most Dutch people today.”
And he clarifies: “In the second half of the 1960s, a large group of young people, now grandparents, decided not to attend church on Sundays anymore. They passed on faith in Christ to their children very little, if at all, let alone to their grandchildren. Older Catholics are dying, and young Catholics, in most cases, are no longer having their children baptized.”
“Faced with this recurring question, some scholars of the Church in Holland in the 20th century postulate that the deep crisis of the faith in the country cannot be understood without considering what is remembered as the ‘Pastoral Council,’ a major Catholic event that took place between 1966 and 1970 in Noordwijkerhout, a town in the western Netherlands, following the Second Vatican Council.”
“One of them is theologian and Church historian, Msgr. Paul Hamans, author of a number of publications on this matter, including Het Pastoraal Concilie van de Nederlandse kerkprovincie (1966-1970) (The Pastoral Council of the Dutch Church Province 1966-1970).”
“Msgr. Hamans recounted that on their return from Rome, after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the Dutch bishops entrusted to the Pastoral Institute of the Dutch Church Province, known by its Dutch acronym PINK, the special task to coordinate the national implementation of the Council’s decisions.”
“In turn, PINK launched what it called a ‘Pastoral Council,’ which consisted of a series of public meetings and consultations involving theologians and other lay experts from different backgrounds, during which various heterodox proposals for a renewal of the Catholic faith were put forward.”
“ ‘PINK and a number of theologians thought Vatican II had cut the Church off from the past,’ Msgr. Hamans told the National Catholic Register. ‘They felt called to create the Church of the future by interpreting the ‘signs of the times,’ instead of taking Revelation as the starting point. The humanities, especially sociology and psychology, would grasp the thinking of individuals and how the Church of the future should be.”
“The flagship proposal of the Pastoral Council was the abolition of celibacy for the clergy, a proposal that went directly against the Second Vatican Council, which decided to maintain it.”
“The bishops were put under pressure. Cardinal Bernardus Johannes Alfrink [Archbishop of Utrecht from 1955 to 1975] was sent to Rome to arrange with the Vatican for the abolition of priestly celibacy in the Netherlands,’ Msgr. Hamans continued, adding that Pope Paul VI publicly rejected that request twice: ‘Alfrink was not received by the Pope until July 1970 and first had to declare that he no longer advocated the abolition of celibacy.’”
“According to Msgr. Hamans, this unsuccessful Dutch initiative was the result of a misinterpretation of the notion of episcopal collegiality promoted by Vatican II, interpreted as a form of democratic and participatory process that did not take into account the specific place of the pope as the center of Church unity.” – Is this only a bad hermeneutics of the Council?
According to him, “the bishops handed over their mission to people who wanted to create another Church in the Netherlands and started its reform themselves, without consulting the center of the world Church, i.e., the Pope and the Roman Curia, although the latter started to consult the world episcopate in order to involve it in the continuation of the Church after Vatican II.” – Certainly, but this fluctuating back and forth between Rome and the bishops shows the ambiguity of the notion of collegiality in the conciliar texts and their application.
“Father Elias Leyds, a member of the Community of St. John in the Diocese of Den Bosch,” told the National Catholic Register that “this initiative [against priestly celibacy] - carried out in parallel with the publication in 1966 of a new Dutch Catechism, which was also publicly corrected by the Vatican – generated confusion among the faithful, making some of them insecure in their faith and raising false hopes among those who expected great changes in Church doctrine and left the faith in disappointment.”
Fr. Leyds “thus regrets that the Pastoral Council, which he considers directly involved in the severe collapse of faith in his country, served as a model for other controversial Church initiatives at the national or regional level, including most recently the Synodal Path in Germany and the Flemish Bishops’ liturgical document on the blessing of same-sex couples” [September 20, 2022].
“According to Fr. Leyds, the promoters of these initiatives, and to a lesser extent some of the local participants in the Synod on Synodality, are making the mistake of not drawing the right lessons from the past. ‘What happened in Holland in the 1960s showed where this desire to emancipate oneself from Rome on doctrinal questions could lead.’”
“Today, there seems to be a bidding war between some countries that want to be in the vanguard of the reform of the Catholic Church, but we must be aware that this can only lead to failure everywhere, especially since the people whose faith was not strong enough have all left already and will not return by being offered a religion emptied of its substance,” he concludes. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mt 11:15)