THE PECULIARITIES OF THE NETHERLANDS

It is a sign of the particular vitality of second wave Left Catholicism that, parallel to the spread of a renewed worker priest apostolate in the wake of Vatican II, another vibrant experiment caught the imagination of progressive priests. Starting in the late autumn of 1968, suddenly, in country after country, associations of radical (largely parish) priests began to emerge which became the focus of media attention almost from day one. If the most visible and contentious symbol of first wave Left Catholicism had been the efforts of the first generation of worker priests in the late 1940s and early 1950s, second wave Left Catholicism produced an independent and powerful wave of radical parish priest associations from Portugal to Austria and from England to Italy. This movement, from its outset, managed to outstrip second wave worker priests in the degree of public attention bestowed upon their cause. As if by spontaneous generation, the calendar year of 1968 witnessed the unanticipated and unforeseen arrival of such rebel priests, independent of the worker priest phenomenon, as the new vectors of contestation within the priesthood as a whole. Though there was a certain degree of overlap with second wave worker priests, the newly emerging radical priests covered the entire range of vocations entered into by ordained priests, from parish priests to members of religious orders. In the early years of the phenomenon, perhaps the most central place in the kaleidoscope of national movements was taken by the Dutch contingent.

For several decades, starting in the 1960s, the Netherlands benefited from an international image as a country living under relaxed and permissive rules of social interaction and interpersonal relations. The title of a documentary produced at the tail end of several decades of Dutch exceptionalism, ‘Sex, Drugs and Democracy’,[1] nicely captured the socio-cultural and political circumstances which, from the 1960s onwards, had fashioned the Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular as the preferred travel destination for several generations of disaffected youth in Europe and North America. A number ofsometimes unrelated factors were responsible for this development.

It is beyond the purview of this monograph to engage in a discussion of these issues. May it suffice to point to several symbolic markers: the comet-like rise and fall of the ludic countercultural rebels captivating the Dutch and European public in the mid-1960s, the Dutch Provos, and the subsequent transformation of Amsterdam into the capital city of squatters and alternative cultural experiments in all walks of life. If already during the 1960s ‘a climate of mild insanity’ reigned in Amsterdam, by the early 1970s the city on the Amstel definitely appeared to march to a different beat.[2]

Incredibly enough, certain developments within the Dutch Catholic church had aided in the creation of an image—and a corresponding partial reality—of the Netherlands as a haven for progressive and libertarian experimentations in all walks of life. By the second half of the 1960s, Dutch Catholicism stood in the front lines of innovation emanating from Vatican II. The Dutch episcopacy was the sole national body of bishops anywhere in the world which stood solidly united behind the proverbial spirit of Vatican II. The 1966 Dutch Catechism, reflecting the new winds perceived to be blowing from Rome, became an international bestseller, was translated into countless languages, and raised a storm of controversies amongst what was initially regarded as a rearguard of Catholic conservatism.[3] Dutch Catholicism briefly moved centre stage in the Catholic world.

It had not always been that way. In fact, just as Dutch society up to the 1950s was rarely characterized by an unusual degree of permissiveness, so Dutch Catholicism hitherto had been by no means a haven for religious innovators. An astute observer of Dutch Catholic life once put it like this: ‘By the beginning of the 1950s, Dutch Catholicism was the best organized, most conservative and observant of traditional Catholic laws, and least ecumenical Catholic population in industrial Europe.’ And as late as 1954, Cardinal Alfrink, at Vatican II one of the mainstays of the reforming wing along with the Belgian Leo Suenens, still ‘appealed to a linear, hierarchical, and one-way chain of command in the church, which saw bishops as agents of the pope, priests as agents of their bishops, and the laity as agents of the will of priests and bishops’.[4] What happened in the late fifties and early sixties to turn Dutch Catholicism into the vanguard of radical change?

There are many explanations for this seeming miracle. One popular attempt to understand the almost 180-degree turnaround within Dutch Catholicism in the space of less than a dozen years refers to the very fact of the long survival of traditionalism as the dominant paradigm for Dutch Catholicism until the 1950s. Once, under the pressure of modernization and given an added impetus by Vatican II, new ideas began to circulate amongst the close-knit community of Dutch Catholic believers, they caught on like wildfire. Once the lid was lifted off the boiling kettle, steam started hissing out in entirely unanticipated directions. The presence of open-minded social scientists in influential positions within Dutch Catholicism in the 1950s, attuned to the latest trends in sociology and political science, is likewise adduced as a factor playing a distinctly progressive role. The emergence of a brilliant set of young theologians champing at the bit, amongst them the internationally renowned Belgian-born Edward Schillebeeckx, undoubtedly added to the explosive mix.

All of these factors doubtless exerted important pressures in the direction of progressive changes but, as John A. Coleman perspicaciously suggests, pressure from below alone cannot explain the Dutch miracle: ‘A comparative cross-national perspective suggests evidence of shifts very similar to those registered for the Netherlands among the theologians, lower clergy, and lay elites in the late 1950s and early 1960s in almost every Western industrial country.’[5] But nowhere else did the respective national hierarchies eventually embrace these new trends. Only in the Netherlands did the episcopacy eventually embrace innovation and experimentation—and not just as a temporary concession or a ploy.

In the last analysis, Coleman claims, it was due to the personalities and intellectual calibre of the Dutch bishops that change could be effected so rapidly and effectively: ‘The Dutch bishops are a different breed from many of their confreres in the world episcopacy.’68 Given the hierarchical structures of the Catholic church, changes in the outlook at the apex of the pyramid could fundamentally alter the course of Catholicism. As was noted at the outset of Chapter 1, the election of Pope John XXIII engendered a host of entirely unforeseen consequences. A change in crucial personnel, entailing a sudden alteration in course, applied to some extent in the case of Dutch Catholicism as well. In the Dutch case, however, although one must note a series of new appointments and the creation of two new dioceses in 1956, older bishops, too, notably Cardinal Alfrink, proved to be intellectually agile and flexible enough to shift their own outlook from traditionalism to radical reformism. The top-down structure of the church, designed to perpetuate tradition and conservatism, could on occasion produce the opposite effect.[6]

To be sure, several circumstantial elements aided the transformation of the Dutch Catholic church from the late 1950s. Traditionally a beleaguered minority in the Calvinist Dutch Low Countries, Dutch Catholicism had forged close ties amongst its adherents which led to the construction of a dense defensive network of Catholic institutions, which imparted an aura of steadfastness in the presence of adversity. Yet this also meant that innovations were not immediately or automatically regarded as challenges to the status quo or as heresies. ‘If there was ever a church which was strong enough to experiment with change, it was the Catholic church in the Netherlands. [... ] If new people with new visions came to control the elaborate apparatus of school systems, unions, newspapers, and radio and television, the same resources which had once supported traditional Dutch Catholicism could be mobilized to provide a unique laboratory, a pilot church for post-Vatican II structures.’[7] And a pilot experiment it certainly became.

For at least a dozen crucial years, the Dutch Catholic church pioneered new approaches to the vexed question of how to retain the allegiance of the faithful in the age of modernity and secularization. With the parish of the University of Amsterdam often performing the role of vanguard within the vanguard,[8] new liturgical methods were tested which set new standards and soon became the norm across the Netherlands. Just as the international media sought out the smoke-filled ‘anti-smoking’ happenings of the Dutch Provos, investigative journalists from other parts of Europe visited Dutch parishes to report on a quiet revolution seemingly at work in the Low Countries.[9]

For in the Netherlands it was no longer entirely unusual for mass to be accompanied by Hammond organ, drums, and guitar, modern rhythms and modern songtexts. Priests, even bishops celebrating mass, frequently discarded traditional vestments in favour of simple Benedictine-style attire. ‘There are no more assortments of little pieces of cloth and laced choir gowns, and the altar tools no longer include little golden spoons and plates.’ Wine used in mass was poured out of regular carafes into regular goblets, the host consecrated in everyday breadbaskets. Taking turns, families belonging to the congregation assisted the priest in celebrating the Eucharist, rather than altar boys in frocks.

Dutch bishops were noted to have arrogated de facto certain powers normally reserved for Vatican administrators. Candidates for vacant episcopal positions were selected by the laity and clergy of the concerned diocese—and only then were the names of the chosen candidates forwarded to Rome. Ecumenical church services became commonplace, often presided over by pastors of one confession only. Divorced Catholics were quickly readmitted to receive the sacraments even if remarried, and even if they had initiated divorce proceedings. Moreover, ‘in consistent recourse to what was essential about the priesthood, Dutch bishops made an effort to continue to employ married priests in other church-administered services, until such a time that they will have convinced Rome to allow married priests to exercise their calling’.[10]

  • [1] Jonathan Bland, ‘Sex, Drugs and Democracy’ (USA, 1994): .
  • [2] On the Provos, see, in English, Richard Kempton, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt(Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2007), but above all Niek Pas, Imaazje! De verbeelding van Provo1965-1967 (Amsterdam: Wereldbibliotheek, 2003), citation from the latter, p. 90. For anassessment of the Provos’ place within the evolution from countercultural nonconformity topolitical contestation, see Gerd-Rainer Horn, The Spirit of ’68 (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2007), pp. 38-42. On the transformation of Amsterdam into a laboratory of non-traditionalmodes of living and the creation of virtually libertarian zones within the most important city ofthe Netherlands, anticipating and prefiguring the subsequent emergence of some parts of WestBerlin as islands of cultural and political experimentation, see Virginie Mamadouh, De stad ineigen hand. Provo’s, kabouters en krakers als stedelijke sociale beweging (Amsterdam: Sua, 1992).
  • [3] De nieuwe kathechismus. Geloofsverkondiging voor volwassenen (Hilversum: PaulBrand, 1966).
  • [4] John A. Coleman, The Evolution of Dutch Catholicism, 1958-1974 (Berkeley: Universityof California Press, 1978), citations on pp. 53-4 and p. 88.
  • [5] Coleman, Dutch Catholicism, p. 100. 68 Coleman, Dutch Catholicism, p. 100.
  • [6] No Dutch-language publication, in my estimation, comes close to the level of sophisticationand analytic power on these issues displayed in John A. Coleman’s work. Two importantcontributions by Dutch authors are, however, Richard Auwerda, De kromstaf als wapen.Bisschopsbenoemingen in Nederland (Baarn: Arbor, 1988), and the superior biography of thekey player in the Dutch episcopacy in those years, Ton H. M. van Schaik, Alfrink. Een biografie(Amsterdam: Anthos, 1997).
  • [7] Coleman, Dutch Catholicism, p. 87.
  • [8] Coen Stuldreher, ‘De Amsterdamse Studentenecclesia. Over de oorsprong van een conflict’,in Alternatieve groepen in de kerk (Amersfoort: De Horstink, 1972), pp. 24-58.
  • [9] A fascinating book-length travelogue by two young French journalists visiting the hotspotsof radical Catholicism, the Netherlands, and Spain, is Philippe Alfonsin and Patrick Pesnot,L’Eglise contestee. Hollande/Espagne (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1971).
  • [10] A series of articles appearing in a leading West German daily newspaper, the SuddeutscheZeitung, from mid-December 1968 to mid-January 1969 gave a sympathetic and lively successionof snapshots of everyday life in the Catholic Netherlands. The individual contributions were thenrepublished as a special reprint: Hannes Burger, Durch Reformen zu einer neuen Kirche. VitalerKatholizismus in Holland (Munich: SZ, 1969). I cite from the brochure I was able to consult inthe Katholieke Documentatie Center (Nijmegen), Septuagint (LXX), fo. 205.
 
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