Dutch Bishops Tell Pope The Church Is Collapsing As They Face Hundreds Of Closures
The Catholic bishops of the nation that pioneered legalized euthanasia for children, prostitution, and “gay marriage” have come to Rome to tell Pope Francis that he is facing a Church that has “drastically secularized” and hemorrhaging members.
One of the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands, who are conducting their official visit with the pope this week, told Vatican Radio they are facing the closure of hundreds of churches and an ongoing exodus of the faithful.
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Willem Jacobus Eĳk Cardinal, Archbishop of Utrecht and chairman of the Dutch bishops’ conference, said that the Catholic Church in the Netherlands is facing a near collapse.
“The number of practicing Catholics is diminishing very quickly,” he said. “In the 1950s 90 percent of Catholics still went to church every Sunday. Now, it’s only five percent.”
This mass exodus has hit the bishops hard in their bank accounts. “The Dutch Church,” the cardinal said, “does not have a subsidy from the state but depends on voluntary contributions of the faithful. Therefore, we are forced to close many churches.”
He quoted figures from the Dutch Office for National Statistics that said in 2010 that just under 16 percent of the population identified themselves as Catholic, adding that this number is expected to drop to about 10 percent by 2020. The same office estimates that Islam will become the second largest religion in the Netherlands by the same year, with only about four or five percent expected to be Protestant Christians.
Cardinal Eijk said that the visiting bishops had given this report to the pope, who replied, “You must not give up. You must keep courage and above all the hope that Christ has given us. This hope never disappoints.”
The cardinal said the decline of Protestantism had already begun early in the 20th century, but that the Catholic Church only followed starting in the 1960s.
“However, already after the war you could see problems even among Catholics,” he added. “[The Church] was losing the relationship with the doctrine of the faith and no longer touched people’s daily life.”
L’Osservatore Romano published a report by a group called “The Future of Religious Heritage,” that estimates 600-700 Catholic churches in the Netherlands will be decommissioned by 2018. In 2010, the group published a report that said two churches a week are closing due to lack of congregations.
According to data collected in 2008, the report said, “it is to be expected that in the near future 1,000 to 1,200 Roman Catholic and Protestant churches will be closed. Of the 170 monasteries which are still in use for religious purposes, approximately 150 will close in the next 10 years.”
Asked what is being done to repair the damage, the cardinal said that they are mostly concentrating on downsizing. In his own diocese of Utrecht 326 parishes are being “melted” into 49 “very large” territorial amalgamations in each of which one church is to be designated as a “Eucharistic centre.”
“Today shortage of priests to celebrate Mass in every church, so we have centralized the celebration of the Eucharist in one,” he said.
In the lead up to the Synod on the family the Vatican is hosting in 2014, Cardinal Eijk said that the situation of religious marriages is also grave.
“It must be said that in the Netherlands there are many gay couples, couples who live together, and we have fewer and fewer Catholic religious marriages. It is a considerable drop that clearly indicates that the pastoral care of the family must be a priority in our country,” he said.
Asked whether the Church felt pushed out of the public debate on moral issues like abortion and euthanasia, Cardinal Eijk said, “The Dutch Catholic Church is not intimidated. We have expressed many times our Catholic view on various issues, especially about the legislation on euthanasia.”
In his address to the visiting Dutch bishops, Pope Francis told them to focus on the “education of consciences” given the “spiritual emptiness” of their heavily secularized country. The pope added to keep in mind that evangelization must be by “attraction” not “proselytism” and emphasized the importance of “advancing along the path of ecumenism.”
“The Church,” the pope said, “not only proposes immutable moral truths and attitudes which go against the grain, but also proposes them as the key to the good of humanity and social development. Christians have the mission of taking up this challenge. The education of consciences therefore becomes a priority.”
The pope emphasized “the importance of encouraging the faithful to seize opportunities for dialogue, to be present in those places where the future is decided; they will thus be able to bring their contribution into the debates on important social matters regarding, for instance, the family, marriage and the end of life.”
While Pope Francis continues to strongly favor more devolution of Church authority from the papacy and the Vatican to the national conferences of bishops and synods, others are concerned that such a path would place more power into the hands of the very men who have either caused or done nothing to halt the decline of the Church across the western world.
Since the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965, the Dutch bishops - together with those of the neighboring Belgian, German and Austrian bishops’ conferences - have been known as some of the most “liberal” in the world, leading a universal charge away from the Church’s traditional emphasis on moral and ecclesiological doctrine and discipline.
In 1966, the Dutch Catholic bishops’ conference published the notorious Dutch Catechism, a teaching instrument that was heavily censured, but never banned, by the Vatican of the day. It focused on ecumenism, emphasizing the teachings shared by Catholics and Protestants, and downplaying doctrine that distinguished Catholics from other denominations. The Dutch Catechism became a huge international best-seller, translated into dozens of languages, even while it was being strenuously corrected by Rome, a conflict that became emblematic of the struggle in the Church overall since Vatican II.
Since the shift of the Dutch Catholic Church towards the “progressivist” model in the 1960s and ’70s, the secular society of the Netherlands has led the advance of many Western European countries in the same direction. The process towards ultimate legalization of euthanasia, including of infants, began in the early 1970s with a series of court cases laying out “criteria” under which it was not illegal for physicians to “assist” the death of patients.
In the years following, the Netherlands became one of the first countries in the world to fully legalize prostitution and brothels and, in 2002, created same-sex “marriage.”