Roman Catholics: Declaration of Independence

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The church in The Netherlands is perhaps the most independent and autonomy-minded in the Roman Catholic fold. Time and again, it has challenged Rome's ideas of orthodoxy. Last week the Dutch defied the Vatican again, this time with particular force. Meeting in the North Sea town of Noordwijkerhout, the Dutch Pastoral Council, a 109-member assembly of laymen, priests and bishops chosen two years ago to outline policy for the country's 5,000,000 Catholics, rejected Pope Paul's encyclical Humanae Vitae as "not convincing on the basis of the argumentation given." That statement was all the more imposing because it was signed by the nine bishops at the meeting, including Bernard Jan Cardinal Alfrink, primate of The Netherlands.

Shortly after the encyclical was published last July, the Dutch hierarchy issued a pastoral letter of commentary that praised its idealism but reaffirmed the responsibility of the individual conscience, in birth control as in other matters. The council's statement went considerably farther, rejecting the Pope's ban on contraception and declaring that "discussions about the way marriage is lived have not been closed."

Reluctant Agreement. The bishops abstained from another vote in which the council overwhelmingly endorsed the controversial Dutch Catechism in its original form as "a safe guide for religious instruction." The catechism, which was endorsed by the Dutch hierarchy, came under Vatican fire for being ambiguous about such subjects as Jesus' sacrifice and the perpetual virginity of Mary. Last month the Dutch bishops reluctantly agreed to insert, as an appendix to the next edition, a number of theological criticisms made by a commission of cardinals named by the Pope.

Still another resolution by the council proposed that the church should remain open to radical new approaches and ideas on contemporary ethical issues. Although the final motion did not specify the issues, earlier drafts had cited premarital sex, homosexuality, abortion and mercy killing. "When the situation is not right to render judgment," said the Dutch assembly, "the ecclesiastical authorities should abstain from giving definitive directives and, whenever possible, should leave room for experiment. In these cases, taking risks is justifiable and even necessary if the church is to remain faithful, in multiformity, to her essence, being the people of God on the march."

The Dutch Council's decision presented a new ecclesiastical dilemma for Pope Paul. As last week's resolutions at Noordwijkerhout illustrated, it is an increasingly open question as to just how long he and the official church can tolerate the doctrinal rebelliousness of The Netherlands' feisty Catholics.