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De Nieuwe Katechismus is the work of some 150 experts and is aimed at interpreting church doctrine in the spirit of the recent Vatican Council. Written for adults, it breaks with the simplistic rote question-and-answer catechisms traditionally used for children. Instead, it is a sophisticated, often undogmatic book that frankly discusses a wide range of subjects, from homosexuals ("often hardworking people of high integrity") to Calvin ("a man possessed by the absolute majesty of God"), and even refers to "the passion for justice of the Marxists."
Last November a group of conservative Dutch laymen sent a letter of protest to Pope Paul asking for an official probe; old-guard cardinals in the Vatican agreed that there should be a full investigation. They particularly objected to the catechism's comments on the virgin birth and original sin. Mirroring recent skepticism among reform circles, the Dutch theologians deliberately left open the question of Mary's biological virginity. They also point out that original sin has been taken for granted as being inherited. To explain the concept to modern man, the Dutch catechism describes it as the collective guilt in which each human being participates. The catechism adds, "We need not attach particular significance to a 'first sin' since the fact that man sins today is more important." In addition, the conservatives say that the new catechism contravenes official church teaching on the Eucharist, birth control, man's soul, and the existence of angels.
The Dutch authors disagree that the catechism is in error. "Everything that is alive has to renew itself if it wants to stay alive," The Netherlands' episcopate wrote in the introduction. "The faith stays the same; the approach toward it is new." For all that, three liberal clerics from The Netherlands were called to a secret meeting in northern Italy with Vatican theologians. At the meeting, the Dutch announced that some of the more controversial passages would be rewritten. But they made it clear that they intended to alter phrasing, not ideas. Later Cardinal Alfrink repeated essentially the same thing during a personal audience with Pope Paul.
A Deeper Problem. When translated excerpts of the new catechism were first read to the Pope, his reaction was apparently tolerant and understanding. But since preparations had been made to publish it in six other countries, the Pontiff feared that widespread distribution would make it appear that the catechism had official Vatican approval. In June the Vatican insisted that all translations be suspended until they had been cleared by a special committee of six cardinals. Although the other foreign publishers are still awaiting clearance, French and U.S. publishers last week were going ahead, but were prepared to include any revisions.
The Rev. Willem Bless, director of the Higher Catechetical Institute in Holland, expects that a compromise solution for the new catechism will finally be found, but adds, "The problem goes deeper, of course. There are certain people in Rome who would like to ban this book completely. The publication of this book comes from a completely new and more open way of thinking than they have ever witnessed. It comes from a world that is completely strange to them."