Religion: Washing Dirty Linen in Rome

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Pope John Paul II confronts squabbling Dutch bishops

Outside the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, radical Italian protesters last week waved placards declaring SYNOD EQUALS REPRESSION, WOJTYLA GO HOME and WOJTYLA EQUALS KHOMEINI. The gibes at John Paul II were signs of the tension surrounding a meeting beginning inside the palace. In official Vaticanese, it was a "Particular Synod." In reality, it was an unprecedented personal intervention by a Pope to deal with the sorry plight of the Catholic Church in Holland, where the 5.6 million Catholics make up 40% of the population. The bishops are squabbling, attacks on Vatican policy are endemic, and church vitality is ebbing.

The synod met in a frescoed room known as the Hall of Broken Heads (because it was once a storeroom for broken statues). Around the U-shaped table, disputes among bishops quickly surfaced. The key personalities were Johannes Gijsen, 47, militantly conservative bishop of Roermond, and the Primate of The Netherlands, Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, 70, who since 1975 has struggled unsuccessfully to stabilize things.

The Dutch troubles are fairly recent.

After the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1853, the Dutch church was fervently traditionalist. As of 1939, the tiny country produced fully 11 % of Catholicism's missionary priests. But during World War II rigid lines between Catholics and Protestants began to break down, when the two rival faiths were thrown together in resisting the occupying Nazis. In the mid-1960s and early '70s, encouraged by the mood of innovation that followed the Second Vatican Council, the attitudes of many Dutch Catholics changed radically.

Dutch bishops began publishing a new adult catechism, suspect in Rome because it sidestepped such teachings as the Virgin birth. Ecumenically minded parishes countenanced intercommunion with Protestants. Priests who quit to get married were retained on seminary faculties or continued, without episcopal approval, to function as parish ministers. Laymen and women began to carry out almost all tasks formerly reserved for priests. At a national meeting, Catholic delegates openly derided Vatican policy on priestly celibacy and birth control. Private confession virtually disappeared. There was even talk of breaking away from Rome, as England did under Henry VIII.

In 1970, trying to correct the situation, Pope Paul VI chose conservative Adrianus Simonis as bishop of Rotterdam, stirring up a furor. Even so, two years later Paul added the more hard-line Gijsen to the hierarchy. With encouragement from the Vatican, the abrasive Gijsen set about creating a church within a church. He boycotted the Dutch church's official catechetical institute and its counseling center for troubled priests and nuns. When the Dutch Council of Churches took what he considered too tolerant a line on abortion and homosexuality, he unilaterally pulled out of it, while The Netherland's six other bishops remained in. Rejecting the curriculum of the Dutch church's five official theological schools, he established a now thriving traditionalist seminary of his own.

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