Roman Catholics: The Radical, Revolutionary Church of The Netherlands

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The Second Vatican Council unleashed a passion for change in the Roman Catholic Church that has shown no signs of subsiding. And nowhere has the urge to question and challenge the past taken deeper roots than in The Netherlands, where a branch of the church once noted for its stodgy conservatism has suddenly become the acknowledged center of avant-garde thinking within Catholicism.

"Orthodoxy is the tragedy of Christianity," says the Rev. Joos Arts, the priest-editor of a Catholic weekly called De Nieuwe Linie. "What we need is a rethinking of all the basics of Christianity. We must break away from the formal dogma of the Catholic Church." Methodically, Dutch theologians are doing just that. Among the first to attack the church's traditional teaching on contraception and clerical celibacy, priests and laymen are now questioning everything from the virginity of Mary to the traditional view that premarital intercourse is sinful.

Presence in the Heart. Such challenging of accepted doctrine is not done by a handful of youthful Christian rebels but by mature and sober thinkers with considerable reputations outside their own country. Many Dutch theologians intimate that the perpetual virginity of Christ's mother may be a myth. "It is more modern," says one, "to believe that Christ was the son of Mary and Joseph." Dominican Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, 52, a peritus (expert) at the Second Vatican Council, proposes that the Resurrection of Jesus may not have been the physical recomposition of his body but a unique kind of spiritual manifestation. "One generally likes to consider his Resurrection," he says, "as being the impact of his personality on his disciples and his presence in the hearts of all Christians."

Dutch theologians also reject original sin as an inherited spiritual stigma on the soul, instead regard the doctrine as a symbolic way of expressing the truth that man exists in a sinful, imperfect world. For that reason, some thinkers question the need for infant baptism. "To say that a human being is born damned and continues to be damned until he is baptized is utter nonsense," says Lay Theologian Daniel de Lange, secretary of The Netherlands' ecumenical center. Heaven and hell? Dominican Theologian Willem van der Marck shrugs them off as myth: "Heaven and hell just do not preoccupy us any more."

Halfway House. Elsewhere in Catholicism, the subject of clerical celibacy is still mostly a matter of prudent debate. Dutch theologians assume that it is only a matter of time before priests will be allowed to marry if they wish to. Last fall, 1,700 of the nation's 5,000 diocesan priests signed a petition urging the Dutch hierarchy to consider ending compulsory celibacy. The question is likely to be debated next summer at a nationwide synod, where clergy and laymen will join bishops in deciding the future of the Dutch church. The bishops, moreover, are notably sympathetic to the problems of the 200 priests who have resigned from office in the past three years, many of them to marry. With Vatican permission, a handful of the married clergy have been allowed to remain in their pastoral posts, and this month the bishops set up a "halfway house" to counsel priests who have decided to seek laicization.

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