Roman Catholics: The Radical, Revolutionary Church of The Netherlands

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Birth control, for the Dutch, is another closed question. Surveys indicate that 60% of Catholic women in The Netherlands practice contraception, most of them with the tacit approval of their parish priests. One of them is Mrs. Tine Govaart, a mother of three, and a leading Catholic laywoman who attended the first two sessions of Vatican II as an unofficial observer and journalist. "I started taking the pill when I was attending the council," she says. Mrs. Govaart also challenges church teaching on the sinfulness of premarital sex. "It is ridiculous to assume that intercourse should end in marriage," she says. Despite her startlingly open-minded views, she has suffered no censure from the Dutch hierarchy.

Once as hostile as warring African tribes, the Protestant and Catholic churches of The Netherlands have reached a remarkable degree of accord. Mixed marriages are often celebrated jointly by priests and ministers, and non-Catholics are no longer required to promise that they will raise their children in the church. Interfaith Eucharists, although forbidden by Rome, are common. Many of these have been celebrated by an ecumenical organization called Shalom, which every Friday re-enacts the Last Supper in the guise of a "Eucharistic happening" or a "love meal." Members of the group, which includes Protestants and Catholics, take turns consecrating the elements and distributing Communion.

Behind Closed Doors. Dutch Catholics modestly insist that they have no monopoly on Catholic radical thinking. "What we discuss openly," says Father Schillebeeckx, "is often discussed behind closed doors elsewhere." True or not, there is no doubt that Pope Paul VI and the Roman Curia have been deeply distressed about the extent to which the Dutch have challenged doctrine and tradition. The Pope's 1965 encyclical on the Eucharist was clearly directed against the theories of several Dutch theologians who had proposed to describe Christ's Real Presence in the bread and wine as transignification rather than transubstantiation. Last January, when Rome issued a warning against excesses in liturgical experiment, a Vatican spokesman explained that the directive had been aimed at certain informal Communion services which had taken place in The Netherlands. Currently, officials of the Congregation for Doctrine are studying a new Dutch catechism, approved by the hierarchy, that leaves open to question the literal truth of the Virgin birth, and tacitly approves artificial birth control.

Disdainful of the Vatican's foreboding, Dutch theologians insist that they are not on the verge of creating a schism. "We cannot become isolated from Rome," says Schillebeeckx, "but we can tell Rome what we think." To prevent an open breach, the Dutch church depends strongly on the diplomatic skill of its hierarchy, headed by Bernard Jan Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht. Although the bishops have publicly warned against excesses of reform, they have, in effect, tolerated the radical questioning of doctrine that is going on in The Netherlands, and have backed many priests whose views have got them in Dutch with Rome. "It is always a good thing for the church to move forward," says Alfrink. "It is not good if the church comes to a standstill."

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