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Corrections to the Dutch Catechism


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Juan Luis Lorda |

The affair of the Dutch Catechism (1966-1968) provoked one of the most significant crises of the post-conciliar period. On the 50th anniversary it was neither remembered nor celebrated, especially because the little Dutch Church that remained was not for triumphalism, but for selling empty temples. 

Dutch Catholics had been a persecuted and marginalized minority in an officially Protestant country since independence from Spanish rule (1581). They had survived by uniting and creating a strong Catholic climate. They had a solid system of catechesis and training of catechists and priests. And, in the 20th century, they had managed to emancipate themselves and become the majority religious group , with many Catholic institutions, a marked identity and many missionaries spread all over the world.

But the boom times and development of the post-war period were changing the ideals of life. The sacramental internship (until then averaging over 70%) was falling. And, since the early 1960s, before anywhere else, the use of contraceptives had spread among Catholics, which immediately reduced the size of families and the issue of candidates for seminar room (and perhaps also the fineness of conscience and full adherence to the Church). But the issue remained as if veiled in the background. Less heroic times were coming for a Christianity that also felt the need to distance itself from such a net past. The traditional distancing from the Protestants no longer made sense either.   

A little history and context

Since 1956, the Dutch episcopate had order to the professors of the Pastoral high school of the Catholic University of Nijmegen a Catechism for children. Later it was thought that it would be more profitable to make it for adults (1960). It waited until the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to take up their suggestions, and was published in 1966. Many groups and hundreds of people were involved in the process, but the intellectual orientation is due to the Dutch Jesuit Piet Schoonenberg (1911-1999) and the Belgian-born Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009), professors at high school. Both would play an important role in the crisis of the Catechism and would evolve towards critical doctrinal positions. Schillebeeckx was a voice heard at the Council, although he was not appointed peritus. 

At the Council, a dialectic had been created, at times, between a majority that wanted fundamental changes and a more conservative minority; a dialectic that was constantly cheered in the media (surely, because it seemed the most interesting and was what was best understood). In addition, the excessive role played in the past by the saint official document had been censured. This created an atmosphere of detachment from the Roman institutions and the prominence of Central European theologians. The good offices of Pope Paul VI and the good will of the bishops (who at all times were addicted to the popes, as Alberigo himself confesses in his Brief History of the Second Vatican Council) ensured that the documents were approved with huge majorities and in a climate of communion. To some they seemed inadmissible concessions; and in public opinion, an atmosphere was created that explains the subsequent attitude of resistance (and disdain) of the Dutch theologians to Rome's proposals.  

The gaps in the Catechism 

At first glance, the text of the Catechism is narrative and interesting, with a fairly successful and integrated distribution of the different aspects of the faith. It is striking that it begins with the human status in the world, trying to positively (and perhaps ingenuously) gather the bequest of the different religions, including Marxism, as expressions of the search for God. It also wants to integrate the perspectives of the sciences, especially evolution. Although to gather them in a Catechism could lead one to think that everything is the same. On the other hand, it was quite demanding for the average reader. 

However, the problems were not there and could go unnoticed (as happened to many Dutch bishops fully confident in their theologians). The problems stemmed from two basic intentions. The first was to get along with the Protestant part of the country, especially on sensitive issues, improving the Catholic explanations, but also avoiding what could displease them. This directly affected the Mass as sacrifice and satisfaction, the Eucharistic presence, the identity of the ordained priesthood and its distinction from the common priesthood, and the ministry of the Pope. 

On the other hand, the aim was to reach a modern world that was more cultured and less willing to believe anything. This led them to look for soft formulas, to avoid difficult subjects (original sin, miracles, the soul) and to interpret "less credible" aspects such as the virginal conception of Mary, the angels and the resurrection as metaphors. They became convinced that all these things were not properly matters of faith and were free to seek a symbolic interpretation.

On the other hand, the editors, perhaps inspired by Rahner, sought alternative expressions to the traditional formulas of the faith (dogmas), substituting the "philosophical" terminology . This required rather difficult and unusual reconstructions of central themes (Trinity, personality of Jesus Christ, sin, sacraments), which lost precision. More than in affirmations openly opposed to the faith, the problem of the Catechism was in what was not affirmed or was reinterpreted. But this was not easy to see on a first reading. 

First reactions

All, theologians and bishops, were satisfied and proud of result. Cardinal Primate Alfrink asked Schillebeeckx for a final revision of the nihil obstat and enthusiastically presented it in public (1966). The book aroused much national and international interest. It was the first post-conciliar catechism. 

But immediately the civil service examination of more traditional Christian groups who had already been observing the evolution of the theologians of Nijmegen arose. They exposed the shortcomings in a combative magazine(Confrontatie) and sent a letter to the Pope which they published in the Catholic press(De Tijd). This was extremely irritating for the theologians and disconcerting for the bishops, who tended to support the theologians. The latter responded very harshly to those whom they considered much less prepared than themselves. 

Paul VI immediately understood that he had to intervene. From agreement with Cardinal Alfrink, he appointed a mixed commission with three theologians resident in Rome (Dhanis, Belgian and the Dutch Visser and Lemeer) and three members of the Pastoral high school of Nijmegen (Schoonenberg, Schillebeckx and Bless, who was the director). They met in Gazzada in April 1967, but the high school delegation refused any change which it considered an abdication of its principles. 

As much as it can be understood in its context, it was a clear manifestation of theological hybris before the Magisterium and it meant preferring confrontation to the communion proper of the Church and of the theological work . Moreover, the high school adopted an ugly and inappropriate but effective media strategy in presenting the topic to the Dutch Church establishment (very addicted to and influenced by the high school of Pastoral) and to the general public as a confrontation between dogmatic, scholastic and backward Rome and pastoral, modern and open Nijmegen: the cliché, suggested in the interviews, was repeated everywhere (still today). 

Commission on Cardinals and Corrections

After the failure of Gazzada, Paul Vl appointed a deliberately international commission of cardinals (June 1967): Frings, Lefebre, Jaeger, Florit, Browne and Journet. These sought the support of an international commission of theologians: in addition to Dhanis, Visser and Lemeer, De Lubac, Alfaro, Doolan and Ratzinger. They composed a set of concrete corrections to be introduced into the text, page by page. At the same time they recognized its pastoral value and declared that it only affected a few points (20% of the text). From agreement with Cardinal Alfrink a team was appointed to execute it: Dahnis and Visser representing the cardinals and, on the Dutch side, Bishop Fortmann and the Jesuit professor of high school Mulders, but the latter refused to participate. 

Some points have already been mentioned. Particularly disconcerting was the refusal to use the idea of satisfaction and the sacrificial value of the Mass, strongly rooted in the Gospels. The identification of the Eucharistic presence and conversion as a change of meaning (Schillebeeckx's inspiration) which, no matter how realistic an interpretation one might wish to give it, always sounds insufficient. The rather allegorical interpretation of the virgin birth of Christ. The consequent feeling that the whole doctrine is subject to change according to the spirit of the age. And that there is neither a fixed morality nor grave sins.

The high school refused to correct the text and promoted translations into German, French, English and Spanish, without rectifications or nihil obstat, generating bewilderment and protests from the local episcopates (1968-1969). It was a serious policy of fait accompli, but they were sure that their proposal was the future of the universal Church and they were ready to defend it at any price.

It was then decided to convert the corrections into a "Supplement" of about 20 pages, which could be added to the unsold volumes of the various editions and translations, with the approval of the publishers. The corrections had to be transformed and simplified into a coherent text. It was a bad solution. Candido Pozo published this text with commentaries(Las correcciones al Catecismo holandés, BAC 1969). In the Spanish edition (1969), by Herder, it was pasted at the end. In the copy that I handle, it has been torn off, leaving only the letter of Bishop Morcillo that presented it. 

Parallel complications

In 1968, Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae vitae, which dealt with birth control (the "pill"). It had been reserved topic at the Council (like that of priestly celibacy) and was the fruit of much study and prayer. But it could not have come to the Netherlands at a worse time. 

Since 1966, the Dutch Church had launched a Synod to implement the wishes of the Second Vatican Council. The third session (1969) was greatly affected by the climate created by the Catechism issue and by the reaction to Humanae vitae, and it became an open contestation of the ecclesiastical establishment (while the bishops were caught in the middle). The Munich theologians Michael Schmauss and Leo Scheffczyk, foreseeing the repercussions in Germany, prepared a critical analysis of this synod in The New Dutch Theology ( BAC, 1972).

The Creed of the People of God

Maritain, a French thinker and convert in his youth, followed with concern the Dutch events and it seemed to him that a solemn magisterial act was needed to reaffirm the great points of faith. He wrote to his friend Cardinal Journet, who had participated in the corrections, to convey the idea to the Pope, who held Maritain and Journet in high esteem. The Pope liked it and asked them to prepare a text, which gave rise to the Creed of the People of God, solemnly proclaimed in the Vatican on June 30, 1968, as the closing of the year of faith and, symbolically, of the conciliar period. 

It was written with an evident parallelism with the questions raised by the Dutch Catechism. They are almost the same ones that, in a patent or latent form, have affected and are still present in the Church. Although one can add in particular the "Christology from below", which is often only a reconstruction of the figure of Christ, stripping it of its divine dimension and turning it into a man who is a friend of God and, in a certain way, assumed by Him. This was not so clearly expressed in the Dutch Catechism, but it is as initiated. It will also be the later tendency of Schillebeekcx (and Küng). 

The Church in the Netherlands after

Thus Holland led the way and partly inspired the post-conciliar crisis that, in different Degree, affected all Western countries. The old and strong cohesion of the Catholic institutions in Holland made the effects more immediate, traumatic and profound, with a drastic decrease of candidates to the priesthood and of practicing Christians, thousands of departures of priests (about 2000, in the decade of the sixties), religious (about 5,500) and nuns (about 2700), according to data by Jan Bots(L'éxperiencie hollandaise, "Communio", IV,1, 1979, 83). And an important disorientation of the Catholic institutions. 

Paul Vl tried to rectify it with some episcopal appointments against local wishes (De Simonis, in 1971 and Gijsen, in 1972), which obtained some fruits in a very distorted environment. 

A beautiful counterpoint is the story of Cornelia de Vogel, professor of ancient Philosophy at the University of Utrecht, who converted to Catholicism after a long pathway, splendidly told in her autobiographical account From Orthodox Protestantism to the Catholic Church (available in French). In 1972, in the face of the rebellion that the appointments of Paul VI had provoked, he wanted to contribute his evaluation on the status of the Dutch Church in an inspired book To the Catholics of Holland, to all (1973).  

At the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II summoned the Dutch bishops to Rome for a special Synod (1980). And he visited Holland in 1985, amidst one of the most violent protests of all his trips. Over the years, a Church greatly reduced after the gale, but more serene and recomposed also with the financial aid of emigrants, faces its future with faith and assumes its role of witness and evangelization in a very secularized and mostly atheist context. 

Further information can be found at article by Enrique Alonso de Velasco, La crisis de la Iglesia católica en los Países Bajos en la segunda mitad del siglo XX, available online.