Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and a specialist in Roman Catholic theology, is professor of theology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an associate editor of MINISTRY.


A few months ago a special synod of the Dutch bishops met in Rome under the auspices of John Paul II to attempt to find a solution to the controversies and divisions that have characterized the Catholic Church in that country for the past two decades.

This synod was of major importance for at least two reasons. First, it was a concrete sign of Pope John Paul's insistence that the Catholic Church put its house in order. He is not about to let problems and divisions fester within the Catholic community. Second, the synod was important because the problems and questions that arose in the Netherlands exist to some extent in nearly every Western country, including the United States. Solutions and programs that have come from this special synod may very well set an agenda for the Catholic Church in the Western world. Its results will probably have a dramatic impact on Roman Catholicism for the next decade and beyond.

The Dutch troubles are fairly recent. Until World War II, Dutch Catholicism has been strongly traditionalist. Most aspects of daily life bore confessional labels in a country where 5.6 million Catholics make up 40 percent of the population. World War II brought Catholics and Protestants closer together in their fight against the occupying Nazis. The process continued after the war, encouraged by the innovations that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Indeed, Vatican II introduced such an abrupt change in the Catholic Church's self-image that Dutch Catholicism found itself in danger of splitting. Some Catholics took the conciliar decisions as an encouragement to experiment in new life styles, while others maintained their traditional out look. The clergy divided along the same lines. The Catholic press became increasingly progressive in its views and opinions, and the Dutch bishops sup ported the publication of a new adult catechism that was suspect in Rome for sidestepping several traditional teachings. A serious effort was made to en courage people to speak and think critically and also to express their encouragement, reaction, and criticism to those in authority. A national pastoral council suggested the themes to be considered by discussion groups around the country. Several controversial propositions were adopted, such as making celibacy for priests optional, ending the ob ligation to attend Sunday mass, and demanding much wider freedom and simplicity in liturgical forms. To add fuel to the fire, priests who had left the ministry to marry were retained on theological faculties, while theologically trained (but unordained) laity—referred to as "pastoral workers"—were invited to supplement the dwindling parochial teams, performing nonsacramental duties and contributing their expertise and training in many areas considered indispensable to the building of the Catholic Church.

Tension was high. The Dutch bishops' willingness to follow the lead of the laity in some of these reforms worried the Vatican. Pope Paul VI began to call a halt, or at least to downplay some of the experimentation. Against the wishes of the Dutch clergy, he appointed two conservative bishops—Adriaan Simonis, to Rotterdam (1971), and Jan Gijsen, to Roermond (1972), thus altering the balance within an episcopal conference of only seven members. By Roman decree, the pastoral council was downgraded to a pastoral consultation.

Holland's Catholics were confused, divided, and perturbed, often quoting one bishop against another. Soon after his accession to the pontifical throne, John Paul II attempted to mediate be tween the two factions. He met in Rome with each of. the Dutch bishops individually, and decided to summon a synod of that province of the Catholic Church—a synod that would concern it self with the "postconciliar route of the Dutch church, the pastoral work of the church to be exercised in the Nether lands in the present situation." 1

This was no usual synod. It was in deed the first ever held for the bishops of one country. The idea itself was provided for in Pope Paul VI's Motu proprio Apostolica sollicitude2 and his Ordo Synodi Episcoporum celebrandae. 3 These documents set up the institution of the Synod of Bishops and distinguished between the general Synods of Bishops, which are held every three years; the extraordinary synods, in which only the presidents of episcopal conferences participate; and special synods, which consider questions pertaining to a restricted geographic area, such as one country. The synod John Paul had in mind belonged to this third category.

It was held in Rome, from January 14 to January 31, 1980, ending five days later than anticipated. This was indeed an interesting implementation of collegiality. Besides the Pope and the seven Dutch bishops, others who shared in the deliberations were: two Dutch religious; the archbishop-designate of Malines Brussels, Belgium; the secretary of the synod council (the permanent body charged with preparing synods); the secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commis sion; and a "special secretary" of the synod, along with six members of the Roman Curia, who functioned as occasional participants according to the topics being discussed. Cardinal Jan Willebrands, Archbishop of Utrecht, and Belgian Archbishop-designate, Godfried Danneels, were nominated by the Pope to chair the sessions. Because the Dutch bishops had been expected to split as five progressives against two conservatives on most controversial issues, the number of curial prelates voting was important. Brother bishops from outside of Holland helped their Dutch colleagues to arrive at answers to their problems that would be more "in union with the universal church." This had been, in deed, the Pope's intention. 4

The synod's conclusions, expressed in a twenty-two-page document, suggest that the synod was able to unify the Dutch bishops along the lines devised by the Vatican. At the closing mass in the Sistine Chapel, John Paul said that "he had learned" from the synod and that he took satisfaction in the bishops' "clearer awareness" of the universal church. In other words, the Vatican had won on each of its major complaints.

As the synodal document indicates, the bishops agreed to caution ecumenical workers, catecheticists, pastoral workers, and liturgists against further experimentation. They would underline the importance of eucharistic attendance on Sundays and holy days. They would also seek to revive the practice, nearly extinct in Holland, of individual confession. They agreed to prepare a new catechetical decree to go along with the controversial Dutch Catechism. The bishops also bowed to papal insistence on a more stringent policy regarding interconfessional marriages, and a proscription of interfaith communion services. They also ruled out definitely any alternative to a celibate, all-male clergy. John Paul had made his position clear on this point, and as bishops, the Dutch prelates could only agree. While discussion of a married clergy may continue in the Netherlands, Dutch Catholics know now that their bishops will continue to follow the decision of the Pope.

John Paul, whom the press at first described as limiting himself to jotting down notes while never saying a word during the fifteen days of deliberation, seems in fact to have spoken several times, and decisively, to persuade the bishops to enforce the guidelines from the Vatican. The bishops, obviously, took his advice. For the past few months they have been meeting with their clergy, councils, and lay leaders to ex plain and implement the conclusions of the Roman meeting.

The mood thus far in Holland has ranged from reserve to negative judgment. The possibility of schism is re mote; Dutch Catholics are still too conformist to opt for separation from Rome. They appear, rather, to be retreating to their parishes. Rome's refusal to dialogue—which is how they have interpreted Rome's reaction to most of their attempts at renewal—has led them to conclude that it is useless to attempt action at the national level. Many will probably try to follow their own inclinations while giving formal obedience to the synodal guidelines. The Italianization of the Dutch church is probably under way, and that church will be severely tested in the curial fire.

As an indication of John Paul's under standing of his responsibilities as Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, this unprecedented special synod may very well have weighty implications for the entire Catholic community.

Some see the Pope as intent on re storing the unity of Catholic teaching, which in recent years has been disturbingly fragmented. He and Vatican officials have indicated great concern about teachings that they consider to be causing confusion in the minds of the faithful. For example, in recent months Rome has been drawing the theological line in Hans Kung's case, while at the same time the Pope has reacted to curb further episcopal experimentations in Catholic teachings and life styles. He apparently is not going to tolerate a wandering Catholic episcopacy.

To others, the Dutch synod has not only disclosed the Pope's position on current issues, it has also demonstrated his determination to foster collegiality by sharing responsibility with other bishops. Such recent initiatives as convoking the College of Cardinals last summer, and the synod of Dutch bishops in January (which will be followed by the synod of world bishops later in the year) show that he may have in mind new methods of governing the Catholic Church. He obviously did not want to speak alone on the difficult questions that arose in the Netherlands. He wanted, just as Vatican II said, to speak in collegiality. He exhorted the Dutch prelates to manifest "the collegiality of the episcopate which, in communion with the pope and under his direction, exercises supreme authority in the pastoral service of the church." 5

Some see here an attempt to clear up the tension that was left unresolved by the First and Second Vatican Councils, between the principles of episcopacy and of papal primacy. The direction that Pope John Paul seems to have set for himself could very well mean a deliberate and gradual evolution of the theology of the papacy, towards a conciliar mode rather than a monarchical mode, a move bound to have an enormous appeal to numerous Roman Catholics. Much, however, of the entire structure of the Catholic Church is still so firmly based on a monarchical papacy that one wonders how it could fit into a conciliar conception of episcopacy.

The coming months should test which analysis of the situation has been the more perceptive.


1 See the Pope's letter to the Dutch church in Origins 9, 32 (January 24, 1980), p. 524.

2 Dated September 15, 1965. See La documentation catholique, 1456, pp. 1663, 1664.

3 See La documentation catholique, 1547, p. 815.

4 John Paul II's letter to the Dutch church, op.cit., p. 524.

5 Ibid.

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Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and a specialist in Roman Catholic theology, is professor of theology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an associate editor of MINISTRY.

July 1980

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