The latest reports and statistics from the Netherlands concerning religious practice leave little room for optimism.
Indeed, data published ahead of the Dutch bishops’ ad limina visit in November estimated the number of practicing Catholics in the country at only 2.7% for 2022.
And, according to data from the “World Values Survey” analyzed in January by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Mass attendance in the Netherlands ranks the lowest among 36 countries with large Catholic populations, with only 7% of self-identified Catholics attending Mass weekly.
While this trend is part of a European context of widespread de-Christianization, the country seems to be suffering from a deeper disaffection with the Catholic faith than in neighboring countries. Some experts see this freefall of faith as a direct consequence of the national “Pastoral Council” held in the 1960s in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, led by clerics and theologians who aimed to modernize the Church by changing its doctrine.
According to the latest report from the Dutch bishops, although Roman Catholics are now the largest group of Christian believers (20.8%) in this country with a strong Calvinist tradition, the number of practicing Catholics fell by more than a third (36%) during the health crisis between 2019 and 2022. The annual decline was previously about 6%.
Among other alarming figures, the number of baptisms dropped from 19,680 in 2012 to 6,310 in 2021, and the number of Catholic weddings fell from 2,915 to 660 for the same period of time.
A couple of months earlier, the Diocese of Amsterdam announced that more than 60% of its churches would close in the coming five years due to the decrease in attendance of the faithful, the lack of congregations and donations.
The Roots of a Hemorrhage
Commenting on what could be described as a hemorrhage in an interview with the Register, Cardinal Willem Eijk, primate of the Netherlands and president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, said that all dioceses in the country were affected by the closures and that it was just a matter of time before the decline manifested itself.
According to the Dutch cardinal, the decline of the Church in the Netherlands can be traced back to events in the mid-1960s, with the immediate effect that, in only a decade, between 1965 and 1975, church attendance dropped by half. This dramatic trend continued steadily until today, although in a less drastic way than during the first decade. The nearly 60 years of constant erosion of the faith have led Cardinal Eijk to the bitter conclusion that “Christ has become a virtually unknown figure to most Dutch people today.”
“In the second half of the 1960s,” Cardinal Eijk told the Register, “a large group of young people, now grandparents, decided not to attend church on Sundays anymore.”
“They passed on faith in Christ to their children very little, if at all, let alone to their grandchildren. Older Catholics are dying, and young Catholics, in most cases, are no longer having their children baptized.”
The rapid increase in prosperity in the country and in other Northern European neighbors at that time, which favored the emergence of highly individualistic societies, explains this phenomenon, he said, since transcendence and belonging to a community were no longer a necessity.
The Catalyzing Role of the 1966 Pastoral Council
But how to explain the collapse that specifically marked the decade 1965-1975 in the country?
Faced with this recurring question, some scholars of the Church in Holland in the 20th century postulate that the deep crisis of the faith in the country cannot be understood without considering what is remembered as the “Pastoral Council,” a major Catholic event that took place between 1966 and 1970 in Noordwijkerhout, a town in the western Netherlands, following the Second Vatican Council.
One of them is theologian and Church historian Msgr. Paul Hamans, author of a number of publications on this matter, including Het Pastoraal Concilie van de Nederlandse kerkprovincie (1966-1970) (The Pastoral Council of the Dutch Church Province 1966-1970).
In an interview with the Register, Msgr. Hamans recounted that upon their return from Rome after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the Dutch bishops entrusted to the Pastoral Institute of the Dutch Church Province, known by its Dutch acronym PINK, the special task to coordinate the national implementation of the Council’s decisions. In turn, PINK launched what it called a “Pastoral Council,” which consisted of a series of public meetings and consultations involving theologians and other lay experts from different backgrounds, during which various heterodox proposals for a renewal of the Catholic faith were put forward.
“PINK and a number of theologians thought Vatican II had cut the Church off from the past,” Msgr. Hamans told the Register. “They felt called to create the Church of the future by interpreting the ‘signs of the times,’ instead of taking Revelation as the starting point. The humanities, especially sociology and psychology, would grasp the thinking of individuals and how the Church of the future should be.”
The flagship proposal of the Pastoral Council was the abolition of celibacy for the clergy, a proposal that went directly against the Second Vatican Council, which decided to maintain it.
“The bishops were put under pressure. Cardinal Bernardus Johannes Alfrink [archbishop of Utrecht from 1955 to 1975] was sent to Rome to arrange with the Vatican for the abolition of priestly celibacy in the Netherlands,” Msgr. Hamans continued, adding that Pope Paul VI publicly rejected that request twice. “Alfrink was not received by the Pope until July 1970 and first had to declare that he no longer advocated the abolition of celibacy.”
According to Msgr. Hamans, this unsuccessful Dutch initiative was the result of a misinterpretation of the notion of episcopal collegiality promoted by Vatican II, interpreted as a form of a democratic and participatory process that did not take into account the specific place of the pope as the center of Church unity.
“The bishops handed over their mission to people who wanted to create another Church in the Netherlands and started its reform themselves, without consulting the center of the world Church, i.e., the Pope and the Roman Curia, although the latter started to consult the world episcopate in order to involve it in the continuation of the Church after Vatican II.”
Lessons for Our Time
Father Elias Leyds, a member of the Community of St. John in the Diocese of Den Bosch, said this initiative — carried out in parallel with the publication in 1966 of a new Dutch Catechism, which was also publicly corrected by the Vatican — generated confusion among the faithful, making some of them insecure in their faith and raising false hopes among those who expected great changes in Church doctrine and left the faith in disappointment.
He thus regrets that the Pastoral Council, which he considers directly involved in the severe collapse of faith in his country, served as a model for other controversial Church initiatives at the national or regional level, including most recently the Synodal Path in Germany and the Flemish Bishops’ liturgical document on the blessing of same-sex couples.
According to Father Leyds, the promoters of these initiatives, and to a lesser extent some of the local participants in the Synod on Synodality, are making the mistake of not drawing the right lessons from the past.
“What happened in Holland in the 1960s showed where this desire to emancipate oneself from Rome on doctrinal questions could lead,” Father Leyds told the Register.
“Today there seems to be a bidding war between some countries that want to be in the vanguard of the reform of the Catholic Church, but we must be aware that this can only lead to failure everywhere, especially since the people whose faith was not strong enough have all left already and will not return by being offered a religion emptied of its substance,” he said.
Renewal Through Crisis
While acknowledging the catalytic effect of the Pastoral Council in the dramatic loss of ground for the Church in the Netherlands, Cardinal Eijk nevertheless qualified this by pointing out that the state of the country’s Protestant churches is hardly more enviable and that a weakening of the faith had already been observed in the country as early as the beginning of the 20th century.
Moreover, he is convinced that one of the beneficial effects of these decades of crisis has been to raise the quality of faith of those who have remained in the Church.
“Those who still go to church on Sunday today do so out of strong conviction and have a personal relationship with Christ and a personal prayer life,” he said, mentioning a growing number of local parish reevangelization initiatives around the country that are focusing on strengthening the family and intergenerational transmission of the faith. “We fervently hope and pray that one day these new generations will be a creative minority that can Christianize our culture again.”