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The Dutch Sea of Secularization

Church in the Netherlands Awaits a Turning Point

ROME, MARCH 20, 2004 (Zenit) - "Concern and hope" is how Dutch bishops sum up the Church's situation in their country. In a report presented during their recent five-yearly visit to the Vatican, entitled "The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands at the Start of a New Millennium," the prelates paint a sobering picture.

Data from parishes at year-end 2002 would suggest that the nation's population of 16.2 million includes more than 5 million Catholics. Yet, this may be an overestimate, the report admits. A 1997 survey found that only 21% of the Dutch population calls itself Catholic. That means one-third of the faithful registered in parishes are only Catholic on paper.

The report calculates that in 1995-2002 the number of Catholics has decreased by more than 50,000 annually, while the Dutch population as a whole rose by an average of 100,000 per year. The number of Catholics is roughly equivalent to the ranks of what the report terms "the churches of the Reformation," which totaled 22% of the population in 1996.

But first place now belongs to those who claim no religious affiliation, 53% in 1996. A study cited in the report estimates that by 2010 two-thirds of the Dutch population between the ages of 21 and 70 will have no religious affiliation. By then, 13% of the population will be Catholic, 9% Protestant, 6% Muslim and 4% other.

The report identified a number of trends making it difficult for the Church in the Netherlands. Among them:

-- Secularization. The current generation has not had a religious upbringing and "can scarcely remember a religious mode of living." Christian language, symbols and thinking are disappearing from public life, while religion and ethics must work harder to find an audience in society. The report does, however, see recent signs of a certain reversal of this trend.

-- Individualization. While some youths show an interest in religion and ethics, this is not oriented to institutions. "The autonomous individual wants to remain in control, even in matters concerning religion," says the report. People tend to behave as "customers" of religion.

-- Pluralism. In the three major metropolitan areas, around 45% of the population has an immigrant background, and two-thirds of immigrants have a non-Western background.

-- Aging. In 2002, 13.7% of the Dutch were older than 65. Among Catholics the figure is higher: 16.8% were over 65 at the end of 2000. In 1960, by contrast, only 6.8% of Catholics were over 65, compared with 8.7% of the overall population.

-- Materialism. All segments of society have come to be dominated by the economy, observes the report. "There is a risk that we will continue to fade into a dull society intent only on material values."

Numbers in decline

The report notes a continued downward tendency in Church attendance and participation in sacramental life. Baptisms have fallen by 5% over the past seven years. The number of adults received into the Church remains about the same. But the number of first Communions, confirmations and church marriages is on a downward curve. So too are Church funerals.

In the same period, the number of active priests has plunged by nearly 500, about 30%. Meanwhile, the number of permanent deacons rose by 44 and the number of pastoral workers (male and female) by 72.

Religious have witnessed a dramatic drop in numbers. The number of women religious, active and contemplative, dropped from 12,176 at year-end 1996, to 8,602 at year-end 2002. The number of religious brothers and monks dropped from 1,779 to 1,259. And the ranks of religious priests fell from 3,131 to 2,431.

The number of seminary students dropped 31% since 1996, while the number of deacons in training increased slightly. The number of students at Catholic institutions for academic theological education or higher professional programs in theology remains about the same. Among these theological students, the age group under 30 is in the minority.

Reaction of the Church

The bishops' report explains that during 1993-2003 the Dutch bishops focused primarily on three areas: strengthening the identity of Catholics, building their mutual solidarity and expanding the social relevance of the Church.

The second half of this period saw a reorganization of the Church, adapting structures to the available personnel and financial resources, and to the size of the Catholic community. During this process, the report observes, reactions have been divided: Some stress the decline of the Church, while others look ahead optimistically.

At the grass-roots level, dioceses are trying to implant awareness in the parishes of their missionary task. This awareness is growing, but "it cannot be said that missionary awareness is present on a broad scale," the report notes. A protracted impasse on the question of the orientation of catechesis has, in principle, been breached. This had led to a growing recognition of the importance of parish catechesis and a growing implementation of it.

The report also notes that past divisions in the Church have been overcome and that, in general, mutual trust and understanding has grown between various groups and between members of the bishops' conference.

Another positive development over the past decade is the increase in the number of Catholic immigrants. In 2000 there were 50 immigrant communities, including 37 parishes. These groups also produce seminary candidates.

A priority in recent years has been the Catholic presence in the media. The report notes that the Catholic Church has the most visible media presence among the Christian communities in the Netherlands. Yet, the image is vulnerable due to a certain trivialization in the media of religion and ideology. Also, secular opposition to Catholic viewpoints, particularly in the area of bioethics, sometimes leads to a critical if not cynical treatment of the Church in the media.

The road ahead

The report acknowledges: "For more than 30 years the picture has been dominated by reduction," in terms of the number of believers, priests and religious, vocations, parishes and Church buildings. This has put pressures on all in the Church, the report says, adding: "We have not yet reached a turning point."

"Nevertheless," the report continues, "the feeling for the values of the Gospel and for faith in God among Dutch Catholics has not disappeared, and openness to spiritual life and supernatural realities is increasing among young people." The report sees signs of hope in some parishes, religious communities and new movements. And among young lay people and priests it detects a more positive attitude. Light may already be appearing at the end of the tunnel.


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