Religious Crisis in the Netherlands
By Awake! correspondent in the Netherlands
“WILL the last father please turn out the lights?” This wry joke is circulating in monasteries in the Netherlands. It foresees a time when the last monk or priest will walk out of the last functioning monastery in that land and leave it empty. And it asks him to be sure not to leave the lights burning in the abandoned building! Could such a thing really happen? Are the clergy in danger of disappearing in the Netherlands, along with their flocks?
Leaving the Priesthood
As for the Catholic Church, each year the number of clergy decreases. From 1968 to 1978, the number of secular priests declined 27.2 percent, and this trend has continued since then. Why? One reason given is compulsory celibacy. In 1970 the National Pastoral Council decided that “the obligation of celibacy as a requirement for discharging one’s duties as a minister ought to be abolished.” Dutch bishops felt that the faithful would even be benefited if they could be served by married priests. Pope Paul VI, however, forcefully rejected the idea. Doubtless this was one reason why more than 2,000 priests subsequently resigned the priesthood by the beginning of 1980 and the number of those entering the priesthood declined.
Discussing the declining priesthood in the Netherlands, the late Cardinal Alfrink recalled the time that a papal nuncio, contemplating a seminary in front of the cardinal’s house, wondered out loud why the bishops would shut down such beautiful buildings. The cardinal replied: “Obviously you do not understand. The bishops did not shut down any seminaries; they merely closed the doors after the students had left.”
Not only the clergy but also their flocks are leaving the church in the Netherlands. And this is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1879 a census indicated that less than 1 percent of the population were secular, that is, not members of a church. By 1920, almost 8 percent of the population claimed not to belong to a religion. In 1930 the figure rose to 14.4 percent. By 1982 it was an alarming 42 percent, and a more recent survey showed that over 51 percent of the Dutch do not belong to any church.
“Ice Age” for the Church
Even more dramatic than the fall in church membership has been the fall in church attendance by those who do belong to a church. In 1988 the newspaper De Telegraaf carried the headline “Ice Age Sets In for the Church.” The newspaper said: “Nobody is startled anymore when a church is demolished. Church attendance is decreasing in a frightening way. This is true not only in Catholicism but also in the Reformed and Calvinistic churches. If this secularization continues, within a few generations, nobody will attend church anymore.”
The newspaper went on to note that the decline in Roman Catholicism is the worst. It mentioned that in 1965 some 60 percent of all Dutch Catholics still attended Mass. In 1975 this figure was 28 percent. In recent years it has dropped to less than 16 percent.
Decrease in church attendance has had its effect on church buildings, which are closed when high maintenance and operating costs can no longer be met by shrinking congregations. Thus, numerous religious buildings have been demolished or sold for other uses. Few today are surprised to enter a church building and find it being used as a museum, a bicycle shop, a sports hall, a concert hall, a flower shop, a restaurant, or apartments.
It is not unexpected, then, that religious authorities are pessimistic about the future. After Pope John Paul II visited the Netherlands, a bishop said: “The pope visited a corpse, or at least a mortally ill patient who thinks he is still alive.”
Why They Leave the Church
The decline in church membership has been accelerated by new factors. Among these is the breakdown of respect for authority. People are no longer willing to accept things just because someone in authority tells them to. Linked to this is the emphasis laid on individual freedom. Today, people want to decide for themselves what they will believe and how they will act.
Two other contributing factors are said to be the influence of the media and the modern tendency to mistrust institutions. There is also the feeling that established institutions take away freedom and individuality. Further, even when people are still religiously inclined, circumstances may move them to leave their church. For example, tradition-minded church members feel uncomfortable in a church with a progressive minister or priest. And modern-thinking churchgoers feel out of place in conservative congregations.
On the Protestant side, the Calvinistic Church has long had the reputation of sticking to old-fashioned morality. So, many were startled when in 1979 the Netherlands Calvinistic Synod urged local churches to admit homosexuals to the eucharist and to the ministry. In 1988 the international Calvinistic Ecumenical Synod asked Calvinists in the Netherlands to reconsider, but the synod sent word that the decision was irrevocable. In 1989 the synod of the Dutch Reformed Church also voted to oppose any disciplinary measures against homosexuals. Imagine how “old-fashioned” Protestants must have felt when a Calvinistic minister, a homosexual, stated in church that “homosexuality is a gift of God; God also loves pink”!
Will Christianity Cease to Exist?
In view of the foregoing factors and many others, is it surprising that there has been a massive exodus from the churches in the Netherlands and in many other countries? Indeed, thoughtful people have even come to the conclusion that perhaps true Christianity cannot be found anywhere. Will Christianity finally die out?
The Bible foretold a drying up of support for Christendom, along with other religions, in our day. (Revelation 16:12; 17:15) But it also foresaw that some would abandon false religion not merely because of dissatisfaction or disillusionment but because of a positive purpose. The Bible prophetically urges: “Get out of her, my people, if you do not want to share with her in her sins.” (Revelation 18:4) The “her” referred to is the symbolic religious whore, “Babylon the Great,” which embraces all the religions of the world, including those of modern Christendom. The “my people” are sincere seekers of truth who leave Babylon the Great because they want to serve God in the way Jesus taught. Christendom has strayed so far from true Christianity that sincere people must get out in order to serve God acceptably.
True Christianity is alive and flourishing in the Netherlands as well as all around the globe. Jehovah’s Witnesses, in spite of their imperfections, are following Christ’s teachings and practices. You are not expected simply to accept that assertion. Why not examine the Witnesses’ beliefs in the light of the Bible, and see for yourself. Learn from God’s Word the Christianity of Jesus’ apostles, as opposed to what Christendom’s churches have taught and practiced for centuries. This will, as the apostle Paul explained, bring you benefits for “the life now and that which is to come.”—1 Timothy 4:8.
[Pictures on page 10, 11]
Many churches in Europe are now used for secular purposes. Page 10: A garage in the Netherlands. Page 11: Pensioners’ hall, workshop, boys’ club, and abandoned church in Penygraig, Wales