The Netherlands is one of the most secularized countries in Europe.
It wasn’t always that way, of course. Between 1860 and 1960, the Church in the Netherlands flourished – in fact, by some estimates, one in 10 missionaries in the world was Dutch.
But soon after that period, the Church’s life in the Netherlands began to implode. In the 1980s, 37% of Dutch children were baptized in the Catholic Church – today, fewer than 3% are.
Catholics were 40% of the population in the 70s; today around 20% of the population identifies as Catholic.
News of church closures and parish consolidation are common today, as the Netherlands dioceses address low church attendance. In the Netherlands, it is not unusual to enter a daycare, a store, or a restaurant only to quickly realize that the place used to be a church.
The Netherlands is also well-known for being one of the most progressive societies in the world, being the first country to legalize gay marriage, and also being at the forefront of abortion, euthanasia, legalization of prostitution and drugs, among other issues.
But from those difficulties, some Catholics say they see signs of hope for the future.
One of those Catholics is Cardinal Wim Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht.
Cardinal Eijk spoke last week with The Pillar in Utrecht – about his vision of the future for the Church in the Netherlands, the synod on synodality, and evangelization.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Europe is undergoing a rapid process of secularization, which has been especially fast in the Netherlands, among the most secularized countries in Europe? Why is that?
The Dutch Church was strongly unified until the end of the Second World War, and we remained united around our bishops, but it all changed in the postwar period. Priests could already notice that in their parishes.
Because of this development, in 1947 a group of nine persons, both laypeople and priests, met at the minor seminary of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, in order to think about this development. They observed a fatigue in pastoral care.
They also noticed that the bonds of the faithful Catholics to the Church was less based on the content of the faith and more the bonds of a social relationship:
You were baptized in the Catholic church, so you went to a Catholic school, and Catholic secondary school, the Catholics scouts … When you worked you were part of a Catholic union, you were a member of a Catholic sports association … So you remained in the Catholic channel and in the Catholic part of society.
But all of that was [merely] a social bond.
In the first half of the 1960s, prosperity grew very fast in the Netherlands. And when people are prosperous, they have the possibility to live more independently from one another. That’s how people became individualistic here in our country, as social bonds were not so important anymore.
And that’s why the only thing that connected people to the Church fell away. The Church had worked as a community based on social ties between the members; but Mass attendance dropped between 1955 and 1965 by 50%, and afterwards it continued to dwindle at a slower pace.
Secularization is still going on.
Church attendance among Catholics is 2.5% on Sundays. We saw a drop of 1/3 of our churchgoers as a consequence of the Covid pandemic.
Afterwards, there was a slight recovery, but it is still very low. That is the consequence of 70 or 80 years of secularization which started in the postwar period, as social bonds became weaker.
Sometimes people point to the Second Vatican Council, or a misinterpretation of it, as the cause of declines in Mass attendance.
Do you think that the post-Vatican II confusion has also something to do with the drop in the Netherlands?
I think the Second Vatican Council was necessary.
It was provided for by the Holy Spirit.
It came at the exact moment and was necessary in order to better explain certain truths of the Catholic faith and to adapt our pastoral care to the new social situation of the world.
So, I see it as a sign of the Holy Spirit.
During last year’s ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops to the pope, you mentioned the necessity of an encyclical about gender ideology.
Why do you think this would be an important topic?
I think it is extremely important in the present time.
Gender theory is now put into practice in the whole of society: in business, education, healthcare, governmental organizations, and is going very fast, much faster than people think.
There are many types of gender theories. But what is now propagated is the most far-reaching gender theory, which implies that the gender role as male or female can completely be separated from biological sex. And this is now promoted in education programs pushed by international organizations like the UN or the World Health Organization.
As a Church, I feel we are sitting a little bit on our hands. There are not many bishops talking about this. But Pope Francis has. He called [gender theory] a “spiritual colonization,” he spoke about it in Laudato si’, when he talks about integral ecology and the care of our body. In Amoris laetitia, he says one can distinguish gender and sex, but that one cannot disconnect them totally from each other.
Pope Francis is against the most far-reaching gender theory and has been very clear about it. But he speaks now and then about it. I think that a separate encyclical only about the most far-going gender theory would have more impact, would make a bigger impression on people, would touch their hearts more and make them more aware of the dangers of gender theory.
This gender theory says that you can separate your gender role from your biological sex and live according to what you choose as your gender or discover in yourself as your gender, and in more extreme examples, undergo sex reassignment treatment or surgery.
This means that the concepts of man, woman, husband, wife, male, female, fatherhood, motherhood become vague, which is a big danger for preaching our faith, especially our teaching on marriage and family and medical ethics.
The most fundamental difficulty is that it will be very hard for us when gender theory is fully imposed to announce the basic truths of our faith. When the concept of father has become vague, how do you announce God who reveals himself as a father? Or when the concept of son or daughter, wife, etc. becomes vague, how do you announce Christ as the son of God? Or Mary as the Bride of the Holy Spirit?
This also has consequences for our theology of ministry as we say a priest can only be a man. Because he represents Christ in person who was a man.
The letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, makes an analogy between Christ and his Church and the relationship between husband and wife.
When the concepts of husband, wife, and marriage have become vague, this analogy loses its expressiveness and meaning.
When all these concepts become vague, how can you still make clear that only a man can become a priest? This has huge consequences for our view of priesthood and ordained ministry.
How, then, can the Church reach people who identify as LGBT?
You say we have to announce the Church’s doctrine with clarity, but it doesn’t seem enough to simply say to such people: ‘this is what the Church teaches about marriage and gender identity.’
We have to announce the faith very clearly. When we are clear with regards to the contents of faith, then we will always find people who are open to that.
Young people are open-minded. I’m now promoting the formation of youth groups in parishes or groups of parishes.
A couple of years ago we organized an activity for the youth in our diocese with more than 100 participants. For most of them, it was their first time in an activity like this. I held a workshop on confession, explaining the nature of the sacrament of confession and giving some practical advice on how to confess.
During the hour of Eucharistic adoration which followed, I think all, or nearly all, the participants went to one of the priests available for confession.
So, you never know. We just need to be clear about the faith.
When you are clear, then you’re even able to bring people back to this practice of confession, which is almost forgotten, at least in the Netherlands and considered very difficult.
Take, for instance, the World Youth Day. We had more than 1,000 young people from the Netherlands participating.
When you look at the number of Catholics in the country, and the number of people present at the World You Day, we had one of the highest proportions of all countries in the world.
So we’re secularized, but there are good signs. We’re smaller, but the people remaining in Church are ever more faithful. That’s because only the people who are convinced of the Catholic faith and have a personal relationship with Christ remain.
If we are not clear with our faith, who will preach the Gospel? Who will defend the teachings of the Church? As bishops and priests, we have to be clear.
And it helps to see how, despite the dwindling numbers of churchgoers, every year young people decide to become Catholic in this country, and often become Christians with the fire of the Holy Spirit in them, good, active Christians who do something for the Church and have a personal life of prayer.
And this was what was lacking after World War II. We had a solid organization of the Church, but a personal relationship with God and a life of personal prayer were lacking among most faithful.
A very important person who noted this was Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II.
When he was writing his doctoral thesis in [Belgium], he came to [the Netherlands] as a tourist.
And in a letter, he wrote about the church in Holland, he said he admired the organization of the church but also noticed that something was lacking, which is a personal spirituality among people.
We now see the late consequence of that. But even though we have to close down a lot of churches, we are not desperate. And I hope that you have not the impression that you're speaking to a desperate bishop. [laughs].
I'm still hopeful.
One of the side effects of secularization in the Netherlands has been that the country is at the forefront of many social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia.
Even many people who identify as Catholics hold positions contrary to Catholic doctrine on these issues.
Can the Church in the Netherlands effectively teach Catholic doctrine on these issues?
It's possible, as I explained.
We are still successful in announcing the Gospel. We are not reaching huge numbers of people, but we have conversions. That's the beginning.
Because of secularization, people do not take the existence of a creator into account anymore.
Life has become considered as a mere product of evolution without a creator, without an order of creation to respect.
Then people think that they don’t have to respect life as a gift of the Creator anymore.
And that has led to this innovation in which people thought to have a right to dispose of life, which has led to abortion, medically assisted suicide, etc.
Nevertheless, we maintain our teaching which states that life is a gift from the Creator, that we do not have the right to dispose of and that will never, ever change.
We should pronounce the classical teachings of the Church, which will be true forever. They were true, they are true, and they will be true in the future.
We should not resign, because we know that no culture will remain forever. We're now living in a hyper-individualistic culture that will not remain forever. It will pass one day.
Thus, it’s very important that we form now a creative minority in society. That was something that Benedict XVI said several times.
For instance, when he went to Czechia, the most secularized country in Europe, he was asked by a journalist what the Catholic church can do as a small minority in such a secularized country in Europe.
His answer was that a creative minority can still have a huge influence on society. Benedict took that concept from Arnold Toynbee, an English philosopher of history in the 20th century, who studied the rise and fall of over 20 cultures. He concluded that the rise of a culture practically always comes about through the influence of a creative minority, people with leadership qualities, who have answers to the challenges of the day.
Through Jesus’ Gospel, we have answers for the challenges in every period in the world. When the Church is a creative minority, she can influence the coming into existence of a new culture and Christianize that culture.
I don't give up.
We are living in very difficult times. But things will change one day. You never know what will happen. Now, we are hyper individualistic, which is a challenge for the Church, because she is, in essence, a community of faithful adherence to Christ.
Hyper-individualism hinders such a community. But this might change.
The Netherlands has been noted for controversy surrounding parish mergers and selling of churches all over the country.
Some Catholics have pushed back, while you have insisted that mergers are needed.
Why do you think merging parishes and selling churches is necessary, even if it’s difficult?
I started early to make members of parish councils conscious of the fact that they had to watch their financial reserves.
Many thought “Oh, we still have some money in the bank, so we can continue for many years.”
I said “No, your income and your expenses should be equal and you have to maintain your financial reserves at all costs.”
Why? Because we must not leave the future generation with empty hands. They need financial means too to be able to announce the Gospel.
I said that they have to maintain their reserves and ask themselves whether they can maintain all their churches.
I merged the parishes [of the Archdiocese of Utrecht] between 2008 and 2011. We went from 326 to 48 parishes.
Why did we do it?
First of all, because we had few priests. When I came to Utrecht in 2008, I had one priest who had 13 parishes, so he had to deal with 13 parish councils, and he had to meet with each of them at least 10 times a year, so 130 parish council meetings per year.
But you also need to have some time for pastoral care.
And how can you have time for pastoral care in such a situation?
And therefore, we thought it was better to merge the parishes.
Another factor was that it became increasingly difficult to find new members for parish councils in smaller parishes who were capable of governing a parish.
Merging parishes meant it was easier to find enough capable people to become members of parish councils.
And a third factor was that we wanted to join the forces. We had a number of small parishes which were practically dead. But we also had parishes that were livelier.
By uniting such parishes, we tried to create communities which are still alive and can develop pastoral activities.
The consequence was that every parish had a number of churches.
One parish priest has three of these big merger parishes, so 15 churches in total.
Of course, it is impossible for one priest to celebrate 15 masses on Sunday; we, therefore, need to organize celebrations of the Word, with Holy Communion, but that’s not ideal. It’s not the Eucharist. And we want people to go to the Eucharist.
Gradually, parishes became conscious of the fact that this process was necessary.
It’s not like I come in and say “well, this church has to be closed down.”
No, we ask parish councils and parish priests to draw up a pastoral plan and a plan for the building. When it becomes clear that the cost of maintenance of the churches is becoming too high, it may sometimes be necessary to close a church.
These are mostly churches of smaller parishes. They have few churchgoers, few volunteers. So it’s not only the cost, but other factors as well. When you come to a practically empty church, you have to ask yourself, who will be the last one to leave and turn off the lights?
When you have no sacristan, no organist, no director for the choir, no members of the choir anymore, the community that belongs to a certain church, at a certain moment, has no life anymore. That’s a moment in which it’s advisable to close down a church.
The parish council knows the local situation best. The parish council makes a proposal when they see it is necessary to close down churches. I then authorize that and withdraw a church from divine worship, when I agree with their arguments.
That's the way in which it works in this diocese. And it generally works quite well.
There can be a lot of opposition not so much from the members of the parish council, but from some churchgoers, and you can understand that.
[In a local church] they were baptized, they had their confirmation, the first communion, were married there, and went to several funerals of loved ones. Therefore, they have a lot of memories attached to a church.
Even some people who don’t go to church anymore [can be] opposed. In some places, it was not so much the churchgoers, because they foresee it, and they understand the situation but people who rarely go to church because they don’t understand that and are afraid that they will lose the building.
But at a certain moment, we have to withdraw the church from divine worship and sell the church. Otherwise, the parishes will go bankrupt.
And when you are bankrupt, you cannot announce the faith anymore. And we must prevent such a situation from coming into existence.
For me it is painful to sign a decree by which I withdraw a church from divine worship. I became a priest to announce Christ and His Gospel. When I was ordained in 1985, I did not foresee that I would be a bishop closing down churches.
Of course, when you close down churches you lose churchgoers. This is the reason why this coming pastoral year, we will start to think about the formation of missionary parishes.
Therefore, the question is how to revitalize the life of the parishes. On November 11 we will have the day of the diocese, which is celebrated every two years, and we’ll ask how our parishes can become missionary parishes. There are several activities and possibilities for this purpose, it depends a bit on the type of parishes.
For example, you can promote Alpha courses, or Family Sundays.
With Family Sundays we also invite parents with children doing first communion or confirmation along with their children. In some cases, you have 40 or 50 couples attending church and receiving catechesis, just like their children, then Eucharist is celebrated and there’s also a common meal afterwards to build up the community.
The people who participate in these family activities appreciate it and it gives them the opportunity to rediscover the richness of the Gospel and of the teachings of the Church. We hope to make the Church attractive this way, and when they discover that, they might return to the Church.
So, we are not sitting on our hands, we’re not only closing down churches. We also develop positive activities to attract people to Christ and His Church.
Let’s talk about the synod on synodality.
Pope Francis has repeatedly said that the synod is not for changing doctrine, but there is a sense among some Church leaders that ‘synodality’ can become a way of developing, or changing, or downplaying, Catholic doctrine.
Could that be true?
You see the consequences of secularization and individualism also between members of the Church. Catholics in the Western world are living in this culture and, consequently, influenced by this culture.
So, it is no surprise that some of them – especially when their personal faith is weak – accept the values and ideas of today’s society.
Some of them are hoping that the synod will lead to a change in doctrine. But that is not the aim of the synod. The aim of the synod is the three words that Pope Francis gave as a special point of departure: Community, Participation, and Mission.
We are a community with a mission and we want every member of that community to actively participate in that mission.
Therefore, the synod is thinking about possibilities to create a church in which every member of the community participates in the mission of the Church. That is the main topic of the synod.
The word “synod” is derived from two Greek words, sún, which means “one” and hodós, meaning “way,” so it means one way.
We Catholics take one way, who is Christ Himself. So, the question is how can we stimulate all members of the Church to take that way, which is Christ in person.
Pope Francis talks about a ‘Church going out,’ about “pastors that smell like sheep.”
The Netherlands has seen some converts, to be sure. But talk more about evangelization in this country.
Evangelization will be more fruitful if every member of the community is involved. So, the main question is how we can stimulate the personal faith in Christ of all members of the community.
Our Church has to be going out and this does not only concern the Dutch church, but all over the world, in Africa, in India.
Now, we have Indian and African priests working here in our countries. In the past we were going out to them, but now they are the ones going out to us.
Our parishes have to become missionary. Our priests need to be missionaries in their own parish. They must announce the Gospel to many people who lost their bond with the Church and lost their faith or whose faith is much weakened.
So, we must be an outgoing Church.
We have been like that in the past. Before 1960, 11% of the world’s missionaries came from the Netherlands. And we’re talking about the Netherlands, a very small country.
Nowadays, we have fewer Catholics, so we do not need the number of priests we used to have and, at some point, a balance will be reached between the number of priests and the numbers of Catholics.
We still have a lot of churches in which we cannot celebrate Eucharist every week, every Sunday because of a lack of priests. In 2014, I wrote down a letter with my expectations of the future of the archdiocese.
In that letter, I said to expect that in the year 2028, the year in which I will become 75 and will resign, the archdiocese will have about 20 parishes, each with one or two churches.
So, the number of parishes, priests, and Catholics will in the end be balanced.
I expect that, by then, we will have a small Church, but a Church of younger, convinced Catholics.
That is the creative minority which can Christianize the culture.
You said many times that you’re hopeful. But as you see the Church make a much smaller impact on society, and on Dutch people, that might seem unreasonable.
Why are you hopeful?
I believe in Christ, and Christ will never let down his Church. That in the first place.
Even when the Church declines in the whole world – and we see that the number of Catholics will dwindle around the globe, not only in Holland – that does not make a difference to me.
My faith in Christ will remain the same.
I have a deep joy at the bottom of my soul because Christ called me to be a priest. Nobody can take that joy from me. Nothing. That joy remains.
Even when the number of churchgoers is dwindling, the joy of the priesthood remains in me.
So, I'm very thankful that God called me to represent Him in person, especially in the Eucharist and in the sacrament of reconciliation.
Again, what will remain in Holland? A small, but strong Church, because the people who still remain in the Church and continue to go to Mass every Sunday are convinced Catholics.
Once, my spiritual father told me that we have returned to the days of the Acts of the Apostles. The Church developed in very dire circumstances, and it was a very small Church.
How could you hope to spread the Gospel throughout the world with such a small number of people?
And then very fast, it did. Ten or 20 years after the Resurrection, the faith had already spread throughout many parts of the Roman Empire.
That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. When you look at the Acts of the Apostles, you might think that the main characters are Peter, Paul, the apostles.
But no. The main character, although a bit in the background, is always the Holy Spirit given to the Apostles at Pentecost.