Short history of Dutch Catholicism

in the 19th and 20th century

1. Sixteenth till eighteenth century

2. Revival (1795-1890)

3. The Catholic Pillar (1890-1940)

4. Second World War (1940-1945)

5. Restoration and doubt (1945-1960)

6. Conciliar reforms (1960-1970)

7. Polarisation and reaction (1970-1993)

Sixteenth till eighteenth Century

The Dutch uprising against Spain, started in the sixties of the sixteenth century, became more and more dominated by the battle between Protestants and Catholics. In the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden) the Dutch reformed church was treated as the "one true religion" and therefore treated in a privileged manner, all though she was never given the status of State Church. In this way the Republic developed as a multiconfessional society, in which the Catholics, as a minority church, could maintain themselves pretty well as a minority church, all though they had to go to great costs to receive dispensation of anti-Catholic measures ('plakkaten').
Still, the number of Catholics crumbled gradually, because they were, in practice, excluded from high places/functions, and on the other hand they scarcely profited from the charity system of poor relief.
The Utrecht church province (the area above the river Waal) was hardly established in 1592 when it was again declared mission territory by Rome in 1592. The so-called Hollandse Zending (Dutch Mission) came under the leadership of a apostolic vicar. The Southern provinces were governed by the Malines Church province in those days.
Around 1700, the Hollandse Zending suffered a serious internal crisis regarding the apostolic vicars Neercassel and Codde, who were accused of Jansenism. From this case, in 1723, the Old Catholic Church (Oud-Bisschoppelijke Clerezij) arose.
In 1717, after the apostolic vicar had been banned from the country by Parliament, this function was looked after by the apostolic nuncio in Brussels.

Revival (1795-1890)

In 1795, the Batavian republic was proclaimed. The Catholics now officially obtained freedom of religion. The unification of the Northern and Southern Netherlands under king William the First even gave the Catholics a majority position. The Belgian Uprising, in 1830, however led to the division of the Kingdom into Holland and Belgium The Catholics now formed 38% of the Dutch population, living mostly in Brabant and Limburg.
In 1801, in between the Belgian church provinces Mechelen and the Northern-Dutch Hollandse Zending, the apostolic vicariats Breda, Den Bosch, Megen and Grave were called into being. In Limburg, the diocese Roermond was, until 1840, divided between the dioceses Luik and Aken. (See map) The Catholics could now replace their clandestine church by new churches, institutes for priest education were founded, and monastery life could be rebuilt. In these days, the first catholic papers and magazines were published.
In 1853, Pope Pius XI founded the Utrecht Church province, consisting of the dioceses of Haarlem, 's-Hertogenbosch, Breda and Roermond. This "restoration" of the Hierarchy was accompanied by a storm of protest from the Protestants (the April-movement).
Initially the new bishops paid much attention to the reorganisation of their diocese and the building up of a good parochial infrastructure. The provincial council of 1865 finished these years of restoration symbolically. An important condition for the catholic restoration was formed by the Orders and Congregations. Apart from new Dutch Institutions, German and French congregations began to settle in Holland, taking refuge from anticlerical measures in their own countries. The religions built a network of catholic schools, hospitals and poor-relief. At the end of the 19th century, they also gave the first impulse to the remarkable mission effort among the Dutch Catholics.
The Catholic Revival also found expression in the cultural field. The Amsterdam merchant-writer J.A. Alberdingk Thijm was a voluble spokesman, the neo-gothic way of church building (P.J.H. Cuypers) and of church art (jeweller Brom) was its most remarkable manner of expression.
Up until the fifties of the nineteenth century there was an influential liberal movement within Dutch Catholicism. But after the introduction of the Episcopal hierarchy, the Dutch Catholics became more and more conservative and ultramontane (focused on Rome). This development was partly due to the fact that liberal politicians kept refusing to subsidise special education, and by doing so made it impossible for catholic education to exist alongside state education. This schoolbattle, started by the anti-liberal encyclical Quanta Cura (1864) and the Episcopal Education Instruction (1868), was eventually won by a Catholic-Protestant Coalition. In 1888 a new law for primary education was passed, and in 1917, public - and special education schools were given equal status.

The 'Catholic Pillar' (1890-1940)

In the first half of the twentieth century, Dutch Catholicism was characterised by a growing self-confidence. The defence of religion made way for the spread of religion (Apostolic Society Petrus Canisius (1904), Action 'For God' (1936)). The energy of the missionary work focused however especially on countries outside Europe: an intensive mission movement was started, and in financial as well as in a personal way catholic Holland contributed so much to the church's missionary work, that the pope made it an example and called it "Hollandia docet".
In these years there was a strong community spirit and an effective social control among Dutch Catholics. The church authorities had, beside the catholic schools, a great variety of social, cultural and recreational organisations at their disposal, in order to direct the daily life and works of the Catholics. The most effective way, however, was confession. In the field of good moral sense, sexuality and married life, directions were given, and if we look at the high birth rates among Catholics we may conclude that the church was very successful in these areas.
In the political field, the catholic politicians, on the initiative of Herman Schaepman, started to cooperate in the Catholic Chamberclub. In 1904, an alliance of RC Constituency Associations was called into being. In practice, this alliance was already called RC National Party. Officially, this party was founded in 1926. At the 1918 elections, at which the proportional representation was used for the first time and a general voting right for men existed, the Catholics won 30 out of the 100 parliamentary seats, thus becoming the biggest party. For the first time in history, Holland had a catholic Prime-minister (C.H. Ruijs de Beerenbrouck).
At the end of the eighties of the nineteenth century, a catholic workers movement arose. The encyclical Rerum Novarum played a very stimulating role. The formation of the workers organisations was strongly hampered by the fact that there was no agreement on the question whether they should be trade unions or organisations reflecting social status. The bishops finally cut the gordian knot by ruling that these organisations should be above all organised according to class. In this way, the Nederlandse RK Middenstandsbond (1915), the Algemene RK Werkgeversorganisatie (1915) and the RK Werkliedenverbond (1925) were established in the first decade of this century.
Meanwhile, the building up of catholic education made steady progress. An almost complete network of primary schools, and also of secondary schools was set up thanks to the efforts of several orders (Jesuits, Augustinians, Franciscans, Dominicans.) In Tilburg, the RK Leergangen (1912) and the RK Handelshogeschool (1927) were founded, and the foundation of the RC University (1923) in Nijmegen crowned all.

Second World War (1940-1945)

The Dutch Bishops warned very early against rightwing as well as leftwing radicalisation. In statements, given in 1934 and 1936, heavy church penalties were attended to fascist as well as communist activities.
The Dutch Bishops were resisting the German occupiers as well as possible, under the leadership of Archbishop J. de Jong. They closely cooperated with the Protestant church leaders in the Inter Church Consultation. Member exodus or timely disbandment made the 'standardisation' of Catholic organisations, unions and institutions almost impossible. Under the cloak of the Catholic Action, organisational tasks were continued, and a Special Needs Foundation took pity on the numerous officials who had lost their jobs.

Restoration and doubt (1945-1960)

During and immediately after the Second World War, within the so-called breakthrough movements efforts were being made to renew political and social life. The bishops and the leaders of the Catholic Pillar however, strove after a complete restoration of the pre-war situation. In their eyes, this restoration was also a rehabilitation.
The founding of the Catholic People's party in 1945 heralded the failure of the breakthrough movement, and in 1945-1946, the complete catholic union- and organisation life was rebuilt. In this way, the church tried to stop the disintegrating and secularising consequences of the fast modernisation of Dutch society.
On the face of it, the church seemed successful. Until well into the fifties, the segregation of Catholic Holland was on the increase. However, a critical undertow, which had its roots in the breakthrough movement, remained in existence. Not only the intellectual Elite, but also the common parish priests got the feeling that a traditional, closed Catholicism did not provide all the answers in modern society. Proverbial for this unease was the publishing in 1950 of the volume Onrust in de zielzorg (Commotion in the pastoral work). The partition of the dioceses Haarlem and the archdiocese Utrecht in 1956 intended to improve the administration of these large dioceses.
At the centenary celebration of the restoration of the Episcopal hierarchy (1953) and in the Episcopal Instruction The catholic public life of today (1954), the bishops pleaded emphatically for a strong catholic unity as a base of operations towards society. The charge had a boomerang effect however: the Catholics became more and more aware of their wish for openness.
In the second half of the fifties, the first impulses for a turbulent renewal movement are noticeable. The church discipline, which had always been strongly focused on (sexual) morality, became a topic of discussion within the rising catholic health care (Katholiek Nationaal Bureau voor Geestelijke Gezondheidszorg, led by A. Bartels and C. Trimbos, monthly magazine Dux with editor-in-chief Han Fortmann), and more and more catholic organisations began to have their doubts concerning the meaning of their catholic 'C'. The broad catholic social program advocated by the bishops in 1954 was finally published modestly in 1960-1963 as a catholic view on Dutch Society (subtitle of the five volume Prosperity, Well-being and Happiness).

Conciliar Reforms (1960-1970)

The aggiornamento of the church and the second Vatican Council, announced by Pope John XXIII, fell on fertile soil in Holland. The introduction of the language of the people in liturgy and a reducing of the adherence to church morals were the first notable features of the reforms. These developments were promoted by the open attitude as shown by the popular bishop W. Bekkers of Den Bosch.
By publishing the New catechism (1966)and the organising of the Pastoral Council of the Dutch churchprovinces (1969-1970), the episcopate, under the leadership of cardinal B. Alfrink, wanted to stimulate church reforms and be in charge of them. In fact, these initiatives led to a strong, autonomous unfolding reform movement, which drew international attention at the end of the sixties. Critical groups on the left wing (Septuagint, Amsterdamse Studentenekklesia (Amsterdam Student Church)) and right wing (Confrontation, Truth and Life) of the church sprang up.
Initially the elan of the reform movement concealed the simultaneously increasing secularisation. Religious conviction was fading (polls God in Holland, 1967, 1979) and church attendance went from 64.6% in 1966 to 46.3% in 1970. This tendency continued in the next decade (13,1% in 1991).
The ecumenical discussion had already started during the Second World War, but, until the midsixties, took place exclusively in numerous informal discussion groups. However, the conversion of Princess Irene to the catholic church in 1964, and the outrage over her "conditional rechristening" led to contacts on an official level. In 1968 the Council of Churches was called into being, and in the years '67-'68 mutual baptism acknowledgement took place between the catholic church and various Protestant churches.
The reform movement was attended by a dramatically fast breaking down of traditional religious and socio-political barriers in the Dutch society. The majority of the catholic organisations lost its denominational character because of discontinuance or merging with Protestant or non-confessional organisations. This change was also noticed in voting behaviour. In 1963 the Dutch voted 31.9% KVP (Catholic People's Party), in 1972 the percentage was reduced to 17.7%.

Polarisation and reaction (1970-1993)

The reformmovement led to great concern in Rome, which was expressed by the appointment of a number of very conservative bishops. These developments caused an ever increasing polarisation in catholic Holland which would last well into the nineties.
Several efforts were made to stop this polarisation, but neither the Pluriformity Committee, established by the bishops in 1973, nor the conciliatory gesture by appointing cardinal J. Willebrands, as successor to Cardinal Alfrink on the Utrecht Episcopal see, had the intended effect. Even within the Episcopal conference, unity did not exist and relationships were disturbed. With a Special Synod of Bishops in 1980 Pope John Paul II personally tried to align the bishops: but it didn't have much success. The Pope's visit in 1985 to Holland was no unqualified success.
It caused however a massive manifestation of progressive catholic unions and organisations in The Hague under the motto of "the other face of the church". From this manifestation arose the Acht Mei Beweging (8th of May Movement) as a platform for among other things Open Church (1972), the 'Mariënburg'organisation (1983), the Federation of Organisations for Pastoral Workers (1987), Pax Christi and several orders and congregations, approximating a total of 200 organisations. Since 1985, the May 8th Movement has organised a large-scale manifestation every year.
A year later, the more conservative Catholics organised themselves in the Contact Rooms Katholieken (Roman Catholics Contact, 1986). Moreover, for this group, a catholic newspaper Katholiek Nieuwsblad has been published since 1983. Initially three times a week, it has now become a weekly.
Around 1980, the tendency towards secularisation also reached the big organisations. In 1980 a broad Christian democratic political Party was established (Christen Democratisch Appèl, Christian Democratic Appeal, CDA); in 1981 the Dutch Catholic Trade Union merged with the Socialist Dutch Association of Trade Unions: Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (Federation of Dutch Trade Unions, FNV) was born.
During the mid-eighties the remaining catholic organisations started to spend more time and energy onreflection on their identity. On the initiative of the Catholic Board for Church and Society (est. 1975), a Chairmen Consultation (1986) (Allerheiligenberaad ('All Saints Consultation')) and the Union of Catholic Social Organisations (1988) came into being.
The devotion among the Dutch Catholics has been decreasing during the last decades. The percentage of Catholics among the Dutch population was reduced from 40.4% in 1960 to 35%: only a mere 13% attends weekly mass. This small group however shows a strong religious commitment.


Back To index 'History of Dutch Catholicism'.