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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

Dutch proposal stirs controversy


Some six months after the Dutch Province of the Dominican order proposed that parishes in Holland should consider selecting lay members to preside at the Eucharist, the winds of controversy show no signs of abating. A spirited debate between the proposal’s detractors and supporters is underway.

The Dominican proposal, published in a booklet titled “Church and Ministry” and sent to all 1,425 of the country’s parishes, declared that a critical priest shortage justifies a return to an “old tradition,” which associates Eucharist more closely with the local community than with top-heavy church authority (NCR, Dec. 14). With this understanding, said the document, “men and women can be chosen to preside ... by the community itself, that is, ‘from below.’ This does not mean that they do not wish this choice to be followed by a confirmation or blessing of ordination by church authority, in fact by the local bishop.”

A series of events since “Church and Ministry” was released indicate how seriously the proposal is being viewed. In early November, a hastily organized conference in Amsterdam on the proposal drew more than 500 people, the vast majority strongly favoring its ideas. Later in November three Dominican priests, including the Dutch provincial, were summoned to Rome where the Dutch master general, Fr. Carlos Azpiroz Costa, expressed alarm that the booklet had been circulated without his knowledge or permission.

It was agreed that a rebuttal report on the proposal by a French Dominican theologian, Fr. Hervé Legrand, should be sent to all the parishes in the Netherlands.

That report, published in January, was accompanied by a letter from Azpiroz, who wrote, “While we are sympathetic with the concern for a lack of ordained priests to minister ... we do not believe the solution proposed by our brothers is in harmony with the constant and authentic tradition of the Catholic church.”

Legrand excoriated the proposal. While the authors called it an invitation to “open dialogue in which all interested parties would participate,” he said, the Dutch document is “in fact a call to action ... contrary to Catholic doctrine with no precedent in tradition” and structured on opposition to the hierarchy. On 22 occasions, he noted, official authority (“from above”) is contrasted with grass-roots, community authority (“from below”), and in every case “from below” is viewed as positive and “from above” as negative.

In effect, he said, the proposal disqualifies the bishops from the dialogue. In addition, argued Legrand, the document greatly overestimates the credibility and reliability of the grass roots on matters of church teaching, and by including women and gays as potential presiders, it “encourages parishes to excommunicate themselves.”

Legrand took special offense at a statement in the proposal that said “if a bishop should refuse to confirm or ordain [someone proposed by the community] on the basis of arguments unrelated to the essence of the Eucharist, such as obligatory celibacy, parishes may be confident they are able to celebrate a real and genuine Eucharist,” and adding, “We urge parishes to act in this way with a great amount of self-confidence and courage.”

“No theologian of any Christian confession would recognize Catholic or Orthodox ecclesiology” in this proposal, said Legrand. It would result in schism, just as the ordination of a gay Episcopal bishop in the United States is leading to schism in that body.

The Legrand report prompted a rebuttal of the rebuttal by Herman Häring, a retired lay German theologian who had succeeded Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx as professor of systematic theology at the Dutch Catholic university in Nijmegen. In a paper circulating in Holland in early February, Häring argued that the current theology of the priesthood is not the only possible one, adding that “perhaps Dutch Catholics are thinking about this point more critically and accurately than is the teaching church.”

Häring disagreed with Legrand’s dismissive view of the Dutch grass roots and insisted the emphasis on church from below -- that is, a church in which the laity choose their leaders -- was not meant to exclude the hierarchy from dialogue. If Legrand understood the 30-year polarization in Holland, during which priests, catechists and religious congregations tried to build bridges with the hierarchy only to be rebuffed or ignored, he would realize the Dutch lack of confidence in the church from above, he said.

Häring then alluded to something transcending the Dutch debate. The situation in Holland is comparable to that elsewhere in the world, he implied, where word and Communion services in the absence of a priest evolve into a range of secretive and illegal eucharistic services with no priest needed or involved.

“I am under the impression that you [Legrand] have never spoken to brothers in other continents ... about their worship practices,” he said. “May one not care that such new developments receive a frame of theological stability before they revolve into wild, uncontrollable growth?” Instead of condemning the Dutch proposal, he said, “one should be grateful to the authors of ‘Church and Ministry’ for trying to break through a growing resignation” to the loss of Eucharist.

A small break in the impasse occurred in mid-February when Gerard de Korte, auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, participated in a debate with two authors of the Dominican proposal in Deventer. No winner was declared. De Korte reiterated Legrand’s conclusion, saying any claim that the community can designate presiders is, on its face, a “schismatic” position. He indicated colleagues had urged him to avoid the event, but he came, he said, because he believes “in the value of debate.” The two Dominicans, Frs. Andre Lascaris and Harrie Salemans, insisted there was no intent to create schism, “only a determination to open the church to needed theological reevaluation in a time of crisis.”

Robert McClory lives in Chicago.

On the Web
Robert McClory's first report on the Dutch proposal was the cover story of the Dec. 14 NCR. It is available on Look in the Back Issues section.
An English translation of the 38-page booklet "Church and Ministry" is available under the Special Documents section of

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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