A row about church closures has prompted one politician to leave Catholicism
Last month the medieval church of St Walburga in the Dutch city of Arnhem (pictured) was sold for almost one million euros so that it could be converted into flats. First used in 1375, the church had been elevated to the status of basilica minor in 1964, but in 2013 it was closed because of a decline in the number of Mass-goers. The parish decided to concentrate its activities in Arnhem’s two other churches.
This is not unique to the city, or the Archdiocese of Utrecht in which it lies. Most of the seven Dutch dioceses are confronted with such choices: trying to keep open all their churches at sometimes high costs, or closing excess buildings.
In a recent interview, Cardinal Willem Eijk, the Archbishop of Utrecht, discussed this problem, and not for the first time. He had previously estimated that, by 2028, when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75, his archdiocese would have no more than 20 churches in use. In his most recent comments, he lowered that number further to 10 or 15. Yet today the archdiocese, which is about as large as that of Birmingham, has more than 250 church buildings in use.
The problem boils down to economics. As Cardinal Eijk said: “Ten per cent of the parishes are very rich, 10 per cent are essentially bankrupt. The maintenance costs for these churches are too high … Eighty per cent lie somewhere in between.”
The great majority of churches in the Netherlands are parish property and a significant number are classified as monuments. Some are medieval, but more were built in the 19th and 20th centuries, after the hierarchy was restored in 1853 and Catholics were able to exercise their faith in public. And they did so with gusto.
But secularisation hit in the 20th century, and the numbers have been falling for decades now. On paper, the Archdiocese of Utrecht is home to 700,000 Catholics. But the percentage of those who regularly attend Mass is in the single digits.
The financial situation of the parishes reflects this. With few Catholics in the pews, the collection plate remains relatively empty, which means fewer funds can be diverted to building maintenance. In the end, a parish – which often has more than one church building to maintain – can conclude that it is better to close one church and concentrate on its one or two remaining buildings.
This state of affairs is continuously emphasised by Cardinal Eijk: it is not he who closes the churches, even though it is his signature under each decree. The decision is made by the parish council. In the end, the cardinal says, “The Church is not closed by the people who are still going or by me, but by those who stay away and no longer contribute.”
Cardinal Eijk’s message, while not unfounded, has not been received well by all. Among those who took issue with it was Klaas Dijkhoff, leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, the largest party in the Dutch parliament.
In his interview, Cardinal Eijk mentioned Dijkhoff, saying: “[He] recently said: ‘We can’t forbid the churches, but it is good that they have learned to pipe down a bit.’ A hyper-individualist like Dijkhoff forgets the social function of churches … Religion behind the front door? Such small-mindedness! I use that word consciously. One must have the greatness to accept religion.”
In response Dijkhoff published a letter announcing his deregistration as a member of the Catholic Church. He did so on the official website of his political party, thus raising questions about whether this personal – and somewhat emotional – decision was in some way a political expression of his party.
Dijkhoff’s letter was, in turn, lauded and criticised, and the Archdiocese of Utrecht soon issued a clarification, stating that Cardinal Eijk never called Dijkhoff smallminded, but used the term to describe a desire to keep religion private. The baton was then taken up by Bishop Gerard de Korte of ’s-Hertogenbosch, Dijkhoff’s own bishop, who invited him for a cup of coffee to discuss the matter in peace, emphasising the notion of personal freedom as common ground between political liberalism and the Catholic faith.
Looking at Cardinal’s Eijk comments objectively, it is hard to disagree with his conclusions. Of course, parishes are not the same everywhere, and inner-city churches, with more international and varied populations, will be easier to keep open than ones in the countryside, where the population is slowly but steadily dropping. But the general outlook is one of decline, or rather change. The Catholic Church of the future will be rooted in the past, but look different: to a significant extent international and urbanised, but perhaps with seeds that may flourish elsewhere. It happened before.
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