Dutch Dominicans back women, gays, married men as priests

New York

Despite a cool reception in Rome and among local bishops, the Dutch province of the Dominican order does not appear to be backing away from its recent call for priestly ministry “from below,” which would allow local communities to select whomever they wish – including married men, women and homosexuals – to celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments.

That proposal came in the form of a 9,500-word booklet called “Church and Ministry,” recently distributed by the Dominican order in the Netherlands to the country’s 1,300 parishes.

The booklet encourages Dutch parishes to act with “self-confidence and courage,” choosing their own ministers even in defiance of church authorities, confident that “they are able to celebrate a real and genuine Eucharist when they are together in prayer and share bread and wine.”

The Roman headquarters of the Dominicans issued a statement through the Vatican on Sept. 18 saying it was “surprised” by the booklet, and that the order’s leadership does not believe “the solutions they have proposed are beneficial to the church, nor in harmony with its tradition.” Bishop Huub Ernst, emeritus bishop of Breda in Holland, has announced that the Dutch bishops will prepare a “counter-booklet” to explain official church teaching.

Nonetheless, the Dutch Dominicans have announced a second printing of their booklet in response to what they described as strong public interest, along with a discussion guide for use in parishes and other settings. They also say the four authors of the booklet will begin posting responses to commonly asked questions on the order’s web site in October.

For Catholics old enough to remember the period immediately following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the storm surrounding the booklet will be reminiscent of earlier controversies in the Dutch church, long regarded as among the most liberal in the world. The late Pope John Paul II called a special Vatican synod for the Netherlands in 1980, at which time Dutch bishops were instructed to defend church teachings on some of the same matters under discussion in the Dominicans’ booklet – clerical celibacy, tampering with the official rules for the Mass, and allowing laity to perform roles reserved to priests.

The booklet, which is styled as a “contribution to renewed discussion” rather than a “doctrinal position,” begins with a survey of the current pastoral situation in the Netherlands. Noting a rise in the number of “Services of Word and Communion” held each week because there is no priest to celebrate a Mass, the authors charge that “official church authority in principle opts for a protection of the priesthood in its present form over against the right of church communities to the Eucharist.”

On the ground, the authors assert, most parishes would prefer to allow a lay member of their own community, man or woman, lead the Eucharist. The authors say that relationships between church authorities and people in the pews are frayed, claiming “the parties have no or hardly any confidence in each other.”

The authors describe situations in which parishes sometimes disregard the official Eucharistic prayers prescribed by the church, including the words of institution believed to transform the bread and wine at Mass into the body and blood of Christ, as not in tune with “the modern faith experience.” They claim that some parishes don’t want to accept pastors appointed by church authorities, and in some cases, they say, Catholics have set up separate legal foundations so that parish funding is not dependent upon the diocese.

All of these practices, the authors claim, usually occur with some degree of secrecy so as not to attract the bishop’s attention. On that basis, they claim, “the church has returned to the catacombs.”

In a section devoted to the future, the document proposes that the local community should choose its own ministers to preside at the Eucharist. Ideally, they say, these ministers, male or female, would then be ordained by the local bishop. The authors also suggest that all the people at Mass should say the words of institution together, symbolizing that these are not “magic words” that are the sole prerogative of an ordained priest. Receiving the Eucharist, they propose, should be open to all, including members of other religions.

Referring to church law that bars married men and women from the priesthood, the document asserts that those prohibitions rest upon “an outdated philosophy of humankind and an antiquated view of sexuality.” Current shortages of priests, the authors assert, are thus “unnecessary and unreal.”

As their basis for these proposals, the authors cite what they describe as an “organic model of church” adopted at the Second Vatican Council, in opposition to a “hierarchical” model that saw the church as a pyramid with the clergy at the top.

Wim Houtman, religion editor for Nederlands Dagblad, a major Dutch newspaper, told NCR that the booklet reflects the views of an aging generation in Holland, many of whom are active in their local parishes, and disappointed by what they see as a conservative turn under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Yet such debates, Houtman said, “mean nothing … to the people in their twenties and thirties who increasingly make the music in the Dutch Catholic Church.”

An English translation of the “Church and Ministry” document issued by the Dutch Dominicans may be found in the Special Documents section on NCRonline.org: Church and Ministry.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here