Letter From Europe: The Infuriated Conscience

John Paul II in the Netherlands 

From May 11th to the 15th, four cold and windy days, Pope John Paul II made his 26th Apostolic Pilgrimage to the Netherlands. It has, no doubt, been a moving and memorable pastoral visit; but how does one measure its success or failure? By the crowds who turned out to meet him? By universal standards they were not very large; everywhere they remained far below estimates made before. A majority of Dutch citizens remained glued to their TVs, which indeed gave extensive hour-to hour-coverage to the visit. Thus„ most of the Dutch could watch the Holy Father, listen to his homilies and allocutions, hear the words addressed to him and be exposed to the numerous panels commenting on the events and messages.

The press—the leading Dutch papers and the foreign press in general—appear to have concluded that the Pope’s visit to the Netherlands was a failure; the more so as they began to compare the warm welcome the Pope received in Belgium with the cool reception he got in the Netherlands. Newsweek (May 27) went so far as to comment that “for four days in the Netherlands last week, the pontiff was hounded and harassed as never before.” To prove its point, Newsweek showed large photos of demonstrators hurling stones and cited public opinion polls allegedly showing that few Dutch Catholics welcomed the visit. Such distortions of the facts may make for a nice cover story; they do not help one to understand what really happened. The demonstrations were isolated events, staged by a small group of professional trouble-makers well known to the police. The opinion poll referred to was based on a non-representative sample.

In actual fact, the pattern of the Pope’s visit to the Netherlands was very similar to that of his visits to other secularized Western countries. As in the U.S., Belgium and other Western countries, the moral teachings of the Church were challenged and criticized as being too traditional and insufficiently adapted to modern society; as in other countries there were demands that the Pope enhance the role of women in the ministry of the church. If there were differences, they were related to the way the Dutch bishops had decided to organize the visit, in the absence of the usual euphoria surrounding papal visits; to the elaborate security precautions taken by the government; to the smaller crowds; and to the specific habits of the Dutch as a nation of preachers and teachers.

Out of long tradition, the Dutch like to teach morals to others but dislike to be taught by “foreigners.” They love to talk religion, but among themselves as equals. In no other country, probably, has the visit of Pope John Paul been the subject of such intense interest before, during and after the event as in the Netherlands. Rightly or wrongly, the organizers of the papal visit keep telling us for months that we Dutch do not like mass celebrations, but prefer small-scale religious discussions. Only the Limburg diocese was defiant and organized a Mass at its local airport. It was a great and joyful happening, though fog and cold winds kept attendance below expectations.

Most of the other events were organized according to the assumed Dutch preference: meetings of the Pope with representatives of many organizations and groups. They were so well organized, and the Dutch Catholics were so thoroughly represented by persons speaking allegedly on their behalf, that they decided not to be present (almost) anywhere. In addition, security measures suggested that the right to shake hands with the Pope would be reserved to people who had filled in complicated forms, obtained passes and could show a passport to boot. Consequently, many apparently decided to follow the events at home.

What they saw on their TVs gave them good reasons to regret their decision. They watched “their” representatives “speaking out” to the Holy Father and to each other for many hours thereafter; they watched their representatives’ self-satisfaction with the lessons they had taught the Pope and the enlightened information they had transmitted on the Dutch way to be truly Catholic. They also watched the Holy Father and the expressions on his face. Undisturbed and without losing his inner peace, the Pope seemed to look right through those representatives to them. Many were deeply impressed by the clarity of the Pope’s message and by the confidence and hope he inspired, as well as by the tremendous effort he made to learn enough Dutch to deliver all his allocutions in that difficult language. Thus, many Dutch came to the realization that they had missed the opportunity to experience the warmth and peace of mind Pope John Paul radiates. They had been told that Rome and the Dutch Catholics were at loggerheads and that Rome was sending the supreme representative of “Roman power” to seek the “restoration” of the Dutch church. Pope John Paul, however, did not fit that image. What many saw was a Pope who lived as he preached, who had fought Nazism and communism and still was unshaken in his faith in the resurrected Christ.

For modern Western societies, it is an unsettling experience to meet with a man like John Paul. In the true sense of the Gospel, Pope John Paul is “a sign of contradiction.” He challenges the political slavery of totalitarianism in the East and is met with hatred and ridicule by the totalitarian regimes. He challenges the permissiveness and confusion in Western societies and infuriates the conscience of those who preach and practice acquiescence to changing moral standards. Wherever he went the voices of infuriated conscience have tried to weaken his message by depicting him as a “conservative” trying to impose the model of the Polish Catholic church on the West (note the insulting insinuation), or “the bishop of Rome” trying to restore Vatican power. These same voices have tried to replace the image of the Church as the mystic body of Christ by the Marxist concept of the Church as a superstructure. In so doing, they reduced the Pope from the successor of St. Peter on a pastoral visit, to the mere bishop of Rome or the head of the Vatican interfering in the domestic affairs of the local church. A Pope so reduced is a much easier target for criticism. And the host country voices of defiance become a symbol of righteousness and self-satisfaction. This is the more so when personal sin is replaced by “structural sin.”

The voices of the infuriated conscience may have been louder in the Netherlands than they have been elsewhere. Their messages, however, were no different.

Still, at least two peculiarly Dutch phenomena may explain why criticism, coolness and defiance rather than joy and euphoria ultimately characterized the visit. First, the Dutch Catholic Church is only beginning to re-emerge from a long period in which the bishops have been too divided among themselves to guide the church. Recent nominations of new bishops have been met with strong resistance, making it difficult for the bishops to exercise the leadership necessary for organizing a festive papal visit.

Second, the Netherlands, as a multi-denominational country, has a long tradition of anti-papism among many of its reformed Christians. After the Second World War, anti-papism receded to the background as a result of the strong commitment of Catholics and Protestants to the ecumenical movement. Catholics and Protestants in the Netherlands, however, practiced ecumenism in a very Dutch way and found in each other allies against some of their own bishops and the more careful approach of the Catholic Church at large. As a consequence, the papal visit confronted a new alliance between a revived Protestant anti-papism and the critical Dutch Catholics. Both phenomena were absent in Belgium, where strong episcopal leadership is exercised in a predominantly Catholic country. These two differences also explain the pointed remark offered by a reporter for a Catholic news agency, in the International Herald Tribune: “The Belgians think they’re sinners, and so they’re trying to walk between the lines. The Dutch believe they’re saints, and so they want the lines moved.”

In the Netherlands and in Belgium, Pope John Paul also met with many Catholics, young and old, intensely preoccupied with the renewal of the post-Vatican Council Catholic Church. The voices of those who advocate a greater role for women, or for lay pastoral workers in a church suffering from a shortage of priests, must be distinguished clearly from the voices of the infuriated conscience. It is a shame that attention for these two real issues is sometimes linked to pleas for greater sexual liberty and to attacks on the crucial importance of the Christian family.

The visit of Pope John Paul to the Netherlands and Belgium was a moving and memorable experience. As the successor to St. Peter, the Pope came as “a sign of contradiction” and not as a superstar. He came to listen, to challenge and to inspire, not to receive passing glory. It should not have been otherwise. As the Pope stood at Liege airport to give his farewell address to the Benelux countries, heavy rain suddenly poured down on him and the farewell crowd. While bystanders rushed in with umbrellas Pope John Paul remarked: “The Pope is not allowed to weep, but heaven does!”


  • Frans Alting von Geusau

    Frans Alting von Geusau (born in 1933 in Bilthoven) is a Dutch legal scholar and diplomat. When he wrote this article he was affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Institute in Tilburg, the Netherlands, and was also professor of international and European organizations at the Catholic University of Tilburg.

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