Catholics can’t retreat from the world, Kees de Groot tells Susan Gately
The Church should not be focussed on ‘maintenance’ as an organisation, but members should try to fulfil their vocations as human beings in the world, believing the “future is in God’s hands and we are not required to save the Church”, according to a Dutch Catholic author and theologian.
Dr Kees de Groot wrote The Liquidation of the Church, which was the focus of a talk he gave at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
The Assistant Professor at the School of Catholic Theology in Tilburg University says it is a “hopeful book”.
“My vision is that we should not be afraid. When we focus on the figures, then we get into a narcissistic obsession with maintenance of the Church as an organisation, whereas when we take reality seriously, and the Christian Gospel seriously, then we can approach the world without fear and trust that the future is in God’s hands and we are not required to save the Church but that we are required to fulfil our vocations as human beings in this world.”
The thesis of the book, Dr de Groot explained to The Irish Catholic, is that Catholics should not be “deluded” by the secularist thesis, which maintains that “religion is dying out” in countries like the Netherlands and Ireland.
One side of the story is that “organised Christian religion is diminishing” (looking at Mass attendance) also because society is changing, but religion is not disappearing from the scene. “I invite people to look at initiatives that have been and are taken by the Catholic Church in society,” he says, which although not in the control of the Church, are actually outflows from Church ministries.
Chaplaincy services for example were once almost entirely the preserve of priests and religious. Now in the Netherlands there are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and even Humanist chaplains. “Other people are taking over these initiatives and even going further with them,” he told The Irish Catholic.
Religious tradition is often explored in contemporary theatre too where shows become “like religious meetings”. Dr de Groot recalls a theatre show he was at, where people had to express all their negative feelings towards the people they dealt with in everyday life. “Just to let it all out and think about it. And then they said ‘And now you can go and have a coffee with this person who you don’t like in your work or in your family’. It was a kind of ritual.”
The author’s point is that in some of these contemporary matters, Catholics can rediscover aspects of their own tradition and remind the Church of things of which they have perhaps lost sight. “They are exploring the riches of tradition and confronting us with the things we have forgotten,” he says.
The good things that people are doing even when they are not active in the Church, like taking care of homeless people, of migrants, of illegal immigrants, “are signs of hope and we should acknowledge them and not be afraid to draw attention to them. It is all Christian heritage in a way”.
Asked about the danger of formerly Christian elements being taken by a secular world and emptied of meaning, the way, for example, Christmas has been denuded with all the value now placed on trimmings, Dr de Groot admitted this could happen, but on the other hand, the Church could in its turn, learn from these initiatives.
The famous author and academic, Fr Romano Guardini, said: “Liturgy is playing before the face of God.”
“It’s not procedures,” comments Dr de Groot, “It is playful” and it is about “encountering the sacred”.
He sees great potential for the ‘liquid Church’ within the Church itself – “in parishes, in new social forms of being Church like the World Youth Day and in the movements – these small Christian communities”.
What is important at the institutional level, is not to attach great value to the “the bureaucratic social forms of the Church” which are sometimes treated as though they were sacred. Working as a parish consultant for four years in the Netherlands, he was dismayed at the “enormous bureaucracy” that has been developed in the Church. “You have to know the procedures, for years, before you can plan a certain activity”.
“But nowadays,” he insists, “we live in a network society where people organise all kinds of events just using a WhatsApp group.” This is happening in the Church too.
‘Liquid modernity’, a phrase coined by the esteemed sociologist and author, Zygmunt Bauman, denotes a modern time characterised by the uncertainty of the individual, and fragmentation in the globalised world, changing under the effects of technology. This situation has its downsides and provides opportunities as well, but either way we should acknowledge it.
We need to accept the situation we are in, deal with it in a sensible way and operate in ways that are really up to date, which also means being critical of our own consumer culture, says Dr de Groot. As Catholics we can’t adopt an escapist mentality, staying in “our own safe little haven” and treating the world as “a bad place”.
The good things that other people do in some way express “the duty set out in liturgical song and religious art”.
In my country there is also a lot of hostility towards the Church, he concluded, but it is very much a one-sided view. “In the media the negative aspects of Catholic tradition are expressed – we tend to forget the other side, all the positive things.” It reminds Dr de Groot of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – where the question is asked: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” – and a very long list is the reply. It is a bit the same with Catholics, he says. “What have the Catholics ever done for us?…let’s sit down. How long have you got?”