A Dutch Catholic weekly is warning the faithful that “the decline in church attendance has not yet reached its lowest point in the Netherlands; the big wave of church closures is yet to come”.

Driving the news

After conducting “long-term research” into the health of the Church in the Netherlands, the Katholiek Nieuwsblad came to the conclusion that the country is still to hit ‘peak secularisation’, and that Catholics should expect more churches to be shuttering soon.

That’s despite the fact that the Catholic population in the Netherlands has already fallen by 20% in just the last fifteen years.

About 3.7 million Dutch people – one in five – still call themselves Catholic, but just 5% of them – a mere 153,800 people – still attend Mass regularly around the country.

That Catholic desertion – to the tune of 60% of Dutch Catholics no longer attending weekend services – has already led to a reduction of 55% in the number of parishes.

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Paul van Geest, professor of church history and history of theology at Tilburg University, told the Katholiek Nieuwsblad that more church closures are inevitable.

“The fact that every neighborhood in the Netherlands used to have its own church is an exception worldwide.

“The closing of churches is a logical consequence of the fact that the church no longer is a binding factor in Dutch society”, van Geest explained.

However, the professor did admit that the situation of the Dutch Catholic Church is “multiform” and “changing”, a reality that is giving it some new life.

“In the Caecilia parish in Rotterdam, for example, they have invited the migrant communities to celebrate Mass in their church building”, van Geest recalled.

For his part, religions sociologist Theo Schepens reflected on the fact that Dutch people have in the past been “spoiled” by the amount of churches at their disposal to fulfill their obligation.

“That cannot be sustained. If, after a merger, people don’t want to go to a church in a village close by, there is apparently little need for the church”, Schepens said.

The sociologist was referring to a key finding in the Katholiek Nieuwsblad research, that once a church closes, “the willingness of people to attend Mass in another church nearby is shockingly low”.

“Church closure is not only the result of people leaving the Church, but as a result of a church closing more people decide to leave the Church”, the weekly had concluded.

The publication added that “there are no significant social implications of church closures in rural municipalities; other organizations take over the different tasks of the parish”.

Why it matters

Professor of church law at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, Rik Torfs, said he believed the Katholiek Nieuwsblad research showed the need for a “fresh outlook” on the part of a Church weighed down by organisational and logistical problems.

“Despite the clumsy way in which churches tend to spread their message, I think that the content of the message is so strong that at some point it will receive more attention”, Torfs explained.

“We just have to believe in it ourselves. Because who will want to become a member of a club that only talks about reorganization and downsizing? That’s not attractive”.

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Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.