Taking control of own life in totalitarianism

Fate of prophecy in the Czecho(Slovak) and Dutch Church



1. Opening and awakening after the Second Vatican Council

Thesis 1: First reform impulses

The Second Vatican Council marks an epochal breakthrough for both Churches.

  • The Dutch Church develops an explosive creativity inwards and a strong ecumenical and social self-confidence outwards.
  • Because of the state policy the Czechoslovak Church remains in a precarious situation. Inwards the ranks must remain as closed as possible, communication with Rome and theological exchange with the West can never take place without control. Therefore, new reform impulses can never unfold freely.

The Dutch creativity is obvious in liturgy, community life, catechesis and theology. The first generation of bishops supports this awakening. Influence is gained by theologians, such as Piet Schoonenberg and Edward Schillebeeckx, as well as by cardinal Alfrink. The Pastoral Council of Noordwijkerhout (1968-1970) gains in importance. The changes have a great public impact because the Catholic Church still plays an important role in the Dutch society at that time.

The Czechoslovak Church gets into even more difficult political situation. Both areas of tension (hierarchy – internal reform forces, official Church – state regime) repress any vitality. There is a dependence on the protection by Rome.

2. Churches in a crisis

Thesis 2: Growing crises

Growing Roman repression leads both Churches into difficult crises.

  • In the Netherlands, massive wrong decisions and interventions by Rome lead to the alienation from Rome, as well as growing resistance and in 1979 to the end of the “Dutch experiment”. Many communities and groups break off their contacts with the bishops.
  • In Czechoslovakia, the invasion of the Soviet troops, which leads to the end of the “Prague Spring” in August 1968, causes a shock. Disappointment and resignation are spreading. The feeling of isolation is enormous. Reform movements of hierarchy and state are under tremendous pressure now.

In the Netherlands, Ekklesia of Huub Oosterhuis becomes the spiritual center of resistance. For many years, the Eight May Movement (1983-2003) assembled to protest publicly. In Czechoslovakia, a huge psychological stress and increasing isolation arises.

Thesis 3: Clandestine Church

In consultation with the hierarchy, a separate pastoral care structure is established in Czechoslovakia: the Clandestine Church. With the secret ordination of in part married men to bishops and priests, as well as women to priests, the previously sensitive border is exceeded. The persons concerned work at the highest risk of freedom and life. Their situation massively intensifies in summer 1968.

Three features are constitutive of the Clandestine Church:

  • It continues the classic pastoral work with preaching and administration of the sacraments. For this purpose, the presence of ordained persons is indispensable.
  • It unfolds its work in strict secrecy, at the risk of freedom and life. This officially illegal state is only unofficially legalized.
  • This sensitive border crossing, especially the ordination of women, leads to the internal division already at the early stage.


3. Big asymmetry after 1989

In the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, there is a great deal of asymmetry.

In the Dutch Church, the hierarchy continues its destructive work without changes. In addition, there is a dramatic process of secularization and exodus from the Church. This leads the reform-oriented groups into a serious crisis.

The rapid collapse of the communist regime brings a great liberation to the Czechoslovak Church. The official Church, however, reacts restoratively. Its main objective is the restoration of old power and preconciliar episcopal authority. This relapse explains why this new old church does not want to accept the prophetic decisions of the Clandestine Church. John Paul II plays a central role in it.

Thesis 4: End of the Clandestine Church

From 1989, the Clandestine Church is perceived as a massive threat to the Church unity and is stopped under humiliating circumstances. Secretly ordained bishops have to renounce their office, married priests may be demoted to deacons; the existence of women priests is simply ignored.

4. Betrayal of prophecy and consequences for the reform work

4.1 What does prophecy mean?

Thesis 5: Prophetic action

Christian prophecy is characterized by the delicate, solidarily motivated break of given structures in a pressing situation. Anyone who denies or confounds it, questions the meaning of Christian prophecy. Existence and action of the Clandestine Church are an excellent example of the ecclesiastically precarious existence of all prophecy, especially in the Roman Catholic Church.

The criticism of Jesus in the Torah for the sake of man can be considered a great example of all prophecy. With the Second Vatican Council, prophecy and prophetic action take on a new status because the renewal of the Church is at the center of attention. Prophecy has always dealt also with the deeply human interest in the future of people and their society.

4.2 What does the “betrayal of prophecy” mean?

The term and metaphor “betrayal of prophecy” can be found in the anthology of the same name, published by the Herbert Haag Foundation in remembrance of the shameful events, surrounding the Clandestine Church. Hans Jorissen briefly characterized the disastrous 1992 norms and outlined their effects. Their wording, content and execution are a particularly blatant and obvious kind of betrayal. Despite previous official agreements, all secret ordinations are in principle doubted and should be conditionally repeated. Married priests can continue to work as deacons at most.

Thesis 6: Reasons of disregard for prophecy

There are three main reasons for the contempt for prophecy in the Roman Catholic Church:

  • massive juridization of Church activities and structures, leadership and teaching claims,
  • massive sacramentalism, which unilaterally understands the whole Church, including its leadership, as a sacrament and with regard to the sacraments,
  • authoritarian, monocratic leadership culture, which results from the combination of juridism and sacramentalism.

Therefore, ecclesiastical reform activities must begin with the fight against these misguided developments.

Regarding the assessment of sacramentalism, the following has to be said:

Any hierarchy that is authoritarian and guided by sacramental motives is blinded, a victim of an ideology that has evolved over the course of centuries. It is essential to fight against this delusion. In my opinion, this betrayal of prophetic spirit of Christ characterizes almost all countries and groups that are open to debate on the Church reform work. Therefore, the fate of the Clandestine Church is an excellent paradigm for the post-conciliar fate of the Church reform work. It is not about fixating on this memory, but we should not forget it because of its deterrent character. It can guard against the Western reform work reducing our everyday conflicts to the psychology of a bishop or thinking that we could better resolve our basic conflicts with more friendliness.

It is therefore all the more important to openly discuss all reform issues in the Church instead of sparing the agents. Anyone holding public office must publicly state his official acts. Although we must be free from aggression, we must act relentlessly and be able to deal with conflict.

4.3 What are the basic goals of a prophetically oriented reform work?

A prophetically compatible Church constitution does not deny fixed structural elements in the Church, but it relativizes them and submits them to the required prophetic criticism. We are in a long anti-prophetic tradition, beginning with the Gregorian Reform (11th century). The Church and the sacraments are conceived primarily as legal systems. This line is intensified by the rejection of the Reformation (16th century). The rock bottom of this development was reached in an anti-modernist opposition by the First Vatican Council (1870).

Despite the renewing impulses of the Second Vatican Council, this process has not been reversed, but deepened since the 1970s. Infallibility was extended to all bishops, the production of unilateral Roman doctrinal documents went sky high and the Church was more strictly than ever viewed as a sacrament (John Paul II: Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 2003). Only men can be priests because the wording This is my body substantiates the word of a man; ruthlessness towards historical developments and cultural shifts could not be more radical.

The basic structure of this renewal phobia can be easily deduced from the case of the Clandestine Church. None of these hierarchical positions takes into account historical changes and none of them regards people with due respect. In Western and Central Europe, however, this recklessness often does not lead to an open conflict any more. It leads to resignation or exodus. In addition, many Christians have got accustomed to a kind of heteronomous churchliness. This is a gross misunderstanding. Also this is the reason why the reform discussions should be always led in a way that is open to and prepared for conflicts.

Thesis 7: Basic objectives of the Church reform work

Prophetic leadership and action structure requires:

  • consequent functionalization and desacralization of ecclesiastical offices,
  • human rights monitoring and safeguarding of targeted reforms,
  • respect for different cultural and other contextual conditions,
  • flexible and balancing treatment of multi-lane arguments, which at the same moment reaches religious and secular discourses, life and mental horizons.

Theologically, the prophetic quality of the Church activity is always the harshest criterion, available to us. It is indispensable due to respect for Jesuanic tradition and profound changes of the present.

4.5 How to deal with the betrayal of prophecy?

Thesis 8: Open confrontation and clear argumentation

Every betrayal of prophecy has to be debunked in open confrontation. The affected ones should be consistently supervised. Moreover, it is helpful to prepare a catalogue of classic betrayal cases. Biblically oriented arguments deserve preference, particularly as the Second Vatican Council as argumentation aid is faded and traditional arguments are ambivalent.

During argumentation one should draw on the Second Vatican Council only exceptionally as this Council is strongly permeated with compromises and is gradually becoming history. The crucial argumentation basis are the Scriptures and the history of faith: I do not want to identify them in the present situation with the classic catholic term of “tradition” because this is often abused, in order to block the innovations. At the same time, a catalogue of appropriate reaction patterns should be developed and should consistently reinforce the self-evident conscience of the persons affected, as well as the protesters.


How can Western and Central European groups work together?

The reform groups of Western Churches should be prepared in particular to show solidarity with the Eastern European sister groups, as they are often under incomparably greater pressure from the official Church. The mood is usually more repressive and they have fewer resources, often fewer theological resources. On the other hand, the West can learn from the decisiveness and fortitude, as well as from elementary religious practice of the eastern groups. At the same time, a pan-European prophetic reform awareness must become our concern. How do we behave towards right-wing groupings, authoritarian state systems, growing alienation of our states from religion and Christian faith, growing pressure of globalized capitalism?

In all Christians and Churches in Europe, I see a serious joint problem: we have lost our visions. The old ones have become obsolete and noone has developed new, up-to-date visions of the future of the Church and society. That is also the reason for a double problem which we, the reform groups, have to struggle with. On the one hand, we are struggling with a stagnant official Church, which at first revolves around itself and thus polarizes and exhausts itself in internal party infighting. Even Pope Francis is, as it seems, too weak to overcome these conflicts. On the other hand, the reform groups cannot offer a great vision, which would support us all and help us bring the innovative ideas into the Church. That’s why we, too, usually get caught up in reactions, instead of putting our issues on the agenda and softening the animosity from the bottom up.

Thesis 9: Churches with a common vision

For reasons of credibility, West-Central European cooperation is indispensable in the reform work. In doing so, the quality of prophecy gains further significance because the Churches of Europe lack a common future vision, inspired by Christianity. It is indispensable for the vitality of the Churches of Europe and the reform work in them.

The common project could be:

Solidary Europe, borne by the spirit of reconciliation.

From the beginning, Jesus was filled with the quintessential Jewish prophetic vision, which he called the “Kingdom of God” and which always burst the framework of the later Church. He was concerned with the future of the mankind, reconciled in justice and peace, which can begin here and now, on-site. The task of Christians is not to repair our Churches, but to promote the secular world and put this vision into practice. However, it requires imagination and energy, mental capacity and drive to give this vision a common and collectively convincing shape for our present.