Since the counterproductive reception of the episcopal mandate of 1954 – which, among rather a lot else, forbade Catholics to be members of socialist parties and unions – the Dutch bishops have refrained from giving any advice on how to vote. An understandable thing to do, perhaps, certainly considering the climate of the decades to follow: Vatican II and the minor storm of iconoclasm that followed, and the general distrust of anything organised, including religion, in the 1960s. But at the same time, it is at odds with the bishops’ duties as shepherds. They are tasked to lead Christ’s flock, after all, in all things faith-related. Deciding on who to vote for may certainly be influenced by a person’s beliefs, so an episcopal declaration on what parties are more in line with Catholic thought and which are not would not be too strange.
Before the good old ‘separation of Church and State’ is dragged out again, it would be good to realise that no such thing actually exists in the Dutch constitution. As Tom Zwitser points out, the constitution speaks of a much more diffuse relation between Church and State. The concept of freedom of religion – which is a constitutional right – is much more applicable here. Of course, Church and State should not be at odds with one another, but in certain cases the relation between can certainly be mutually beneficial. And as for the individual voter: he or she gets inundated with all manner of advice on who to vote for anyway…
That said, the bishops’ conference maintains their position of not officially indicating parties that Catholics should not vote for, although they can certainly offer their own personal opinions. Bishop Gerard de Korte did so quite recently, and while he did warn against the trend of populism in politics (as he has done since 2007), no party is to be expressly excluded, he says.
Although the bishops reiterated their position in 2006, saying that it is not up to the Church to recommend specific parties, “but to put forward those issues that the Church considers important”, individual priests do sometimes speak out against specific parties. Recently, Father Harm Schilder, parish priest in Tilburg and focus of a long-running conflict about his church bells and the volume they are said to produce before early morning Mass, did so in his homily on Sunday:
“The parties who were expressly against the ringing of the church bells were the PvdA, Greenleft and the SP [left wing parties all]. They are also against the Church. They are allowed to. But it is desireable that churchgoers do not fall for that at the upcoming elections. As the old saying goes: do not kiss the hand of he who hits you.”
Although this is clearly an advice based on a specific local issue, it’s no less valid for it. Local politics will slightly differ per city and from national politics, but they do affect each other. The PvdA leading the call for protests at Mass in ‘s Hertogenbosch, for example, is in my opinion a clear indication that I can’t in good conscience vote for them in tomorrow’s municipal elections (if I was thinking of doing that, I might add).
The importance of politics and elections is for me a natural reason to look for advice and guidance from the corners that also help me in other situations. The Church in her teachings and personified in priests and bishops is one of those. I believe there is much to be gained with a bishops’ conference that is not afraid to speak out clearly and publically on matters, to offer advice when needed. That will certainly lead to much resentment initially, both within and without the Church. After all, we are a people that does not like being told what to do. But sometimes we need it. We needed it as children, and since we never stop growing up and learning, we will always need it.
In the temple in Jerusalem, old Simeon warned the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph that Jesus would be “a sign that is opposed” (Luke 2, 34). The same will be true for anyone who chooses to follow Him.