Bishop de Korte’s election advice – the problems of voting Catholic in the Netherlands

While bishops usually tend to avoid giving voting advice, at least when it comes to specific parties, Bishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch recently did do so on a personal title. In an interview with Katholiek Nieuwsblad he said,

bisschop-de-korte“As bishops we realise that you can’t say that, if you are Catholic, there is a single party to vote for. From a Catholic perspective, something can be said in favour of all parties.”

But the bishop makes one exception to this rule. Geert Wilders’ PVV, which has ideas which are “contrary to the Catholic idea about a just society. They way that they pit populations against one another, abandon the freedom the religion, attack the rule of law – “fake parliament”, “fake judges”… These are things that should make us very reserved.”

The PVV continues to score in the opinion polls, also among Catholics, and Bishop de Korte’s remarks have had their share of criticism. But while the bishop’s comments focussed on the positives to be found in irtually all parties, the criticism focussed on those elements in party’s programs which are incompatible with Catholic teaching. How, critics asked, could any Catholic in good conscience vote for a party which promotes anti-life measures such as abortion and euthanasia? As I mentioned in my recent article for The Catholic Herald, only two parties, both Christian, are pro-life: the Christian Union and the SGP, although it must be added that the PVV is at least hesitant about further liberalisation on these topics.

This is a valid criticism, and a Catholic vote must take the position of parties on these (and other) topics seriously. But Bishop de Korte is not saying that all positions of all parties, except those of the PVV, should be supported by Catholics. On the contrary, he merely acknowledges that all parties promote positive aspects which a Catholic can get behind, while, although he does not say so explicitly, they may also support things a Catholic should oppose. There is no clear black or white when it comes to casting a Catholic vote in these elections.

pvv-logo-560x190Why single out the PVV, then? Are their positions more abhorent than those of other parties? The tone of their way of doing politics is certainly not one we should promote, and their singling out of parts of the population and disrespect for the rule of law when it does not agree with their positions are indeed problematic. For Bishop de Korte these seem to be decisive factors. For others, like myself, the respect for life (both born and unborn) may be equally decisive, and in that context the left-wing parties such as GroenLinks and SP are just as undeserving of my vote. Singling out the PVV is too simplistic: no party is perfect, and when you say that  “something can be said in favour of all parties,” an honest reading wil also show that that includes the PVV.

Bishop de Korte gave a personal opinion, the reasoning of which I do not fully agree with, although I share his decision not to vote for the PVV. But that is my opinion. Others may reach another conclusion in good conscience, based on the priorities they focus on. As long as it impossible to cast a vote which is in full agreement with Catholic teaching, this is the situation we are stuck with.

Elections – the Christian loss

Compared to some countries, our national elections are a subdued affair, but they happened yesterday all the same. Three quarters of the population went out to vote, and, as many will know, this resulted in a victory for the PvdA and the VVD, comparable to Labour and the liberals respectively. What the results also show is a resounding loss for the confessional parties, the parties with a Christian identity (although there are variations in that identity).

Of the 150 seats in parliament, a mere 21 went to one of the Christian parties, CDA, ChristianUnion and SGP. CDA lost 8 seats, CU remained at 5 and SGP gained 1.

Looking back at previous elections, this is the lowest overall score for these or other Christian parties. Between 1956 and 1963 the number of seats hovered as high as 80. Since then is has steadily been declining, with a temporary reversal of fortunes in the late 80s and early to mid-2000s.

There still remains an option that a Christian party will be part of the coming coalition, since PvdA and VVD do not have a majority in the senate together, but in my opinion that chance is slim.

A difficult choice in the voting booth

In the Netherlands it’s time to make a difficult decision again: who to vote for in the national elections? It’s never an easy choice, with so many issues going on and so many parties to choose from. And the fact that this election was somewhat unexpected due to the government’s collapse a few months ago does not help either. And when you’re not too enthusiastic or informed about the machinations of politics, the dilemma seems complete.

But vote I will. It’s a right, but also a duty. So the choice is not if I’ll vote, but for whom. And that’s the problem. I’m Catholic (there’s a surprise) and a try to live according to Catholic social teachings, so that is why I try to see reflected in the party programs. And many parties (although some would hate to admit it) agree with what the Church has to say about many topics, but none do so for the full 100 %. In the Netherlands, a Catholic vote is not possible.

So the choice becomes negative. What party is the least divergent? Many Catholics vote left. PvdA, SP and GreenLeft (Labour, Socialists and Greens respectively) are popular. Others vote right: VVD (Liberals) mainly. And traditionally Catholics find a political home among the Christian Democrats of the CDA. And there is the PVV of madman Geert Wilders of course: a one-issue party that looks to be getting many votes out of spite. Will Catholics vote for him? Hard to say.

All these options can be defended (even the PVV, to an extent). But when it comes to combining certain specifically Christian issues (life and the role of religion in society, but also health care and education) and recent events in the media (the abuse issue and demonstrations about the ‘right’ to receive Communion), the choice becomes limited.

There it boils down to those parties who call themselves Christian: CDA, ChristenUnie (Christian Union) and SGP (Politically Reformed Party). CDA and ChristenUnie have been in government, while the SGP has always been a small opposition party, but nonetheless the most consistently Christian. They’re all chiefly or totally Protestant though, with the SGP being openly anti-Catholic.

Comparing the three, I conclude that the ChristenUnie is the best choice. Although solidly Protestant, they have been actively trying to involve Catholics in their party. Originally fully pro-life they did succumb to compromise, but that is the nature of Dutch politics. I don agree, but I understand. CDA is Christian in name only and SGP, as I said, is openly anti-Catholic. Despite the party’s qualities that is a major stumbling block for me.

What will we be getting? Perhaps a Liberal/Left combination? VVD, PvdA, GreenLeft? Maybe the PVV will get too involved (something I hope for: it may mean they´ll collapse within the year because they suddenly have responsibility). CDA will likely end up in opposition. D66 (possibly the most anti-Catholic choice we have) may turn out to be instrumental when it comes to forming a coalition, and perhaps, in a smaller way, the ChristenUnie will be as well. Chances of the end result being good are slim though. The major leftwing parties are openly antagonistic to the Church: the PvdA called for the Communion protests during Mass and GreenLeft  head Femke Halsema called the Church part of an axis of evil… Nice, that :$

But even the best options are not amazing. Dutch politics, like the country itself, is much secularised, and issues of faith, ethics and morality do not play a major part or are openly attacked or ridiculed. We will have to struggle on.

Elections: weighing the options

Next week I will be casting my vote for the city council of Groningen. I have yet to decide which party will be getting my red-pencilled ballot paper, so some research into the various parties is in order. The question I am trying to answer is: what party best represents my own views as a Catholic, and which party has the best chance – via strategic coalitions, for example – to turn those ideas into policy?

I have a choice between eleven parties, or twelve if I count the option to cast a blank vote. But I’ll only do that if I draw the conclusion that I have no confidence in any party (or if I really don’t care, but that’s unlikely). Some parties are not really options for me, of course: some of the local or one-issue parties don’t speak for me, for example. Neither do the liberal parties VVD and D66. My choice is between the left and the conservative, to simplistically delineate them. PvdA (social-democrats), SP (socialists), GreenLeft, CDA (Christian democrats) and ChristianUnion (social Christian democrats). The first three and the last two have connected lists, which means they’ll form and speak as a block in the council together. All have extensive social programs, with the left focussing on the individual and the conservatives on society as a whole.

The Christian point of view is an important one for me, and I think it should be heard in politics. Of the five parties above, only the ChristianUnion is outspokenly Christian. The CDA is as well in name, but reading through their program their Christianity is far less clear. I also don’t really like their overly blunt approach towards beggars and addicts in the city. But they are a major and thus influential party, having had  many seats in the past and they’ll probably continue to have a significant number after the elections as well.

The downside of the ChristianUnion is that they are very much Protestant, which leads to a limited approach and relation to the faith. Their founding documents which consider the Catholic faith idolatry is also an obstacle. Their advantage is stability. The ChristianUnion does not water down its beliefs, but is also not limited by them, and I think that such clarity can do much good.

There are no clear Catholic choices in these elections. Is the ‘least bad’ option good enough? Voting is always better than not voting. And perhaps a vote for any Christian party will open the door for more openly Catholic politicians in the future… I am still undecided. Online election guides keep directing me to the CDA or the SP, so until 3 March I’ll probably keep weighing the options.

Separation of Church and state, but only when it suits us

PvdA Chairperson Lilianne Ploumen has called people of all sexual orientations to come to Mass at the cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in ‘s-Hertogenbosch on Sunday. A laudable invitation. Or is it?

Sadly, it is not. She does so in order to protest the Catholic teachings about homosexual practices, which she claims are discriminatory. She will attend Mass – great! – wearing a pink triangle with the text “Jesus excludes no one”, and tells others to do the same.

When people write about similar situations, especially in America, they often note the strange ideas of freedom that such people have. That is what I see increasingly here as well. Freedom is great, and everyone should be free to live according to their own conscience, but not if that goes against the popular opinion and political correctness. Then that freedom becomes a crime and its proponents subject of ridicule and violence (verbal or otherwise). The anti-religious lobby in general is oppressive, what Pope Benedict XVI calls ‘the dictatorship of relativism’. Disagreement is not an option.

Arie Slob, chairman of the Christian Union in parliament, has commented on Ploumen’s action: “With all due respect for Ms Ploumen and with happiness at her call to go to church: this is a very inappropriate, provocative interference in church matters.” He continues, “I would like to assume that it is not the PvdA chair but the Roman Catholic expressing herself here [Well, Mr. Slob, trust me: it is not]. But let me be even clearer. I for one can’t imagine using my political brand name to influence the church of which I am a member.”

In the mean time, Robèrt Cooijmans, the man who charged Father Luc Buyens and Bishop Antoon Hurkmans with discrimination, will try to speak during the same Mass. He was prevented from doing so in his own parish church last Sunday, when a plain clothes police officer stopped and arrested him for disturbing the peace.

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A cabinet has fallen. Now what?

I’m no politician, and I’m not really interested in politics and I don’t know a lot about politics. I knew that the cabinet had been discussing a possible extension of the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan and that the PvdA (social democrats) had been against that. Last night the cabinet fell over the issue, as the socialist cabinet ministers collectively quit.

Below is the statement made by Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende:

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“Later today I will offer Her Majesty the resignation of the ministers and state secretaries of the PvdA.  I will place the portfolio’s, the office and the functions of these ministers and state secretaries at her disposal. As chairman of the council of minister I have sadly had to conclude that there is no fruitful means by which this cabinet of CDA, PvdA and Christen Unie could continue.

In the past days you have been able to see that the unity was tarnished by established facts. By statements that are contrary to recent decisions as made by the cabinet and reported to the House. Those statements put a political mortgage on amicable debate. They got in the way of diligence. Towards our men and women in Afghanistan, but also in our relationship with our NATO partners.

Today we have tried to see in the council of ministers if trust could be re-established. A reaffirmation of the agreements we made ten days ago in the Treves Hall and which were published in the letter of notice to the House would have laid a foundation for a continued cooperation. The ministers responsible would have been able to propose an option that was satisfactory to the cabinet – if possible before 1 March.

For a minority in the cabinet this was a bridge too far. When trust is lacking, an attempt to agree on content is doomed to fail. At most it would mean the start of a new controversy in the future. Especially concerning the challenger facing the Netherlands: they don’t require the easy way, but decisiveness.

The continued existence of a cabinet can never be a goal in itself. It should be about work and welfare in the Netherlands – now and in the future. And about the influence that the Netherlands can reasonable have on a better world. That is the intention of my colleagues and me when we started three years ago. Collectively and individually we experience the defeat of having failed in this. But that does not change the facts and the conclusion we have had to draw.

Now is not the time to delve deeper into the question of blame – let alone to provide a definite answer. I trust that you will respect this.”

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Law dictates that national elections must be held within three months. And with the public opinion polls heavily favouring populist and right-wing tendencies, I fear the result. While the Christian democrats of the CDA still take the highest share in prospective votes, Geert Wilders’ populist PVV is a very close second. It’s a scary prospect, although there is always the example of earlier populist parties: Pim Fortuyn’s LPF or Rita Verdonk’s TON. They started out with a bright future, but soon imploded.

Judging by the media, the general trend would be towards the right, with both D66 and the VVD likely to win seats. The left-wing has already started to block off options, with Green Left leader Agnes Kant axing any possible coalition with D66, whom she accuses of being to right.

So, we don’t just have municipal elections to look forward to on 3 March, but also national elections between now and May. No idea yet who I will vote for, so I guess some studying of programs is in order.

A headscratcher

Earth, not 6,000 years young

A weird story from the Dutch Bible belt today. A study of the archeology of the Dutch municipality Staphorst has caused discussion in the town’s council. One of the conclusions in the report was that the area of Staphorst was likely already inhabited more than 6,000 years ago, and that is a bit of a problem. Council member Klaas Hanke of the Christian Union: “Estimates of the age of the Earth vary in Christian circles between six and twelve thousand years.” Mr. Hanke is seemingly in favour of the most recent of these dates.

For ‘Christian circles’, please read ‘certain Protestant circles’.

The company who did the soil studies is willing to include a paragraph in the final report that acknowledges the existence of different opinions, but they will not go so far as to say that the age of the Earth may be only 6,000 years. Different opinions are one thing, changing facts is something else altogether.

Science secretary Ronald Plasterk asserted that the Earth’s age of some 5 billion years is sadly non-negotiable.

Facts and faith sometimes do bump into each other, but in my experience rarely as blatantly as this. It’s almost like saying that the sky is green because you read that somewhere, despite all evidence to the contrary. But I suppose that this is the risk you run if you own one book, the Bible, and treat it like a science book.

Or if you let politicians dabble in science, for that matter.

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