“Criticism is fine, but slander is a different story”

Words from Archbishop Wim Eijk in response to the ridiculous claims made against him in the Volkskrant. Katholiek Nieuwsblad published a short interview with the archbishop in which he counters these claims. Yesterday the Dutch bishops released a joint statement to the same effect. It’s a shame that that statement and this interview asre not picked up by the major newspapers, whereas the Volkskrant article – a shoddy piece of work – was.

Here is my translation of the interview, conducted by Jan Peeters:

KN: The core element of the criticism which you received this week, seems once more to be the closing of the Ariënskonvikt. As you said you fear in November of 2009, the criticism seems to be leading its own life. Is that true?

Abp. Eijk: “It is true that Ms. Stienstra again proclaims in the media that millions have been left in legates to the Ariënskonvikt, but we don’t have them. I haven’t heard anything about this from others in the past year either – her statement is not true. Once again: the Ariënskonvikt was closed at the time because of the deficient finances and the small number of students, which meant there was not enough of a community life.”

In April of 2011, the Volkskrant repeats criticism which you have tried to refute almost 18 months ago. There must be some truth in it, people may think…

“It remains to be seen if people think that. False accusations do not become automatically ‘true’ because they are proclaimed again 18 months later.”

The prevalent image is that Msgr. Eijk does not allow contradiction and sidelines or fires people who are critical about him. In how far is that image true?

“That image is not based on facts. In various consultation structures and in meetings with parish councils I get continously replies and sometimes also criticism. I certainly take advantage of that, but, on the other hand, I did not become bishop to win the popularity prize. I can’t please everyone. Criticism is fine, but slander is whole different story. Whoever publically calls me a liar has a problem: I can’t work with someone like that. But in all honesty, I don’t think that’s out of the ordinary.”

You are also accused of acting authoritarian, that you do not involve people in decisions, but present them with accomplished facts. You do you see that yourself?

“Upon my installation as archbishop I found a diocese on the edge of bankruptcy. Quick and robust measures were necessary. In such an ’emergency situation’ there sometimes wasn’t time to garner support, I am aware of that. Because of that promptness people have sometimes felt ambushed by decisions. But in that period there has also always been discussion: with the members of the staff of the diocese, the chapter, the council of priests, the Council for Economic Affairs. By now there is more time for discussion; For example, all the parish council now come by to discuss the pastoral-liturgical policy plans.”

It is well known that your relations with the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden were strained when he was still your auxiliary bishop. Later you and your auxiliary bishops have made your complaints about him in a letter that was leaked to the press. What is true about the claim that you wanted to have him removed from office as a bishop?

“That is pure nonsense. In a press release earlier this week, the bishops’ conference have made it know that at no time such a request was made to Rome.”

The accountant of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden has accused you of an ‘un-Christian attitude’. Is it true that you demanded his resignation?

“No, that is not true. I did, among other things, ask for public apologies for his words.”

It is said you even hired investigators to find the one who ‘leaked’ the letter. Is it true,and did you find the ‘leak’?

“That is a ridiculous accusation. From the archdiocese there has been no contact with whichever investigating bureau whatsoever, let alone that “Msgr. Eijk sent investigators to his bishops to check their computers,” as the Volkskrant wrote. The bishops’ conference distanced itself also from this in a mutual statement. The suggestion was made in cooperation with the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, to try and find who leaked the letter, for example by hiring such a bureau together. But nothing has come from that.”

 Following the closing of the Ariënskonvikt you are said to also want to close your own cathedral or the St. Augustine church. Is that true?

This too is an urban legend. It is not up to the archbishop to close a church building. It’s the parish that takes that initiative; it owns the church building. The archdiocese did ask the parish council for a thorough finaincial planning for the next several years regarding the buildings. That was necessary because the parish wanted to take a number of decisions which involved large sums of money. That requires the authorisation of the bishop. A long term planning was not suuplied by the parish, which was reason for the Council for Economic Affairs to give a negative advice for now. That can not lead to the conclusion that, as far as the diocese is concerned, one of the churches must be closed; when the parish supplies a good planning, the CEA may still advice positively.”

The former parish house of the cathedral, which until the closing housed part of the konvikt, has to be sold. For whom are the proceeds?

“The parish house is property of the Salvator parish (the parish in the inner city of Utrecht) and the p[roceeds of the sale will fully benefit this parish.”

There are said to be ‘earmarked donations for Utrecht’s seminary. What will happens with that money now that the Ariënskonvikt is closed?

“Insofar as there are ‘earmarked’ donations for the seminary, these will go to the Priesteropleiding Fund. This will pay for the education of the semrians of Utrecht.”

How many seminarians does the archdiocese have and where do they study?

At the moment, the archdiocese has five seminarians. Three of them study at the Tiltenberg, the seminary of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. One seminarian lives in the city of Utrecht and the fifth studies at Bovendonk and lives in Breda.”

Is it true that they are not allowed to study in Tilburg? Isn’t that still a vote of no-confidence towards your own Faculty of Catholic Theology?

“Three of the five seminarians may, as a transitory rule, complete their education at the FCT. This is no longer possible for new students. That is not a vote of no-confidence towards the FCT, but it has to do with the disappearance of the link between the Ariënskonvikt and the FCT. At the konvikt the students lived in community and there they received the spiritual and psychological formation which is also part of the education of a priest. To follow classes at the FCT from the Tiltenberg is very difficult due to the distance. And he who studies at the FCT with being rooted in a community lacks the psychological formation. So practical concerns make the FCT no longer an option.”

Did you take notice of the appeal that Ms. Stienstra is to present to the pope against you? In what way is an (arch)bishop free to create policy?

“Ms. Stienstra did not send her appeal to the archdiocese. I can say nothing about it.”

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‘A courageous bishop’

A surprising article on the website of Katholiek Nieuwsblad. Surprising in that the author, Jan Peeters, takes the unpopular position and manages to given an overview of the recent decisions of Archbishop Eijk, which have caused so much discussion in his archdiocese these past months. Peeters’ position is, in my opinion, the unpopular one, in that he defends the archbishop who has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. Granted, not all of that criticism was unjust, but the article below shows that much can be defended.

I agree with the main point that Peeters makes; that the Dutch Church needs a doctor who is able to make the drastic decisions to heal things. And such decisions rarely make anyone popular, certainly not immediately.

That’s not to say that I agree with everything in the article. Especially the points he makes about Ms Stienstra and her reasons for acting the way she did are, in my opinion, unverifiable by anyone but herself.

In closing, an article that shows the big picture, although some emotion, or should I say frustration, shines through here and there.

A courageous bishop

Church historian Peter Nissen is a strange man: his long-held wish dream of a ‘bishop with balls’ has finally come true, and it’s still not right, because he is immediately ‘stalinist’.

For the strangers in Jerusalem: it concerns Wim Eijk, de archbishop of Utrecht, who was sharply attacked in Trouw over his policies. Eijk has the thankless task to safeguard the archdiocese, with drastic measures, from bankruptcy. He also considers I his task to have the financial side secure enough to assure continued wellbeing for the next ten years.

Eijk is probably the first Dutch bishop who has publicly indicated that the situation of the Catholic Church has gotten so precarious that he lets money flow back to local faith communities, through cuts in staff and supporting services. How hard the times are for them is something we’ll hear in the coming week during the start of the Kerkbalans fundraising campaign.

Hard reality

Or simply from the numbers: Between 1998 and 2008 the number of Churchgoing Catholics in Utrecht dropped with 41.9 percent to a meager 55,400 per week. These have to support 306 parishes: on average 181 often elderly parishioners per parish.

Eijk is the first to couple action to all concerned mutterings by turning every penny from the pockets of the faithful twice. Sadly and unavoidably that leads to job cuts. Even our national unions can’t avoid that. Eijk’s willingness to take that step shows backbone, because it is not easy and provides ammunition to his opponents.

A ‘bishop with balls’ therefore, to use the vocabulary of Peter Nissen. The image of a cold sanitiser that this creates works strongly to his disadvantage. We see another man than the likeable one in the interview after his long illness.

Playtime is over

The fact that Nissen does not welcome Eijk’s deciseveness may have to do with the fact that he became a ‘victim’ of it himself. Eijk’s opponents may shout that he can’t handle criticism, but on the other, the people are unable to deal with shepherd who truly lead. The playtime that has paralysed the Dutch Church province for the past forty years seems to be over now that there is an archbishop who firmly takes control. That is relatively new.

Nissen probably expected Eijk to concede when he pulled the university of Nijmegen out of the partnership with the Catholic universities of Utrecht and Tilburg which would lead to the Faculty of Catholic Theology. But he lost for his own university the long-desired Vatican recognition: Eijk was not fooled. Nissen is therefore not the objective oberser people take him for.

Resentful of consisten?

The same goes just as much for fellow church historian Ton van Schaik. He too has some unfinished business with Eijk. The latter, when he was bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, though it unacceptable that a certain Van Schaik, who had publicly declared that Eijk was unfit to be not only a bishop, but even a priest, was a teacher at the Bovendonk seminary in which the diocese participated. He lost his position as teacher.

In Trouw Nissen calls these actions “almost stalinist practices. You may cheer for the leader and agree with his policies, or you’re out.” Disregarding the fact that the qualification ‘almost stalinist’ is a grave one for any historian, let alone a Catholic one, the reaction, no matter how ridiculous, is understandable in the Dutch context.

Anarchy

Our native Church is stuck in the anti-authoritarian attidude of the 1970s, when bishops barely acted out of fear for attack, as happened to Bishop Gijssen of Roermond and, later, his colleague Bomers in Haarlem, who suffered a fullblown coup.

The ultimate example is the affair around the recently deceased theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, who had received an official Vatican conviction for heretical ideas, but who was not sanctioned in any way, neither against his person nor his ‘teachings’. He was even given, with the support of several bishops, a university chair, which was then rapidly turned back by Rome.

Cultural difference

In this context the rumoured friction between the current and previous archbishops is not unthinkable. But is that not primarily a confrontation between two cultures? One who think that you can’t take drastic measures, and the other considering lack of action unacceptable? Eijk did not just inherit a financial mess, but also an atmosphere of everyone going their own way.

It is well know that Cardinal Simonis worked towards at least one weekly Eucharist in each parish, but encountered shrugs and mockery in his own diocesan council.

Changing of the guard

It is fully understandable that newly-arrived Eijk wanted to clean up. A new policy requires new people, and that causes resistance by definition, since for certain people it will mean a loss of power. It is foolish to accuse the archbishop of ‘power politics’ en ‘power concentration’ when he used his responsibility and makes decision. As if the former deans who formed the diocesan council did not play power politics or, according to some, even had the actual power. Together they were responsible for the policy of squandering that brought the archdiocese to the edge of bankruptcy. Former economist Jacques Klok’s statements in Trouw, that the diocese pumped 1.5 million euros annually into the ‘missionairy Church’, are evidence of utter recknlessness.

‘It wasn’t me’

Klok thinks it not opportune for Eijk to constantly nag about the financial mismanagement under Cardinal Simonis, but wasn’t that first and foremost Klok’s responsibility, who was the financial genius at the head of the economic council of the Dutch dioceses for years?

Did not Klok in 2003 gather a surprised press corps to deny that the archdiocese was bankrupt? It seems that Jacques Klok is trying to clear his own conscience to the detriment of the cardinal.

Well-considered

What some consider not calssy, let alone sympathetic is Eijk’s mentioning of impending bankruptcy at his installation. Was that kick at the departing people or an emphasis that the required measures were not his fault? Or was to wake everyone up to the looming measures? It worked, because the dismissal of the diocesan council caused very little discussion among the fauithful. That was well thought-out.

Tiltenberg substandard?

What does not fit in the negative image of Eijk as ‘ambitious job hunter’, is the closing of his own seminary, always a bit of prestige for a bishop. Some priests replied to the violent reactions with the understatement that they ‘never knew the konvikt was that good.’ There were three equal elements in the decision: lack of funds, too hew students and a good alternative, at least second best: the Tiltenberg seminary in Haarlem.

Out of the backyard

The archbishop also yielded his much-appreciated rector, Norbert Schnell, to the Bovendonk seminary, which had gone without a rector for two years, and which also delivered priests for Utrecht. Was that an attemopt to ‘buy off’ his colleague Van den Hende, or did he really want to optimally use his few means, even outside the boundaries of his own diocese? That is highly unusual in the Netherlands.

Everyone admits that seven seminaries for the Netherlands is foolish, but the willingness to end that waste of energy, manpower and means was missing until now.

And that is how the archbishop was the first to do what many thought should have been done a long time ago: concentrate the seminaries in one or two locations. Until now no bishop wanted to be the first. That too is being courageous.

Circle Hendriksen

CRK chair Nelly Stienstra sees this all very differently. Cardinal Simonis was a regular visitor, just like Wim Eijk who was a ‘friend’. Those relations originated with former auxiliary bishop of Utrecht Th.G.A. Hendriksen, with whom Stienstra had a special bond and who became her housemate. That is how she became involved with the circle of orthodox priests and later bishops around Hendriksen. Those relations continued after his death in 2001 and next to cordial and fruitful contacts, resulted in open doors and influence for Ms Stienstra. That was also the case for the Ariënskonvikt: Stienstra lived across the street from one of its locations where she often came, went to Mass daily and which was a window into the heart of the archdiocese for her. Its closure abruptly ended that and the cordial contacts at the Maliebaan [location of the diocesan offices] are for now also seriously disrupted.

Complicating factor is the fact that Msgr. Hendriksen saw the konvikt as one of the two seminaries for the Netherlands. That made Stienstra’s objections against its closure intensely personal. It must have been an enormous loss for her.

The bishop lies?

In late December Eijk removed Ms Stienstra as a volunteer from his cathedral, because she had publicly declared that there were millions available for the konvikt. These statements have not been proven yet. She also accused the archbishop of “abuse of power and lack of humanity”.

She accuses the archbishop of being a despot, now that he has removed her for her criticism, after so much work on her part and despite their ‘friendship’. But wasn’t it ‘friendly’ Nelly Stienstra herself who initially publicly doubted the integrity of the archbishop and accused him in Trouw of “abuse of power and lack of humanity”?

Crisis of authority

Are Eijk’s actions truly vindictive, ‘stalinist’ or ‘despotic’? Or does the archbishop tyr to make clear that not everything should just be said? That some acts are not without consequence? He makes clear that he won’t be mocked. And that had became habit in the past forty years.

In 1984, Archbishop Simonis told young Catholics in Utrecht that there was not crisis of faith, but a crisis of authority in the Church. His succesor now tries to reassert that authority. That takes getting used to. That is necessary. Our terminally ill Church province, that saw the average percentage of regular churchgoes drop from 23.7 percent to a paltry 7.1 percent in 28 years, urgently needs a doctor. An able surgeon who saves what can be saved and removes what’s necessary and who does what is medically best. A cool person you can trust with your life. The rest is secondary for now.