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.

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Blasphemy to be legalised?

A bit of a misleading title, but with a hint of truth in it. Although there is a law in the Netherlands, that prohibits blasphemy or the use of God’s name in vain, it has not actually been used since the 1960s. It’s a dead law which does not look to be resurrected anytime soon, so politicians from the Socialist Party and the liberal Democrats 66 are now out to have it struck from the criminal code.

Although the initiators of the plan show an expected but disturbing disregard for religious sensibilities (“It’s something for the enthusiast who believes in it,” one of them said), is this really something to get up in arms about? I would say it is.

The State Council has said that the freedom of expression does not mean that this law should be struck, but it also doesn’t mean that blasphemy should remain illegal. The freedom that many will cite in this context is quite neutral on the matter.

Striking a dead law from the code sends a message. The existence of the law does no longer have any effect or consequence, but the fact that it exists also sends a message. And what message do we want to send out?

Maintaining a law that forbids the use of blasphemous words, even if it is not upheld, tells us that we have certain standards in our use of language. Some utterances are contrary to those standards and should therefore not be promoted. Striking the law in question would in essence communicate the message that we no longer hold to these standards. We are free to use any words we please, and that trumps any concerns, insult or characteristics of civilisation.

As Catholics we shouldn’t be too thin-skinned; we may not like certain words and utterances, but the correct response is not to hide from them. Rather, we must intelligently counter the underlying reasons that people have for using them. The existence of a dead law, a hint of standards which were once actively pursued, but today still underlie our society, can be a form of support in our efforts to maintain this civility, this intelligent defense.

For all of us, Christian or not, the law that forbids the use of blasphemous words is a reminder that it once mattered how we said things, how we related to one another, even – especially – when we disagreed. That is something worth remembering in our daily conduct. Striking the law, and so stating that it should be okay to blaspheme and curse, is the polar opposite of that..

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.

Katholiek protest tegen NCRV (2)

Once more a post in Dutch, sharing the follow-up to the wholly unsatisfactory reply from the NCRV following the open letter that was sent to the TV network on behalf of Catholics and several Protestants on the sacrilege committed in tv show Man Bijt Hond. The new letter wonders on whose behalf the reply was sent, and also asks if the author even understood the reason of our concern. We now ask for clarity and a reply to those concerns instead of an explanation of things that are, at best, peripheral.

———————

NCRV-directeur Coen Abbenhuis reageerde op maandag 15 maart met een e-mail op een Open Brief die eerder die dag namens de katholieke blog-community naar de NCRV was gestuurd om bezwaar te maken tegen heiligschennis in het tv-programma Man Bijt Hond. Abbenhuis’ antwoord is ook te vinden op de NCRV-site als officiële verklaring:

http://www.manbijthond.nl/reactiencrv

Dit antwoord is onzes inziens beneden alle peil en daarom gaat de het protest tegen deze actie van de NCRV door. De Open Brief met een actuele lijst van mensen die haar onderschrijven vindt u hier:

http://beautifulblues.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/katholiek-protest-tegen-heiligschennis-door-ncrv/

Al bijna tweehonderd namen staan onder de brief. Onder hen een twintigtal katholieke priesters en diakens. Ook komt er veel steun uit protestantse hoek en heeft een volledige parochie zich achter de Open Brief geschaard. U kunt nog steeds uw steun betuigen!

De actie wordt vanaf nu aangetrokken door blogster Observatrix (www.observatrix.nl). Onder haar naam is er, in overleg met katholieke bloggers, een antwoord verstuurd naar de NCRV. Als bijlage bij dat antwoord is de Open Brief met een actuele lijst van ondertekenaars meegestuurd. Dit is ons antwoord:

Geachte heer Abbenhuis,

Hoewel het ons nog steeds onduidelijk is of u namens het NCRV-bestuur schreef of op persoonlijke titel, nemen wij de vrijheid om toch te reageren op uw e-mailbericht van 15 maart j.l. Uw antwoord stelt teleur in twee opzichten. Ten eerste omdat u in veel woorden weinig nieuws zegt en de excuses die door de redactie van het programma “Man Bijt Hond” nog wel waren gemaakt, niet eens herhaalt. Ten tweede omdat u in uw antwoord geen blijk geeft te hebben begrepen waar de kern van ons bezwaar ligt.

In uw antwoord verwijst u naar de ‘licht-satirische’ opzet van het programma “Man Bijt Hond”. Blogger Anton de Wit benadrukte dat hij geen man met lange tenen is en satire zeer kan waarderen. Dit zal voor de meeste ondertekenaars van de Open Brief gelden. Echter wat De Wit ook aantoont is dat de heiligschennis uit “Man Bijt Hond” met geen mogelijkheid satire kan worden genoemd. Zoals het op het blog van ondergetekende Erica Schruer treffend werd geformuleerd, luidde uw antwoord in feite: jammer dat u van heiligschennis de humor niet kunt inzien. Ook christenen doen regelmatig aan satire, maar in de vorm waarin de NCRV het goot was er geen sprake van christelijke, maar juist van anti-katholieke en daarmee dus ook anti-christelijke satire. Daarmee heeft u als omroep in feite uw identiteit geloochend.

U verwijst in uw brief ook naar het protest tegen de katholieke Kerk in de St. Jan in Den Bosch, dat georganiseerd was door het COC en de Gaykrant en werd gesteund door de PvdA en de SP. Dit was de aanleiding voor het “Man Bijt Hond”-item. Voor de Kerk was ook deze gebeurtenis méér dan pijnlijk. Ten eerste omdat er een eredienst werd verstoord en het risico van een moderne ‘beeldenstorm’ nadrukkelijk in de lucht hing. Ten tweede omdat niemand behalve de SGP het opnam voor de vrijheid van eredienst, terwijl het verstoren van religieuze bijeenkomsten bij wet verboden is, en de Kerk en de gelovigen daarin bescherming en respect mogen verwachten.

Voorts spreekt u uit dat de NCRV het doel heeft mensen recht te doen, ‘ongeacht hun seksuele geaardheid’. Dit wekt de suggestie van een zeker eenzijdig respect, waarvan godsdienst geen deel uitmaakt. Als het gaat om het afkeuren van het niet uitreiken van de Communie aan homoseksuelen acht de NCRV blijkbaar elk middel geoorloofd, tot de grootste schoffering en heiligschennis aan toe. Ons protest heeft daarentegen niets te maken met de seksuele geaardheid van Wagemakers, maar met de respectloze manier waarop hij in NCRV-zendtijd met de Hostie omsprong.

De belangrijkste constatering is dat uw brief inhoudelijk niet ingaat op de bezwaren die zijn geuit in de Open Brief, die inmiddels door 150 mensen en een katholieke parochie is onderschreven en ieder uur door meer mensen wordt onderschreven. Daarnaast regent het ook negatieve reacties op de website van “Man Bijt Hond”. Door de heiligschennis die in dat programma is gepleegd, af te doen als uitingen van ‘gelijkwaardigheid en verdraagzaamheid’, toont u aan dat de betekenis die u aan die twee begrippen geeft niets meer met de christelijke visie te maken heeft. Wij kunnen ons niet aan de indruk onttrekken dat de NCRV is opgegaan in de grote massa van seculiere omroepen.

Wij verzoeken u zeer dringend uw standpunt te heroverwegen en daarvan terug te komen. Recent bij een incident in Maleisie pleegden twee medewerkers van een islamitisch tijdschrift heiligschennis door de Hostie te ontvangen en vervolgens uit te spuwen. Daarover ontstond veel commotie. Zij boden uiteindelijk daarvoor hun verontschuldigingen aan met de volgende woorden: “Het is niet de bedoeling van Al Islam om de christelijke godsdienst te beledigen, noch om christelijke bedehuizen te ontheiligen”. Van een nominatum christelijke omroep als de NCRV zou tenminste hetzelfde mogen worden verwacht. In het onverhoopt geval u niet tot betere inzichten komt, zullen wij onze bezorgdheid ook op andere plaatsen aan de orde stellen.

Met vriendelijke groeten,

—————-

The list of signatories to the open letter has continued to grow over the past days. Here is the list as it stands now:

R.T. van Mulligen
Parochie HH Michael en Clemens
G. Wilkens, priester
F. As, priester
H.J.P.T. Broers, priester
Ch. van Buijtenen, priester
J. Goris, priester
W.J.J. Grondhuis, priester
R.J.M. Kerssemakers, pastoor-deken
K. Loodts, priester
C. Mennen, priester
Pater J. Nielen MHM
M. Peeters, priester
G. van Rossem, priester
H.C.W. Schilder, priester
C. Stam, priester
G.M.J. van der Vegt, priester
W. Veth, priester
A. van Aarle, diaken
J. Grubben, diaken
A.B.M. van Kempen, diaken
I.W.G. Molenaar, diaken
Broeder Hugo, heremiet
S. Volkers, seminarist
Alina Bonen OFS
Fieke, postulante in de Carmel D.C.J.
P.M. Tassel OCDS
J. Ackermans
Angela ___
R. Bangma
G.E. van Beek
J. van Beek
A. van Berkel
A.J.M. van Berkel
A.M.C. van Berkel
F.S. Blaauw
J.J. Boekee
H. de Boer
M. Boerma
R. Bol
A. Bonen
B.S. Bosma
E. Bötticher
L. Brans
J. Brouwers
M. Buurman
W. Cromwijk
S. Dankers
O. Dhaene
J. Dhaene
B. van Dijck
M.E.A. Dommeck – Kuyt
M. Donders
G. Drijfhout
M.B.A. van Elswijk
F. Erkens
J. Erkens
Y. Fehr
L. Feskens
J. Flierman
J. Friederichs
P. Frissen
J.H. de Geest
J. van Gool
E. van Goor
J. van Gorp
T. de Groene
L. de Groene
E. de Groot
N. de Groot
W. de Groot
G.E. Hageman
N.J. Hageman
F. van der Have
W.M.C. Heemskerk
M. Hendriks
M.V. van Heusden
J. van den Heuvel
G. Holterman
P.M.A. Hoofs
P.H.W. Huiting
J.H.P. van Iperen
M. van Iperen
A.J.M. Janssen
H.A.M. Janssen – Rombouts
F.J. de Jong
J.C.M. de Jong
H. Kaptijn – Verzijlbergh
Kees ____
M.J. van Kleef
H. Knabben
A. Koole – Bart
N. Kuipers
R. Kuipers
P. Kuis
D. Lagarde
R. Lagarde
S. Leferink op Reinink
T. Letsch
N. Lioce
D.P.J. van Lith – Woestenberg
R.B. Lok
J. Lont
J.M.E. Lont
R. Marks
M.J. Marks – Meekel
F. van der Meer
F. Meijneke
F.E. Mélotte
D. Milis
T.J.M. Mom
M. Nagtegaal
J. Nederlof – Erens
C. Nelson
H. Nolden
A. Nolden
N. Nolden
J. Nolden
R. Nolden
C. Nolden
L. Nolden
M. Nolden
L. Nolden
A. van Norde
P. Offermans
D.P.J. Oostveen
J.P. Oostveen
J.J. van Peperstraten
M. Pijnenburg
M. Polkowski
M.B. Pronk
E.M. Raats
J. Rademaker
L.C.C. Reuser
A.F.M. Scheerboom
C. Scholten
H.D.L.M. Schruer
L. Schruer
P.M. Schruer – Zoetmulder
H.W. Schulkes
M. Semere
E.M. Slegers
P. Somerwil
T. Spee – van Heijster
I. Spijker
N. Stienstra
A. Spijker-Huiges
S. Steijaert
J. Strengholt
M.I.M. Terlaak
G. Tomicic
Toon ___
G.A. van der Toorn – Piebenga
J. Trum
W.L. Tuyl
S. Uiterwijk
C. van der Valk
J. van der Valk
A. Valstar
G.J.M. Vehof
A. Verboord
P. Verhoeven
J.G. Verhoeven – den Uijl
J. Vermeulen
S. Verschuur
W. Verswijveren
M. Viehoff
L. Vloedbeld
E.H.J. Vossenberg
M. de Vries
M. de Vries
M.J. Webster
W.J.M. Webster – van Gool
R. Weerdenburg
H. Westerveld
J.P. Winkels
A.J.A. de Wit
M. de Witt
M. Wolterink
F. Wouters
E. Wouterse
H.K.M.G. van Zandwijk – Bruin
P. van Zoest

Church and politics

Johannes Cardinal de Jong (1885-1955) was chairman of the Dutch bishops'conference when the mandate of 1954 was published.

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.

Fr. Harm Schilder

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.

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.