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The Church in The Netherlands

Revised:  18 January, A.D. 2002
St. Peter's Chair at Rome
St. Prisca, Virgin & Martyr


       In A.D. 689 Pepin II of Heristall subdued western Frisia (modern Holland), adding it to the Kingdom of the Franks.  To consolidate the conquest of the pagan Frisians, Pepin established monasteries and embarked upon a program of evangelization.  In 695, he sent St. Willibroard to Rome to secure episcopal consecration and the Pope's blessing for the mission. (Pepin was the "mayor of the palace" under the Merovingian king of the Franks, the father of Charles Martel, and the grandfather of another Pepin who would use his good relationship with the Holy See to dethrone the last of the Merovingians and to be crowned King of the Franks by St. Boniface, the legate of Pope Zachary in 751.)  So, on November 21st, A.D. 695, Pope Sergius I consecrated Willibroard bishop, gave him the name Clement, and recognized him as regional bishop in the Netherlands.1

    St. Boniface, who crowned the younger Pepin, spent three years as St. Willibroard's coadjutor bishop at Utrecht, later becoming known as the "Apostle of Germany."  Catholicism flourished under the Carolingians -- particularly under Charlemagne who sought to establish schools for the clergy and nobility and to bring the Roman Rite to all of his domain.  At his death, Charlemagne's Empire was divided among his three sons, later giving way to the Holy Roman Empire (962).  Together with the Dukes of Gueldre, the Bishops of Utrecht ruled from the break up of the Carolingian empire until the Low Countries came under the control of the Burgundians (922-1417).  Burgundian control gave way to the Spanish Hapsburgs.

    Beginning in 1517, Protestantism would change both the belief and the map of Europe.  Pope Leo X died shortly after excommunicating Luther in 1521, making way for the pontificate of Adrian IV elected Pope in 1522, the last non-Italian until Pope John Paul II   Adrian was born in Utrecht, educated by Geerte Groote's Brothers of the Common Life (the Order of  Thomas a Kempis, credited with writing The Imitation of Christ), and at the Louvain, where he rose to the rank of chancellor.  As tutor, regent, and later viceroy to Charles V, as bishop of  Tortosa and Inquisitor for much of Spain, Adrian was named Cardinal Archbishop of Utrecht in 1517, and Pope five years later.  While categorically opposed to doctrinal change, Adrian attempted the reform of the Roman Curia in an attempt to de-fuse Luther's charges of simony and corruption.  Refusing to confer lucrative benefices and uninterested in patronizing Renaissance art he became unpopular with the Roman people as well as the Curia.  It did not help that the Romans thought of the Dutch as "Barbarians."  The Pope's refusal to join Charles V in league against France and his order to arrest a French Cardinal cost him the support of Spain and France, perhaps hastening Adrians's death after the summer of 1523.2  Subsequent Popes were equally unable to stop the spread of Protestantism, and bloody persecution of Protestants often induced them to flee and take their heresy somewhere new.  French Calvinists and others took flight to the Netherlands.

    Charles V, born in the Low Countries and often resident in Brussels was well liked by his subjects in the Netherlands. Charles abdicated the Spanish throne in 1556 to enter a monastery where he died within two years, and was succeeded by Philip II.  Philip is best known for his attempted invasion of England, hoping to free it from Protestantism, but sinking the Spanish Armada instead.

    Philip was resented as an outsider by Catholics and Protestants alike.  A number of things combined to undermine the new king's authority.  The Netherlands were not a country in the modern sense, but more a collection of self governing sea port towns held together by common mercantile interests.  They resented the imposition of unified Spanish government.  They resented the increasing presence of foreign troops, not always well disciplined.  They resented the government's plan of creating new benefices out of the old monastic domains and filling those benefices with Spanish clergy;  likewise the filling of university positions with Spanish Jesuits.  They resented Philip who didn't even have the fortitude to remain and rule except through his illegitimate half sister, Margaret of Parma, whom he named regent in 1559 before returning permanently to Madrid.  Above all, they resented Philip's taxation; particularly his ten percent tax on all mercantile transactions -- a tax that would have been insignificant in agrarian Spain, but an overwhelming burden in the highly developed trade economy of the North Sea 

    In the Netherlands, Philip's strategy for controlling Protestantism centered around the Inquisition and the reorganization of the Church, with the formation of new dioceses in 1559.  Theoretically, each bishop would be more familiar with his own territory.  But a number of these dioceses were formed at the expense of the venerable and influential abbeys, whose revenues were redirected to the diocese.  The bishops also acquired the abbeys' rights to vote in Parliament, making the diocesan appointments a political plumb.  Instead of allowing the election of the bishops by the diocesan clergy or cathedral chapter they would be appointed by the Spanish King,  giving him additional control in Parliament.

    By 1566, persecution led to serious rioting by Protestants.  King Philip's reaction was to hold all citizens responsible, including the Catholics and Catholic institutions. This seriously miscalculated policy, sparked by another riot in 1576 -- this time by long unpaid Spanish troops who trashed Antwerp -- led to a revolution in which Catholics and Protestants fought for the expulsion of the Spanish.  After roughly twenty years of war, the Spanish completely withdrew their troops in 1595, leaving Belgium as a Catholic state and Holland Protestant.  Spain did keep an intellectual presence at the Louvain  in the form of the regular clergy, principally Jesuits, whose numbers would increase dramatically over the following century, and who would become involved in a different form of strife.

    Catholics were severely persecuted in Holland, being deprived of rights and properties, particularly the right to Divine worship.  In 1580, van Toutenburg, the Archbishop of Utrecht appointed by the Spanish died, and two attempts by the king to replace him failed, with the appointees dying before they could take office.  Instead of allowing the chapter of Utrecht to fill the vacancy after the Spanish departure, Rome called upon the Apostolic Nuncio at Cologne to provide a Vicar to govern all of Holland.  The first Vicar, Sasbout Vosmeer (1602), attempted to govern from Germany -- but to his credit, he did attempt to found a seminary at Amsterdam (ultimately, it had to withdraw to Louvain in the Catholic region).

    Holland remained at war, with varying enemies and allies for much of the seventeenth century.  Meanwhile a different kind of conflict, centered more or less on the universities at Louvain and Douai, was taking place.  In response to Luther, the Council of Trent and the Counter Reformation brought a renewed interest in developing the Catholic understanding of grace and the means of salvation.  Catholic scholars wrote many volumes attempting to "fine tune" the Catholic position.  Some of their theories were mistaken, others remain the subject of reasonable dispute to this day.  Among the controversies we find:

  • How do we reconcile the freedom of the will with the power of God's grace?

  • How contrite must a penitent be to receive absolution from sin?  is fear of hell enough?  how about social necessity?

  • How often should one receive Holy Communion?  regularly?  rarely?  Is It a medicine for sinners?  a preventive medicine?  a reward for the upright?  Will familiarity breed contempt?

  • What are the powers of the Pope relative to the state?  to other bishops?  to an ecumenical council?

  • And what powers were enjoyed by Kings relative to the State?

    These debates, caused by men like Molina, Jansen, and Baius, will be treated elsewhere, with just a brief mention of Jansen below.   But prior to the rise of Luther such debates were confined principally to the universities where they were the subject of generally polite discussion. There was a sort of rivalry between the Dominicans and Franciscans, but the rivals sought primarily to best the opposition in the public presentations, challenges, and debates that marked university life.  Protestantism ended this spirit of friendly debate -- Luther's ninety-five theses had been an academic challenge! -- and the newly formed Society of Jesus treated religious debate with the seriousness of a military matter.

    The French invasion of Holland by Louis XIV temporarily restored the Church during the Apostolic Administration of Utrecht by Johannes van Neerkassel (1668).  Neerkassel's friendship with accused Jansenists Arnauld and Quesnel, however, drew Jesuit criticism and introduced a chaotic period in the Administration.   In 1691, the Jesuits falsely accused Archbishop Peter Codde, the occupant of the See of Utrecht, of favoring the so-called "Jansenist Heresy." (We say "so-called," because, while the propositions condemned by Pope Innocent X are indeed erroneous and inconsistent with the true Faith, they are not clearly to be found in the works of Cornelius Jansen.) Numerous archbishops, bishops, and other clergy, along with faculty members of the prestigious Catholic universities at Rheims, Sorbonne, Nantes, and Louvain rejected the documents which denounced Jansen -- all a matter of record. The issue was not the correctness of the propositions, but whether or not these were in fact contained in Jansen's writings -- and whether third parties should be made to denounce Jansen without regard to that fact.

     The five propositions said to be taken from the Augustinus of Cornelius Jansen were condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653 (Denzinger 1092-1096/ 2001-2007).  His successor, Pope Alexander VII adopted a formulary written by Pierre de Marca, Archbishop of Toulouse, demanding agreement that the condemned propositions were actually to be found in the Augustinus (Denzinger 1098-1099/ 2010-2012).  Pope Alexander also has the dubious distinctions of having forbidden publications that claimed that the Earth goes around the Sun, and of having halted the translation of the Roman Missal into French lest "the dignity [of the words of the Missal] be exposed to the crowds."3

     Archbishop Codde refused to accept the formulary of condemnation, not because he favored the heretical propositions, but because he did not believe them to be espoused by Jansen. His unwillingness to unjustly condemn the works of the deceased bishop resulted in Archbishop Codde's repeated investigation and ultimate suspension in 1699-1701. Refusing to permit Archbishop Codde any defense in these accusations created a breach not yet healed; although, among others, Pope Clement XIV was favorably disposed toward the grievously wronged church in Utrecht. These irregular proceedings against our predecessors, based on charges then proved groundless, had no lawful effect, leaving the church of Utrecht within the pale of Catholic unity, and it bishop the just successor of the Apostles.4

    French occupation of Holland was short lived, and the Church was again suppressed.  The Cathedral Chapter at Utrecht determined to recover its right to elect its bishops, the right it had exercised until Philip II made it part of the patronato real of the Spanish kings.  While Rome insisted that the change of government had voided the existence of the Chapter  and wanted its nuncio to administer Utrecht from Brussels, the local clergy were strongly behind Peter Coode and the Chapter (it had been in existence for close to a thousand years under a variety of rulers!).  In 1701 roughly 300 priests sided with Coode -- most or all of the 271 diocesans and a substantial part of the 108 religious order priests then in the diocese.5  Some of the religious order priests -- primarily Jesuits -- appealed to Rome, bringing false charges of Jansenism against Coode, and ultimately persuading Pope Clement XI to suspend him.

    When Peter Coode died in 1710, Rome refused to designate an Archbishop or to allow one to be elected by the Chapter, continuing to appoint apostolic administrators.  Actual administration of the See continued at the hands of the Chapter, with whatever episcopal functions necessary being supplied by the sympathetic Irish Bishop Luke Fagan of Meath.  Later the Chapter would look to Dominique Marie Varlet, titular Bishop of Ascalon,  former Vicar General of the Louisiana Territory.6   Bishop Varlet had been consecrated bishop 12 February 1719, and shortly thereafter was disciplined for Confirming the children of Utrecht who had been waiting for the appointment of a bishop. 

    On 27 April 1723, while the Holy See was also vacant, the Chapter elected Cornelius Steenhoven as Archbishop, arranging to have him consecrated on 15 October 1724 by  Dominique Varlet. In spite of his suspension for consecrating Archbishop Steenhoven, in all, Bishop Varlet consecrated four Archbishops of Utrecht, ending in 1739 with Peter John Meindaerts.  In due time Archbishop Meindaerts consecrated bishops for the vacant suffragan sees of Haarlem and Deventer, thus assuring continuity of Holy Orders for the future.  Since then the church of Utrecht, retaining in every detail the worship and doctrine as formerly, became known as the Old Roman Catholic Church of Holland, to distinguish it from that of the Apostolic Administrators who continued to attempt to govern from Belgium.

     Old Roman Catholicism is the same Mystical Body of Christ as in the first Christian centuries. There have been no changes in doctrine or moral teaching. The decrees of the Second Council of Utrecht, held under Archbishop Meindaerts in 1763, are a monument of orthodoxy and respect for the Holy See. In a declaration made by Archbishop Van Os and his two suffragans to the Papal Nuncio who visited Holland in 1823, they said: "We accept, without any exception whatever, all the Articles of the holy Catholic faith, would neither hold nor teach, then or afterwards, any other opinions than those that had been decreed, determined, and published by our mother, the holy Church, conformably to Holy Scripture, tradition, the acts of Œcumenical Councils, and those of the Council of Trent; as also that they reject and condemn everything opposed to them—especially all heresies, without any one exception—that the Church has rejected and condemned; that they also detest at the same time every schism which might separate them from the communion of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church, and of its visible head upon earth; that they never made common cause with those that had broken the bond of unity; that in particular they reject and condemn the Five Propositions condemned by the Holy See, and which are stated to be found in the book of Jansenius called Augustinus; that they promise as well for the future as for the present, and in all things, to his Holiness the actual Pope Leo XII, and to his successors, fidelity, obedience, and submission, according to the Canons of the Church; and also to accept respectfully, to teach and to maintain, conformably with the same Canons, the decrees and constitutions of the Apostolic See." [LINK]

     Thus the Old Roman Catholic Church received and still preserves, not only true Apostolic Succession, but the doctrines and rites of the Holy Church of Christ and the Apostles as well. The Church is called "Old" because she rejects Modernism and every recent innovation, while adhering faithfully to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of Apostolic times. She is called "Roman" because the line of her Apostolic Succession from the first century until 1739 was held in common with the Roman Catholic Church, because she teaches the same Faith as that taught by the Roman Magisterium, and because She uses the Roman Rite (in the form prescribed by Pope Saint Pius V) without addition or change, using the time honored texts of the Missale, Pontificale, and Rituale Romanum with great care and exactness as to matter, form and intention in the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in the administration of the seven Sacraments. The Church is "Catholic" because She is not confined to any one nation or place or time, teaching the same Faith once delivered by her Divine Founder, Jesus Christ to the Apostles.

    While Utrecht would later drift away from its Roman heritage, the Old Roman Catholic Church would continue in England and in America, enabling the Catholic Resistance of modernism with the authentic Roman faith, morals, and liturgy.

Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Willibroard"
     2.  Adrian VI,
     3.  Pope Alexander VII:   1664 Speculatores domus Israel, (concerning solar orbiting);  and 12 January 1661, University of Notre Dame Cawley Archives, at 10 Apr 2000 00:48:56 GMT (forbidding vernacular translations of the Mass).
     4.  The history of the church/state politics surrounding the Jesuits and Jansenism is well covered in H. Daniel-Rops, The Church in the Seventeenth Century (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1963); and in Hilaire Belloc, How the Reformation Happened, (Rockford, TAN, 1992).
     5.  Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Holland" p. 388.
     6.   Bishop Varlet was a vicar of the Bishop of Quebec, and had served as his Vicar General for Catholics in the French territory of Louisiana. See Newman C. Eberhardt, CM, A Survey of American Church History (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1964) p. 49.  He was consecrated bishop 12 February 1719.


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