On January 8, 2013, I ran across this item in Yahoo!UK news about a Catholic priest in the Netherlands who has told departing parishoners they must send him a copy of their Dutch identity papers.

Armed with the photo, he intends to post their name and photo (from said identity papers) on a board in the church so that the rest of the congregation can pray for their return.

To most others, myself included, this looks like a high-handed name-and-shame tactic unworthy of an individual church and unheard of in the Roman Catholic Church.

Yahoo!UK reports:

“This is a large parish, and I don’t know everyone: by putting up the photos I thought someone might recognise someone they know who they could try to make stay in the Church,” priest Harm Schilder told AFP on Tuesday.

Many Catholics in the liberal Netherlands were shocked by Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas call to “fight” gay marriage, which the Netherlands was the first country to legalise it in 2001.

Schilder said that he had received four requests to leave the Church around Christmas.

“This isn’t about pointing a finger, naming and shaming,” said Schilder, insisting that the plan would help the community pray for these people not to leave the Church and perhaps “persuade them to stay”.

Those wishing to leave must send a letter to the priest along with a photocopy of identity papers.

This is where Schilder gets the photos that will be displayed in the entrance hallway of the church in Tilburg in the south of the country.

If I were his bishop, I would waste no time in getting in touch with him to ask if he is going about this the right way.

Whilst some Reformed denominations and conservative Evangelical churches tell their members that they must apply to withdraw membership, this is not part of Catholic Church teaching. If it is, I trust that someone will write in to explain otherwise.

Normally, if relations are good or neutral between a priest and congregant, the latter may contact the pastor to indicate reasons for leaving. This is done more by way of courtesy than obligation.

If I were Fr Schilder, I would politely ask these people why they wish to leave. I would want to know if it was something I said or the way I presided over Mass or my sermon content. I would also ask about the person’s perception of the Church and if they were experiencing any personal conflicts with regard to faith.

In that way, the person is more likely to return to church — if not his, perhaps another — at some point in future.

Naming and shaming — even if Schilder denies that’s what it is — is the surest way to drive people out of church for good.

Schilder’s Emmaus Parish is located in Tilburg in Brabant, which has a high percentage of Catholics, even though not that many attend Sunday Mass.

In late 2011, scandals involving priests and children came to light:

a report was published by Wim Deetman, a former Dutch minister, detailing widespread child abuse within the Catholic Church in Holland. 1,800 instances of abuse “by clergy or volunteers within Dutch Catholic dioceses” were reported to have occurred since 1945.[6] In March 2012, however, it was revealed that cases of 10 children being chemically castrated after reporting being sexually abused to the police had been left out.[6] It also emerged that in 1956 former prime minister Victor Marijnen, then chairman of a children’s home in Gelderland, had covered up the sexual abuse of children. According to the Telegraph newspaper, he “intervened to have prison sentences dropped against several priests convicted of abusing children.”[6] The factuality of these claims is unclear, though.

It is also thought that as more people come out of the closet revealing their sexual orientation more families have become empathetic towards same-sex relationships and less well-disposed to Church teaching on the matter, regardless of what the New Testament says (e.g. Jude).

Harm Schilder bd_nl image-3371025When I first read this article, I expected Schilder to be an older man. However, he isn’t (see photo courtesy of Brabants Dagblad).

Readers will not be surprised to discover that the Dutch media have been running updates over the past few days.

On the original story, Schilder [‘Painter’ in English] defended his actions in the Brabants Dagblad (translated from Dutch):

According to the priest – known for the conflict over the early ringing of the bells of his church – it is a way to get the whole community ‘involved in the problem. ” “As a pastor, I am far from the type of people who unsubscribe. I usually call, but then the position still pretty final. Maybe it could happen through acquaintances or anyone who manages to persuade them.”

Comments to the article focussed on violation of privacy with the name and photo policy. Others pointed to the ‘rudeness’ of the Catholic Church.

Another article from the same publication — ‘Angry reactions to Tilburg pastor — phone keeps ringing’ — shows a photo of him being interviewed and features an audio of his statements to Brabant’s Radio 1.  The article says that ‘responses have been flowing in from around the nation’ and that

in any case, his secretary has been busy: ‘The phone keeps ringing. I refer everyone to the priest’.

I went away for a few hours whilst writing this to reflect more on this incredible story, unusual for Western Catholicism as it would be for mainline Protestantism.

First, Fr Schilder is undoubtedly keen to retain his congregation and, let’s not forget, he is blessed with a large parish at such a young age.

Second, it is his pastoral responsibility to invite those courteous enough to send him letters for an appointment or a telephone call to see if he can help or clarify the Church’s position on various matters. He could also make it clear that his door and that of the church are always open to them when they decide to return. Notice how many Catholics and Protestants slam the door on sensitive matters? There are many more doorslammers among us than there should be.

Third, any discreet withdrawal of membership has nothing to do with anyone else in the congregation. Schilder may be a conduit between them and God, but, in the final analysis, he has no business posting names and photographs of those leaving, especially if he is in danger of violating privacy laws. Other congregants will know some of these people and their reasons for withdrawing their participation in church. They can fervently pray for them. As for Schilder, he can offer a general prayer at Mass — no names — for their return to the fold. It might then be a matter of weeks, months, years or, perhaps, never.

This is why the notion of Calvinist predestination, as taken from the New Testament, makes so much sense! This is a perfect illustration of it.

Here are a few related Bible verses on the situation:

Matthew 18:15-20 — note the necessity for witnesses before public condemnation of a private matter. Jesus said:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

John 6:37-39:

37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.

Tomorrow: Church registration in the Netherlands