THE DOMINICAN Order in the Netherlands has issued a radical recommendation that lay ministers chosen by their congregations should be allowed to celebrate the Eucharist if no ordained priests are available.
In a booklet posted to all 1,300 parishes in the country, it says that the Church should drop its priest-centred model of the Mass in favour of one built around a community sharing bread and wine in prayer.
"Whether they are women or men, homo- or heterosexual, married or single, makes no difference. What is important is an infectious attitude of faith," said the brochure, which has been approved by the Dutch order's leaders. However, the Dutch bishops' conference promptly said that the booklet appeared to be "in conflict with the faith of the Roman Catholic Church". It said it had no prior knowledge of the project and needed to study the text further before issuing a full reaction.
The 38-page booklet, Kerk en Ambt ("Church and Ministry"), reflects the thinking of the Belgian-born Dominican theologian Fr Edward Schillebeeckx. In 1986 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned Fr Schillebeeckx that his views on the Eucharist and lay ministry were "erroneous" but took no action against him.
The booklet was written by four Dominicans including Fr André Lascaris, a theologian at the Dominican Study Centre for Theology and Society in Nijmegen. Fr Lascaris was involved in peace work for Northern Ireland from 1973 until 1992 and has published numerous articles and books on conflict, violence, forgiveness and reconciliation. The other authors are Fr Jan Nieuwenhuis, retired head of the Dominicus ecumenical centre in Amsterdam, Fr Harrie Salemans, a parish priest in Utrecht, and Fr Ad Willems, retired theology lecturer at Radboud University, Nijmegen.
The booklet says that many Dutch Catholics are frustrated that combining parishes and closing churches is the main response to the challenge of a dwindling clergy. "The Church is organised around priests and actually finds the priesthood more important than local faith communities," said Fr Salemans in an interview posted on the order's Dutch website. "This is deadly for local congregations."
Using the early Church as its model, the booklet said a congregation could choose its own lay minister to lead services. The minister and the congregation would speak the words of consecration together. "Speaking these words is not the exclusive right or power of the priest," the booklet said. "It is the conscious expression of faith by the whole congregation."
The ranks of Dutch Dominicans have thinned along with those of other clergy, and now number only 90 men. Since 2000 around 200 parishes in the Netherlands have been closed due to the lack of priests and the fall in church attendance.