Conservatives are calling it a miracle of God. Reformers prefer to explain it as a bit of papal politicking. In general, Dutch Catholics are still wondering what happened to their bishops when they went to Rome.

For 17 days in January, the seven Dutch bishops huddled in the seclusion of the Vatican, divorced from advisers and journalists, conferring solely with the pope and the Curia. At the close, they signed a document containing 46 conclusions basically reasserting their authority and suggesting a sharp retreat from nearly two decades of Dutch institutional change.

Back in the Netherlands, things have not been the same since.

The response at home to the synod was overwhelming negative. Willibord, the bishops' advisory association, denounced the results as damaging to ecumenical development. The secretary general of the Dutch church made known his disappointment and resigned. The president of the Council of Churches said the unyielding tone of the bishops' document did nothing to encourage closer cooperation between Dutch Catholics and Protestants.

A few wags greeted the event with the wry observation that Queen Juliana announced her resignation from the throne on the same day the synod ended.

With Dutch anxieties pitched high, there is renewed concern about a schism with Rome and a split between the bishop and the people -- not a formally declared break, but a further drifting away of local parishes from the local instructions of the church.

What eventually happens here has important consequences for the entire Roman Catholic Church.

Once a model of obedient conservative practice, Dutch Catholics drew virtually no international notice before the 1960s. But fervently taking up the spirt of the Second Vatican Council, the Dutch church -- which accounts for only 1 percent of the world Catholic population -- suddenly arose as the champion of reform.

Dutch priests married, the laity took up ministerial duties and future priests attended "open seminarise" in universities together with coed lay students.

While the Dutch prided themselves on developing a "people's church," the Vatican watched with "increasing irritation.

The recent synod sought to pull the Netherlands' Catholic hierarchy back to strict church teachings. It ruled out marriage for priests, drew a clear distinction between the role of priests and the laity, and called for a return to traditional seminary methods of training priests -- the country has only one such seminary now.

"It posed the classic struggle between law and life," said the Rev. Laurence Bigl, dean of the southern Dutch city of Tilburg and a self-confessed reformer in a community where Catholicism continues to be a staple of life. His comments about the synod echo those of many other Dutch Catholics.

"Rome's interests lie with the books, the formal law," Bigi said. "But I am a more practical man. For me, life is stronger than law."

Although disheartened by the bishops' conclusions, Bigl said he does not expect much change.

The first weeks after the synod, the people were very discouraged," he said. "But I made it clear that we can still go on. I said, 'We go on and if the pope wants to join in, that's fine. If not, it's a pity for him.'"

Bigl's criticism is directed not toward Dutch bishops, most of whom he says appreciate the evolving nature of the church in the Netherlands, but toward the Vatican, which he sees as pressuring the bishops. He chides Rome for ignoring the trends of the real world.

"Rome has unfairly singled us out, he said. "We have to make clear that what is happening in the church here is not a Dutch question but a worldwide [question]. They are upset, for instance, that we do not train enough priests.

"How can they criticize us about a decrease in ordinations when the diocese of Rome itself does not produce more than one or two a year?"

It is true that a shortage of priests and an increased appreciation for the role of the laity has led the Cathodic Church in the United States, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere to experiment. One difference, perhaps, is that the Netherlands characteristically has been more vocal about its reforms. t

Dutch bishops had been anything but united before their session with the pope. Dutch Catholics generally talk about "the five and the two" -- the five liberal bishops and the two conservative ones.

Because the Netherlands is a compact country with a wide variety of interest groups, cooperation and collegiality are necessities. That was once the case among Dutch bishops, but it changed in 1971 and 1972 when Rome named a conservative, Adriaan Simonis, as bishop of Rotterdam and an ultraconservative, Jan Gijsen, as bishop of Roermond.

Gijsen particularly -- as nearly every Dutch Catholic will explain -- has turned out to be a disruptive force. He has publicly repudiated fellow bishops and, in several nationally featured interviews, insinuated that the other bishops are disobedient rebels. Moreover, Gijsen has withdrawn his own diocese from nearly every national commission.

The synod, however, managed to renew harmony among the bishops and establish a basis for better communication between Utrecht, the seat of the Dutch church, and Rome.

The country's five liberal bishops, meanwhile, have been struggling to explain just what happened at the synod and why they signed a document that seemed to undo their earlier efforts.

The odds seem to be against this new-found unity being a lasting one. But there is widespread concern that three commissions set up after the synod -- no pastoral workers, eminaries and an expanded number of dioceses -- will design a more conservative course for the Netherlands' 5 1/2 million Catholics when the reports are issued next year.

No one is quite sure in that proportions Dutch Catholics divide between the conservative and liberal camps. But one recent survey by the Netherlands Institute of Public Opinion showed that 88 percent of Dutch Catholics have confidence in prudent moderate experimentation in their church.

"I don't believe an open schism will develop," said Tom Oostveen, senior editor of the Dutch Catholic news magazine. De Tijd. "But I do see a great division between the college of Dutch bishops and the majority of the people, a division of practice but not something proclaimed as fact. The great question now is how the bishops find a way to be both with Rome and with their people."