Enter the Belgian Ratzinger

From the New Oxford Review via Robert Banaugh some time collaborator on articles via Post-Councillar Catholicism
March 2010

In the post-Vatican II years, Belgium and the Netherlands have been known as the "lowlands" of liberal Catholicism. Here one is likely to find the most impoverished kind of Christianity in all of Christendom throughout history. Even the most liberal dioceses in the U.S. look rosy in comparison to the anemia that has long set in throughout the Lowlands. These are countries where those precious few who still attend Mass sit through the entire liturgy — no kneeling, no standing; and in some places, like the Church of the Madeleine in Brugge, Belgium, they sit on barstools instead of in pews.

The Netherlands, of course, gave the world the bestselling Dutch Catechism, the infamous 1966 re-writing of the tenets of the Catholic faith, specifically formulated to appeal to those hankering for a morally mushy brand of Christianity. The book, put together by the Dutch hierarchy, was deemed so "undogmatic" and misleading that American Bishop Robert Joyce refused to give his imprimatur to an edition slated to appear in the U.S.

Just next door, Belgium is home to the beautiful campus of the Catholic University of Louvain. Rich in history, Louvain (Leuven in Flemish) has earned a reputation as the most liberal pontifical university in the world. If you think Notre Dame and Georgetown are morally and religiously ambiguous, these flagship Catholic universities in North America glow positively traditional when compared to Louvain.

Further, both the Netherlands and Belgium have boasted the most liberal cardinals in the land in recent decades. The leader of the Church in Belgium is traditionally the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. Since 1962 this post has been held by just two men. On the orthodoxy meter, Leo Jozef Cardinal Suenens (1961-1980) and Godfried Cardinal Daneels (1980-2010) were about the equivalent of Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin — at best.

Cardinal Daneels, the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels for three decades until this January, was touted by European and American media as the leading liberal papabile hopeful before the conclave that elected Benedict XVI. (One must understand that media personalities often tout the churchmen they'd like to see elected to the papacy; in fact, Daneels had about as much chance as Rembert Weakland of being called to the papal throne.)

Daneels was the cardinal who in 2001 was publicly angling for the resignation of Pope John Paul II, who'd had enough of the previous Pope's pontificate and hoped he could relieve the Slavic Pope of his duties.

Under Cardinal Daneels's watch in Belgium, Mass attendance and vocations to the priesthood dropped to historical lows. Further, as leader of the Belgian Church he provided little to no opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage — all of which are now legal in this country, which is said to be approximately 80 percent Catholic.

Three decades is a long tenure, and during those years Daneels made headlines with a number of outspoken challenges to Church teaching, and in a way that would even make an Archbishop Weakland marvel. He provided mealy-mouthed advice about the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, saying it is a form of self-defense. After a law was passed by the Belgian parliament legalizing same-sex marriages in 2003, the Cardinal remained vague on the question whether or not homosexual practices are illicit. Though he never openly questioned the Church's position on a male-only priesthood, Daneels's vicars general were both women.

His predecessor, Cardinal Suenens, was more outspoken and boldly "reform-minded." He even questioned the Church's teaching on marriage and contraception during the Second Vatican Council, accusing the Church of "holding procreation above conjugal love." A few years later he openly opposed Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae.

Suenens died at age 91 in 1996, and Daneels submitted his mandatory resignation at age 75 two years ago, in January 2008. At long last, Pope Benedict XVI has accepted his resignation and appointed a new primate of Belgium — a man who appears to be Daneels's polar opposite. Known as the "Belgian Ratzinger," Archbishop André-Mutien Léonard was named the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels on January 18. As you might imagine, he's creating quite an uproar in the Lowlands. Where Daneels and Suenens consistently questioned and undermined Church teaching on the hot-button moral issues of the day, Léonard has been an outspoken opponent of abortion and euthanasia, and criticized the Catholic University of Louvain for its research into assisted reproduction and embryonic stem-cell exploitation.

The powers-that-be in the Belgian government are not amused. In fact they seem to believe the sky is falling.

Belgian's Health Minister Laurette Onkelinx may have summed up best the general feeling of despair at the announcement of Daneels's successor: "Church and State are separate in Belgium, but when there are problems in our society, all the social partners sit down around a table, including representatives of secularism and of religion," she told RTL Radio (Jan. 18). "Cardinal Daneels was a man of openness, of tolerance and was able to fit in there. Archbishop Léonard has already regularly challenged decisions made by our parliament. Concerning AIDS, he's against the use of condoms even while people are dying from it every day. He is against abortion and euthanasia…. The pope's choice could undermine the compromise that allows us to live together with respect for everyone."

There you have it: "openly challenged decisions" made by Belgian parliament. In other words, Archbishop Léonard is doing what Cardinals Suenens and Daneels should have been doing for the past four decades as Belgium has sunken into a moral morass, legalizing abortion, legalizing euthanasia, and legalizing same-sex marriage — for starters.

In an interview with Reuters (Jan. 18) just after the Pope's announcement was made public, Bert Claerhout, editor-in-chief of the Catholic weekly Church and Life, said the appointment of Léonard "is clearly a conscious choice for a totally different style and approach: for more radical decisiveness rather than quiet diplomacy, for more confrontation with the secular society instead of dialogue, reconciliation and the quiet confidence that the tide will ever turn."

In one of his first public comments, Archbishop Léo­nard told a Belgian television station (Jan. 25) that "homosexuality is not the same as normal sex in the same way that anorexia is not a normal appetite," adding that he would "never call anorexia patients abnormal." But aside from his straight talk on hot-button moral issues, Léonard is known for his promotion of vocations to the priesthood, his love for beauty and tradition in the liturgy, and his genuine concern for social issues.

By all accounts, it appears that the Church in Belgium is under new management that will take at least one of the Lowlands countries in a different direction than it's been headed for the past forty years. Perhaps the Belgian Ratzinger can steer the ship back toward the orthodoxy long promoted by his German counterpart. At 70 years old, he will not be afforded decades to implement his program of counter-reform. With the mandatory age of retirement set at 75, Archbishop Léonard has his work cut out for him.

Thanks and a tip of the beret.


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