The Catholic Church in Belgium is in the headlines this week, after bishops published a text for the blessing of same-sex couples.
But it’s not just this week that the country has come to the attention of Catholic circles – Belgian Catholicism has long enjoyed considerable influence within the global Church, particularly since the Second Vatican Council.
And yet Belgium only ranks 28th place on the list of countries most populated by Catholics, behind the Dominican Republic and Kenya.
So why does the country continue to drive Catholic news? The pillar have a look.
A cardinal, the Council and co-responsibility
Belgium is not an easy country to understand. For centuries, this strategic strip of land has been the “battlefield of Europe”. the nation, which declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, is made up of two large ethnic groups: the majority Flemings, who speak a Dutch dialect, and the minority French-speaking Walloons.
Belgium has 11.5 million inhabitants and borders the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and France. Its capital, Brussels, is the center of the European Union, a political and economic alliance of 27 member states. The country is relatively prosperous, but foreigners often view it as deeply culturally divided and its government as dysfunctional, calling it “the most successful failed state in the world.”
Belgium also has a dark colonial heritage: King Leopold II made a reign of terror in the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908 (inspiring Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness”.) As recently as 1958, Belgium hosted a “human zoo” featuring Congolese men, women and children.
It is often said that there is no famous Belgiansbut in fact the country produced legendary saints such as Saint John Berchmans and Saint Damian of Molokai.
Shortly after independence from Belgium, an important center of Catholic learning was established in the city of Leuven/Louvain. (The Catholic University of the city divide in the 1960s along linguistic lines, leading to the collapse of the Belgian government.)
The academic prowess of the Belgian Church proved influential when Pope John XXIII summoned the bishops of the world to Rome for an ecumenical council in 1962. Belgian theologians and bishops contributed vigorously at the sessions of Vatican II, no more than Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens.
According to his New York Times obituary, Suenens helped influence the direction of the Council by sending the pope a critique of its preparatory documents. With the support of John XXIII, the cardinal presented an alternative vision during the first session of the Council. The pope then appointed Suenens to a commission that streamlined the Council’s agenda. Paul VI later named him one of the four moderators of the Council.
The New York Times described Suenens as a champion of “modernizing the dress and lifestyle of Catholic nuns, expanding lay responsibilities, ordaining married men to serve as deacons, mandatory retirement for bishops and renewal of ties with other branches of Christianity”. and with Judaism.
A few years after Vatican II, Suenens published a widely commented text book arguing that the Vatican was backtracking on the Council’s commitment to the “co-responsibility of the laity”.
Good Works, Small Congregations
The Annual Report produced by the Belgian Church is a colorful and brilliant publication of 100 pages. With its quirky photos of young people and its pages highlighting charities, the report suggests that Belgian Catholicism is alive and well.
But halfway through, there is a statistics section. And there, the picture begins to darken. The report notes that 1,261 people asked to be removed from baptism records in 2020. That year, 33 parishes were closed and 17 churches fell into disuse (including two attributed to other Christian communities).
There have been only four priestly ordinations in the country, while three diocesan priests have left the ministry. More than half of the remaining diocesan priests in Belgium are over 75 years old.
Naturally, the report does not give figures on Mass attendance, as churches have been closed for much of the pandemic year. But the previous year’s report recorded that a total of 241,029 people attended Mass on the third Sunday in October in 2019.
Thus, about 3.6% of baptized Catholics in Belgium attended mass on an average Sunday. Compare that to 1967 – at the height of Suenens’ influence – when 42.9% local Catholics were present at Sunday Mass.
In short, the statistics suggest that, despite its good works, the Church in Belgium suffers from serious attrition.
The battle for Brussels
Cardinal Suenens was the first clergyman to lead the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels (known as the Archdiocese of Mechelen until 1961). He was replaced in 1979 by another influential prelate, Cardinal Godfried Danneels.
A leader of the liberal wing of the European Church, Danneels took part in the meetings of the St. Gallen Groupan informal circle of prelates who believed that the reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council had been stifled.
Danneels’ reputation was tarnished in 2010 by a leaked audio recordingin which he urged a young man not to publicly accuse his uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, of sexually abusing him.
The disclosure was followed by a independent report which registered 475 complaints of abuse against clergy and church workers from the 1950s to the 1980s. The abuse crisis severely damaged the reputation of Belgian Catholicism and tight relationships between the Belgian authorities and the Vatican.
Danneels took part in the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis, appearing alongside the new pope on the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square. The pope named him a participant in the family synod 2015 in Rome.
Danneels had retired as Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 2010. He was replaced by Conservative Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, marking a clear break in the see’s progressive tradition.
Leonardo’s appointment was so controversial that Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, former Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium, took the rare step of denounce this. The Vatican diplomat has publicly stated that he would have preferred Danneels’ successor to be an auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels.
Pope Francis has accepted Leonardo’s resignation after a turbulent tenure, shortly after his 75th birthday in 2015. The pope chose Bishop Jozef De Kesel – a former auxiliary bishop under Danneels – as Leonardo’s successor and soon made him a cardinal. In 2015 he also gave Rauber the red hat.
This year, Pope Francis appointed another Belgian to the College of Cardinals: Bishop Lucas Van Looy. But the 80-year-old Bishop Emeritus of Ghent asked to be withdrawn from review following criticism that it had failed to provide sufficient support to victims of abuse.
Continuity or change?
The intervention of Pope Francis in 2015 helped restore progressive continuity in the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, the primatial see of Belgium. It is not surprising that its present holder, Cardinal De Kesel, was the motor force behind the document of the Flemish bishops allowing the blessing of same-sex couples.
The pope has yet to respond to the text, which appears to challenge last year’s statement by the Vatican’s doctrinal department that the Church does not have the power to bless same-sex unions. He can never publicly comment on the document. But he will soon face a choice that will indicate his thoughts.
De Kesel, primate of Belgium and president of the Belgian bishops’ conference, tendered his resignation as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels on his 75th birthday in June.
The weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad reported that it was “an open secret” that De Kesel was not “pushing for a further extension of his episcopate in Mechelen-Brussels”.
“He was diagnosed with colon cancer in the spring of 2020 and the treatment and an operation in the summer of 2020 took their toll. The cardinal has recovered but remains weakened,” he said.
The newspaper speculated that De Kesel would remain in office “at least until the ad limina visit of the Belgian bishops”. program from November 21 to 26.
It seems that the pope must decide imminently whether to choose De Kesel’s successor from among the Flemish bishops who have collectively approved the new document or to step outside their circle.
His choice will send an important signal on the future of Belgian Catholicism.