The March death of eighty-five-year-old Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the famously liberal Catholic archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and primate of Belgium from 1979 to 2010, has met with little comment from the liberal Catholic press. Although Danneels helped maneuver Pope Francis's election in 2013, and worked behind the scenes at Francis's synods on the family to advance a proposal to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion, the liberal Catholic media has not been conspicuously mournful.
This might be because Danneels was implicated in the cover up of a pedophilia scandal involving former bishop of Bruges Roger Vangheluwe. Vangheluwe was forced to resign in 2010 after news broke that he had allegedly molested his own nephew, starting when the boy was five and continuing until he was eighteen. In taped conversations leaked to the press, Danneels was heard urging the victim not to go public with his story, as Vangheluwe would be resigning the following year. Vangheluwe was not prosecuted because the statute of limitations for such offenses had expired, and Danneels maintained that he had merely been trying to bring about a family reconciliation.
Perhaps another reason for the silence is that Danneels’s thirty-one-year watch witnessed the catastrophic—and ongoing—decline of Catholicism in Belgium. Belgium had been a staunchly Catholic redoubt that, nearly alone in Northern Europe, resisted the Reformation. Although up to three-quarters of the eleven million Belgians are still nominally Catholic, by 2018 Sunday Mass attendance had dropped to less than 10 percent, and fewer than half of Belgium’s Catholic parents bothered to have their babies baptized. Many of the country’s gorgeous Gothic and Baroque churches stand empty. The shortage of Catholic priests is so severe, owing to a cratering of religious vocations, that in 2011 thousands of lay Belgians signed a petition begging that they be allowed to lead church services rather than have their parishes closed down or merged. In 2007, for example, there were only two priestly ordinations in the entire country.
That situation improved a bit in 2010 when Pope Benedict XVI appointed André-Joseph Léonard, Belgium’s only conservative bishop (of Namur), to succeed Danneels as Belgian primate. Besides reviving Catholic devotional practices such as Corpus Christi processions, Léonard opened a tradition-minded seminary that quickly grew to twenty-one seminarians and generated six priests. But when Léonard tendered his resignation in 2015, Pope Francis replaced him with a Danneels protégé, Jozef de Kesel, who promptly shut down the seminary. Belgium is now better known for its relaxed abortion restrictions, its pioneering legalization of same-sex marriage, and the most expansive euthanasia laws in the world. A potent symbol of the state of Catholicism in contemporary Belgium is the Église du Sacré-Coeur et Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes in Liège—now deserted, crumbling, and defaced by street art. The most vibrant religions in Belgium today are evangelical Christianity and Islam.
Danneels was one of three liberal clergymen who presided over the destruction of Belgian Catholicism. The other two were his predecessor as Belgian primate, Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens (1904–1996), and the Antwerp-born Dominican priest Edward Schillebeeckx (1914–2009), co-author of the bible of liberal Catholicism, the “Dutch Catechism.” Suenens was a leading figure at the Second Vatican Council and head of a powerful rump of progressive theologians. According to observers, he almost singlehandedly set the council’s agenda. Whereas most of the bishops attending the council viewed it as a vehicle for renewing the Church after two world wars and affirming its relevance to a politically and technologically changing world, Suenens took a more radical stance. “Vatican II is the French Revolution in the Church,” he declared. After the council wound up, he wrote that it had marked “the end of an epoch,” an ancien régime that had prevailed since the age of Constantine. Everything had to go.
His 1962 book, The Nun in the World, mocked sisters’ traditional habits as anachronisms (“flapping through the streets on her scooter with her habit and veil streaming behind her to the imminent danger of herself and other traffic”). He called their vows of obedience infantilizing, and urged them to forsake their commitments to nursing and teaching children in favor of parish administration and social work. Soon enough Catholic nuns by the tens of thousands doffed their habits, moved out of their convents, or left religious life altogether. Suenens’s influence on the Vatican ended only after a falling out with Pope Paul VI over Humanae Vitae; Suenens believed Paul had unduly prioritized procreation over marital love.
Schillebeeckx was another behind-the-scenes figure at the council. He urged that its documents be drafted with ambiguous language to allow for radical re-interpretation in the future. His Dutch Catechism, published in 1966 and advertised as the first catechism for the sophisticated “adults” of the post–Vatican II era, was similarly ambiguous in language, casting doubt on traditional Catholic doctrines like original sin, Christ’s virgin birth and atoning death, the nature of the Eucharist, and the efficacy of the sacraments. Though several churchmen condemned it, the catechism was an influential worldwide best seller. During the 1970s Schillebeeckx became mesmerized by the “historical-critical” biblical scholarship of liberal Protestant theologians. He turned out a trilogy about Jesus's life suggesting, among other things, that the New Testament stories of his empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances had been made up by his disciples. (Called to the Vatican several times to respond to charges of heresy, Schillebeeckx was always able to retreat to the vagueness of his terminology.)
Danneels took full advantage of the chaos that Schillebeeckx and Suenens had created. A Belgian catechism used in Catholic schools and titled Roeach (a variant of the Hebrew word for “spirit”) came under fire from conservative parents for its suggestive drawings depicting infants and young children as sexual beings who enjoyed sexual stimulation. Danneels studiously avoided the protesters, although eventually the catechism was withdrawn. In 1990, after Belgium legalized abortion for the first time, the devout Catholic king of Belgium, Baudouin, abdicated for a day rather than sign the measure into law. He did this, some claim, against the advice of Danneels, who informed the monarch that he could sign the bill in clear conscience. In 2003, Belgium became the second country in the world to authorize same-sex marriage; Danneels said he viewed that as a “positive development.”
Danneels did speak out in 2002 when the Belgian parliament approved euthanasia by lethal injection—not only for the terminally ill but also for the chronically depressed—but Belgium was by then effectively secularized. In 2014, the Belgian parliament voted 86-44 to extend the euthanasia law to children—over the strong objection of Danneels’s successor, Archbishop Léonard, but no objection whatsoever from Belgium’s current king, Philippe. In 2017, it was only through Francis's intervention that a Belgian Catholic religious order, the Brothers of Charity, agreed to stop allowing lethal injections of patients at several mental hospitals it operates. Belgian law fines hospitals, including Catholic hospitals, that refuse to cooperate with patients’ desire for euthanasia, and few Catholic medical professionals these days want to be martyrs.
After Pope John Paul II died, many liberal Catholics wished that Danneels would succeed him and carry the “spirit of Vatican II” to new heights of accommodation with our secular age. That didn’t happen, but liberals have since pinned their hopes on the Danneels-supported Francis. Hopefully Francis will cast a cold eye upon the state of Belgian Catholicism, whose obituary, like that of the primate who presided over so much of its decline, is currently being written.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.