New Catholic archbishop of Brussels raises hackles in Belgium
The long-awaited announcement of the successor to the retiring Catholic archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, has sparked an unusual outcry in Belgium. The new archbishop, André-Mutien Léonard, is sometimes called “the Belgian Ratzinger” for his conservative views. Danneels ranks as one of the last liberal prelates in a Church hierarchy that has turned increasingly traditional under Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict.
Léonard has been a controversial figure in Belgium for his critical stands on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and condom use. He has been an outspoken opponent of abortion and euthanasia, both of which are legal in Belgium, and criticised the Catholic universities of Leuven and Louvain for their research into assisted reproduction and embryonic stem cells.
The most outspoken comment came from Deputy Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinx, who is the country’s health minister. “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. “Cardinal Danneels 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.”
Onkelinx said Léonard’s appointment could upset the balance between secular and religious that Belgium has found. “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.”
The Socialist Party said it “insists that Archbishop Léonard respects democratic decisions taken by the institutions of our country. For the Socialist Party, the rights and duties that people take on democratically take precedence over religious traditions and commandments, without any exception.”
Bert Claerhout, editor in chief of the Catholic weekly KERK&leven (Church and Life), said the choice 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.”
Philippe Van der Sande, president of the Christian Solidarity Movement (BCS), welcomed the appointment. “The Church in our country is led by Monsignor Leonard certainly a church where Jesus is central again in the Sunday liturgy. Many people have never had the chance to experience Catholic liturgy, the Catholic prayer and spirituality or with the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic world church. We hope we can now definitively close the era of the experiments in the wake of May 1968 in favor of an open and proud Catholic Church that is faithful to the Catholic faith and the Gospel of Our Lord.”
At a joint news conference in Brussels on Monday, Danneels and Léonard played down the change. “There is a difference in temperament between myself and Archbishop Léonard. We have a different DNA, but we are both connected to the Roman-Catholic Church,” Danneels said, adding: “The menu doesn’t change because it is served by a different waiter.”
Léonard brushed off Onkelinckx’s comments: “A simple archbishop is not a serious threat to the stability of the country … I am not in favour of abortion but neither was my predecessor Cardinal Danneels, so really that is nothing new … I have heard people say that I am very strict and extremely conservative. Let us take the time to get to know each other. I am convinced that many of those cliches will then disappear.”