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Belgium’s Catholic Church: shrinking but still influential

Belgian Catholicism is suffering severe attrition. So why is it continuing to drive Catholic news?

Sint-Franciscuskerk, a Catholic church in Menen, Belgium, that was deconsecrated in 2019. Trougnouf (Benoit Brummer) via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0).

The Catholic Church in Belgium is dominating headlines this week, after bishops issued a text for the blessing of same-sex couples.

But it’s not only this week that the country has garnered attention in Catholic circles — Belgian Catholicism has long enjoyed considerable influence within the worldwide Church, especially since the Second Vatican Council.

And yet Belgium only ranks in 28th place on the list of countries with the largest Catholic populations, behind the Dominican Republic and Kenya.

So why does the country continue to drive Catholic news? The Pillar takes a look.

Cardinal Suenens. Polla ta deina via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A cardinal, the Council, and co-responsibility

Belgium is not an easy country to understand. For centuries, this strategic strip of land was the “battlefield of Europe.” The nation, which declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, is composed of two major ethnic groups: the majority Flemish people, who speak a Dutch dialect, and the minority French-speaking Walloons.

Belgium has a population of 11.5 million 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 outsiders often regard it as deeply culturally divided and its government as dysfunctional, dubbing it “the world’s most successful failed state.”

Belgium also has a bleak colonial legacy: King Leopold II had a reign of terror in the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908 (inspiring Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness.”) As late as 1958, Belgium hosted a “human zoo,” featuring Congolese men, women and children.

It is often said there are no famous Belgians, but in fact the country has produced storied saints such as St. John Berchmans and St. Damien of Molokai.

Shortly after Belgium gained independence, an important center of Catholic scholarship was established in the city of Leuven/Louvain. (The city’s Catholic university split in the 1960s along linguistic lines, leading to the collapse of the Belgian government.)

The Belgian Church’s academic prowess proved influential when Pope John XXIII summoned the world’s bishops to Rome for an Ecumenical Council in 1962. Belgian theologians and bishops contributed vigorously to Vatican II’s sessions, none more so than Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens.

According to his New York Times obituary, Suenens helped to influence the Council’s direction when he sent a critique of its preparatory documents to the pope. With John XXIII’s support, the cardinal presented an alternative vision at the Council’s first session. The pope then appointed Suenens to a commission that streamlined the Council’s agenda. Paul VI later named him one of the Council’s four moderators.

The New York Times described Suenens as a champion of the “modernization of the garb and life style of Catholic nuns, expansion of the laity’s responsibilities, ordination of married men to serve as deacons, mandatory retirement for bishops and renewed ties with other branches of Christianity and with Judaism.”

A few years after Vatican II, Suenens published a widely discussed book arguing that the Vatican was backsliding on the Council’s commitment to “co-responsibility of the laity.”

A funeral Mass in Transinne, Belgium. Lucyin via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Good works, small congregations

The annual report produced by the Belgian Church is a colorful, glossy publication running to 100 pages. With its quirky pictures of young people and pages highlighting charitable works, the report suggests that Belgian Catholicism is alive and well.

But midway through, there is a statistical section. And there, the picture begins to darken. The report notes that 1,261 people asked to be removed from baptismal registers in 2020. That year, 33 parishes were closed and 17 churches fell into disuse (with two given to other Christian communities.)

There were just four priestly ordinations in the country, while three diocesan priests left the ministry. More than half of Belgium’s remaining diocesan priests are over 75 years of age.

Understandably, the report does not give Mass attendance figures, as churches were 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 of October in 2019.

So around 3.6% of Belgium’s baptized Catholics attended Mass on an average Sunday. Compare that to 1967 — at the height of Suenens’ influence — when 42.9% of the country’s Catholics were present at Sunday Mass.

In short, the statistics suggest that, despite its good works, the Church in Belgium is suffering severe attrition.

Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard in February 2012. Marek Blahuš via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The battle for Brussels

Cardinal Suenens was the first churchman to lead the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels (which was known as the Archdiocese of Mechelen until 1961). He was succeeded in 1979 by another influential prelate, Cardinal Godfried Danneels.

A leader of the European Church’s liberal wing, Danneels took part in meetings of the St. Gallen Group, an 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 recording, in 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 an independent report which recorded 475 abuse complaints against clergy and church workers from the 1950s to the 1980s. The abuse crisis severely dented Belgian Catholicism’s reputation and strained relations between 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 2015 family synod in Rome.

Danneels had retired as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 2010. He was succeeded by the conservative Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, marking a clear break in the see’s progressivist tradition.

Léonard’s appointment was so controversial that Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, the former apostolic nuncio to Belgium, took the rare step of denouncing it. The Vatican diplomat said publicly that he would have preferred Danneels’ successor be an auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels.

Pope Francis accepted Léonard’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 Léonard’s successor and soon made him a cardinal. In 2015, he also gave Rauber the red hat.

This year, Pope Francis named another Belgian to the College of Cardinals: Bishop Lucas Van Looy. But the 80-year-old emeritus bishop of Ghent asked to be withdrawn from consideration following criticism that he had failed to provide sufficient support for abuse victims.

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel. Philcotof via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Continuity or change?

Pope Francis’ intervention in 2015 helped to restore progressivist continuity in the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium’s primatial see. It is not surprising that its current incumbent, Cardinal De Kesel, was the driving force behind the Flemish bishops’ document allowing for blessings of same-sex couples.

The pope has not yet responded to the text, which appears to challenge last year’s declaration by the Vatican’s doctrinal department that the Church has no power to bless same-sex unions. He may never comment publicly on the document. But he will soon face a choice that will indicate his thoughts.

De Kesel, the Primate of Belgium and president of the Belgian bishops’ conference, submitted his resignation as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels on his 75th birthday in June.

The weekly newspaper Katholiek Nieuwsblad reported that it was “an open secret” that De Kesel was not “pushing for further extension of his episcopate in Mechelen-Brussels.”

“He was diagnosed with colon cancer in spring 2020 and the treatment and an operation in summer 2020 have taken their toll. The cardinal has recovered but remains weakened,” it said.

The paper speculated that De Kesel would remain in post “at least until the ad limina visit of the Belgian bishops,” scheduled for Nov. 21-26.

It seems that the pope must decide imminently whether to select De Kesel’s successor from among the Flemish bishops who collectively endorsed the new document or to go outside their circle.

His choice will send an important signal about the future of Belgian Catholicism.

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