Belgium is one of those countries that show in stark detail the problems facing the Catholic Church in the developed world. Like Ireland or Quebec, it is an example of a once intensely Catholic society where the faith has very rapidly collapsed. The same symptoms as elsewhere – empty churches, scandals, infighting, a hierarchy that passively goes along with current social trends – are as obvious in Belgium as anywhere else in Europe.
Yet the Belgian Church is still influential internationally. Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the retired primate of Belgium, is among the senior clerics appointed personally by Pope Francis to participate in the ongoing family synod. That is an interesting move, as Cardinal Danneels is much more radical on sexual issues than even the German bishops.
The 83-year-old is one of the Church’s great survivors, having been appointed an archbishop in 1979 and a cardinal in 1983. An ebullient character and formidable networker, his position on the Church’s extreme liberal fringe has not prevented him being a pillar of the College of Cardinals, to the point where commentators were naming him as a possible papal candidate in 2005. He has also been enjoying a very active retirement, so it would have been a surprise if he hadn’t been at the synod.
A lot of the Belgian Church’s influence can be attributed to Cardinal Danneels’s personal dynamism. He is also a highly controversial figure, and not just for his ideological stances. He continues to be dogged by the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations against the former Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe. Since Belgian society was convulsed for years by the Marc Dutroux paedophile scandal, the primate should have been keenly aware of just how toxic that issue is.
More recently, a biography depicted the cardinal as being involved in lobbying before the last papal conclave. Cardinal Danneels has denied this, but it does show that he retains his ability to grab headlines.
Curiously, the current Primate of Belgium, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, has been almost invisible recently, for reasons to do with internal Church politics. It came as a surprise when Pope Benedict XVI appointed Léonard, the only conservative bishop in the country, to the see of Mechelen-Brussels, and the appointment did not prove popular.
Even allowing that Léonard’s sometimes confrontational style and discomfort with the media did not do him any favours, his lack of support from within the Church was painfully obvious, even when he was physically attacked by protesters. It is no secret that Léonard felt he had been undermined from the outset, and his resignation when he reached 75 was quickly accepted by the Holy See. He remains in office only until Pope Francis appoints a successor. The hotly tipped candidate is Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, an outspoken liberal
in the Danneels mould.
Although a large majority of Belgians – around three quarters of the population – are nominally Catholic, and a majority (though declining) of children are baptised Catholic every year, observance is extremely low even by Western European standards. The last official statistics showed weekly Mass attendance at a mere 11 per cent, but those figures were published as long ago as 1998. The very fact that the Belgian hierarchy no longer publishes estimates lends support to anecdotal accounts suggesting that observance has fallen markedly since then, even in traditionally devout Flanders. In today’s Belgium, religious observance is mainly the preserve of the elderly, or of the Muslim minority.
This is striking, because Belgium is a nation that was largely founded on its Catholic identity. The country was originally carved out of the southern provinces which, during the Dutch War of Independence, had resisted the Protestant Reformation and remained loyal to Spain. The University of Louvain was for centuries a major centre of Catholic thought, and Belgian Catholic art was recognised across Europe. And, while the country has become ever more polarised between its Flemish and French-speaking halves – with decentralised governments, separate media, political parties, educational systems – the Catholic Church, along with the monarchy and the national football team, is one of the very few all-Belgian institutions left standing.
Little of this culture remains, though. Even considering the linguistic divide, Flanders was traditionally very strongly Catholic, while French-speaking Wallonia was more influenced by the secular regime in neighbouring France. But today, while Belgium threatens to split in two, that religious divide has mostly disappeared. Bart de Wever, the pro-independence Flemish prime minister, couches his arguments in economic terms, contrasting a prosperous, free-market Flanders with a poorer, socialist-leaning Wallonia. The religious cornerstone of traditional Flemish identity is no longer relevant.
Belgium also faces the familiar European scenario of a rapidly ageing priesthood, while priestly vocations have declined to a trickle. This was the background for a liberal initiative in 2011 calling for lay people to be allowed to celebrate Mass, which quickly gained thousands of signatures (including around 200 priests) across Flanders. Rome showed no more sympathy than it had previously given to similar petitions from the Netherlands and Austria, but the move was given a practical impetus by the simple fact that so many parishes are unstaffed.
A peculiarity of modern Belgium is that, although the state is constitutionally secular, religion is still nationalised. Under Article 181 of the Constitution, the government pays for the upkeep of religious buildings belonging to recognised denominations, and also pays a stipend to clergy, so priests and bishops are effectively civil servants. Belgian secularist groups frequently complain about this arrangement, which they estimate costs the federal government more than
€100 million per year; but it could also be argued that, like the church tax system in Germany, the official featherbedding of the Church is not healthy for the Church itself, making the hierarchy more remote, less responsive and more dependent on government patronage.
Another illustration of church-state relations is the Flemish government’s imposition of elected councils to administer religious denominations. The Flemish government argued that this would improve governance and especially financial transparency. The Catholic bishops resisted for several years, arguing that there was a danger of the councils being dominated by non-practising Catholics, before eventually giving in. They might have been able to make a more credible stand if they had an established track record of good governance, or of not being subservient to the state.
Meanwhile, Belgium is now known less for its rich religious heritage than for having the most expansive euthanasia law in the world, more liberal even than that of the Netherlands. As of last year, age limits for access to assisted suicide have been abolished. And applicants do not have to be terminally ill; psychological illnesses such as depression can now be grounds for assisted suicide. The retiring Archbishop Léonard spoke out strongly against the new law, but it still passed parliament with ease.
More so even than most European countries, it looks as if Belgian Catholicism has been living off the glories of previous centuries rather than having much to say to modern society. Certainly, most of the country’s nominal Catholics seem to have little interest in it. Unless it rediscovers a sense of purpose, there is a serious risk of the Church becoming little more than a government-funded heritage agency for the preservation of ancient churches.
Jon Anderson is a freelance writer
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/10/15)
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