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Cardinal Danneels: the man who tried to surf a tsunami

Cardinal Danneels: always welcomed in the elite circles of Belgian society (Getty)

A titan of the European Church since the late 1970s, Godfried Danneels died as a symbol of an exhausted liberal Catholicism resuscitated by Pope Francis. It was passing strange that such an acclaimed man would die more a symbol than remembered for his legacy, but the legacy of Cardinal Danneels of Mechelen-Brussels was rather undistinguishable from that of an entire generation or two of European prelates.

Educated and formed in a largely vibrant Catholic culture as a boy and young priest, Danneels presided over a Belgian Church for three decades that is now so weak that, if it were an ordinary Belgian citizen, it would be euthanatised on an accelerated schedule.

Danneels was not responsible for the cultural tsunami that dumped the impressive heritage of Belgian Catholic piety, scholarship and art on the shore like so much flotsam and jetsam. But his response – to try to surf upon the tidal wave – was only an attempt to survive, not resist. At best he was inadequate to the times; at worst he was their accomplice.

In that, despite remarkable intelligence and charm, his pastoral approach was wholly unremarkable. By the time of his death, the accommodationist approach had been tried and had failed in dozens of places over decades, just as Danneels had tried it and failed in Belgium.

The great accommodator was, in part, always welcome – even celebrated – in the elite circles of Belgian society because he rarely challenged their prevailing ethos.

Danneels, appointed Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 1979 by St John Paul II – and created a cardinal in 1983 – served in office until 2010. John Paul throughout his long pontificate appointed a good number of leading cardinals from the liberal side of the Church – Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann of Germany – so Danneels was not isolated.

Indeed, John Paul even appointed Danneels the relator general of the 1985 extraordinary synod on the 20th anniversary of Vatican II, the task of which was to evaluate the lights and shadows of the post-conciliar period. That synod was a turning point, out of which came the Catechism of Catholic Church.

At the opening of the synod, an exasperated Danneels protested: “This is not a synod about a book!” He was referring to The Ratzinger Report, the interview book released earlier that year which set the terms of debate at the synod, calling for a reaffirmation of traditional Catholic doctrine after the turbulence of the years after the Council.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger won the day in 1985, and continued to prevail over Danneels and the progressive party. By 1996, Danneels retreated with his fellow John Paul-appointed liberals for occasional strategy sessions in St Gallen, Switzerland, to plan for the future. What Danneels called the “St Gallen Mafia” would have their candidate in the 2005 conclave, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, but Ratzinger would be elected.

Cardinal Danneels was deeply disappointed by the choice, but still had five years to serve in Brussels. Survival, though, is the best revenge and in 2013, just months before Danneels’s 80th birthday, Benedict XVI abdicated. The godfather of the St Gallen lived to fight another day; this time his mafia prevailed, and Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis.

As the senior cardinal-priest in the conclave, Cardinal Danneels, by tradition, was to appear with the new pope on the central loggia of St Peter’s Basilica. That was one tradition the new Holy Father was happy to keep; Cardinal Danneels would describe the election as his “personal resurrection”. At 80 and in retirement, Cardinal Danneels had insufficient energy to be a centre of initiative for Pope Francis; that was left to another 80-year-old of greater vitality, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who back in 1985 was Danneels’s assistant at the synod.

But Danneels had great value as a symbol of liberal hopes, of the anti-Ratzinger party, and of a pro-Bergoglio lobby stretching back 10 years. And so Pope Francis appointed him to the combustible synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. Danneels did not make any significant contribution to either meeting; his presence alone was the sign that Pope Francis favoured the Danneels-Kasper line on marriage and divorce.

In his condolence telegram, Pope Francis did not mention of any of Danneels’s specific achievements, but he did mention his participation in the synods. Not the 1985 synod, where he was relator general, or even the 1980 special synod for the Netherlands, which he co-chaired. But it mentioned the two family synods. That’s what Pope Francis remembered best about Cardinal Danneels, that he was the living symbol of a new pontificate, not only the grandest relic of a nearly dead local Church.

Godfried Danneels, requiescat in pace.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of