A note sent from an observer located in Belgium……..
Reflections about the Storm Over Belgium
As objectively as I can I will sketch my personal reflections about the article by Alexandra Colen about the Catholic Church in Belgium published in her husband’s the “Brussels Journal.” I offer as well some personal reflections, as a practicing Roman Catholic theologian, and an American, who has lived and worked in Belgium for more than thirty years.
(1) Alexandra Maria Catherine Colen (born on July 9, 1955 in Dublin, Ireland) is a Belgian politician. She is member of the Belgian Federal Parliament for the Vlaams Belang party since May 21, 1995. She holds a PhD in linguistics, and is known for her advocacy of strict Catholic ethics. She is married to Paul Belien, the editor of the conservative blog the “Brussels Journal”. Within the radical-far-right party Vlaams Belang, Colen is seen as leading the religious conservative wing of the party.
(2) I find that her article shows her far to the right bias and at times is just plain wrong in what it asserts and what it insinuates.
a. She describes Cardinal Gotfried Danneels as “close friend and collaborator” with the pedophile bishop Roger Vangheluwe. Belgium is a small country. Gotfried and Roger went to school together. They are both Belgian bishops. They are both (like most of the Belgian bishops) graduates of the Catholic University of Leuven. Roger Vangheluwe is a pedophile. Gotfried Danneels is not.
b. Colen labels Danneels as “the liberal Cardinal.” In fact people who know him (I am among those people) would find him much more centrist in his theology but open-minded. (Personally I am much more liberal than Gotfried but we have mutual respect as theologians because we both really try to be open-minded.) A couple months ago I translated a lecture for him that he later gave in Ireland. The lecture was on priesthood today and I was a bit flabbergasted that it was so “conservative”….. I respect his right to hold a different theology about priesthood than I do…and that respect goes both ways.
c. Colen wants to create dissonance and polarization in the Belgian Catholic Church with Danneels as the bad guy and his successor Leonard as the good guy. I understand why she does this: her political party thrives on creating dissonance and polarization in Belgium, with it’s anti-foreigner, anti-French rhetoric and politics. BUT, I don’t buy it in either situation.
d. Colen says that Roger Vangheluwe was “the supervising bishop for the University of Leuven.” This is untrue and absolute nonsense. As Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, Cardinal Danneels was the “grand chancellor” of our university. Cardinal Suenens held that position before him. Archbishop André Leonard holds it today.
e. Colen spends a lot of time complaining about the sex-ed textbook, ROEACH, that was used in some Belgian Catholic schools. I have not seen it. I do know one of the authors who is a rather level-headed theologian. The only people I have heard objecting to the book are from the radical right. I suspect (but cannot say because I have not seen it) that some people have misinterpreted and overreacted to some images in the book. This is an ongoing problem with any sex-ed. text. The text appeared more than ten years ago. I am quite up on Belgian church developments and the Belgian press….. I never heard much objection to the text. But I have had a lot of experience with sex-ed. materials. Many years ago, when in the USA, I was on a diocesan committee to evaluate religious education and catechetical materials. One year our committee had to evaluate an excellent sex-ed. text. Content and focus were excellent. Ethical perspective was excellent. BUT there were images of a penis slipping into a vagina and images of penises and vaginas disconnected from bodies. I objected that a man is not a penis and a woman is not a vagina. Show, I said, a man with a penis and a woman with a vagina. In the end we prepared a study guide that pointed out the danger (as shown in the pictures), of disconnecting genitalia from human beings…and the danger of disconnecting sexual relations from love, commitment, etc., etc. The text was used very effectively in Catholic schools for some years.
I also remember that Pope John Paul II at the very last minute wanted to cancel the appointment of Kenneth Untner as bishop because some far-to-the-right Michigan Catholics had sent the pope images copied from a sex ed. program Untner used when he was rector at St. John’s Major Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Cardinal John Dearden and Archbishop Jean Jadot flew to Rome and had to defend Ken for what was actually a very good sex information program and had to explain that the images had been taken out of context. I suspect Colen and company are doing the same thing here…..taking things out of context and misinterpreting. Of course, it is also possible that there were a couple stupid images in the book Colen criticizes. (We all can point to good books marred by stupid or idiotic illustrations…) But it is water under the bridge and I will lose no sleep about this. I know a lot….a lot….. of parents of young Belgian children who go to Belgian Catholic schools (my own son went to Belgian Catholic grade school, Catholic middle school, Catholic high school, when these terrible things were supposedly going on) and I have NEVER heard the kind of objections and things that Colen speaks about…..
Did Cardinal Danneels refuse to speak with Alexandra and her “concerned parents”? Maybe. Is this bad? Maybe. Maybe not! Again, years ago when I was head of the religious education department at a Catholic high school, I refused to meet with a right-to-life delegation that appeared in front of the school one afternoon. They were crazy and idiotic rabble-rousers and I wanted nothing to do with them. (That became quite an issue and the diocesan superintendent of schools had to defend me…which he did.) I am and have always been solidly “right to life “but I will not tolerate being used – and abused — by irrational and hysterical agitators….. This is not the way to promote Catholic values in our society.
MY FINAL COMMENT is about Cardinal Gotfried Danneels. People who know me, know that I hold him in high regard. We have known each other for many years….That being said, if Cardinal Danneels is shown to be guilty of cover-ups and inappropriate behavior as archbishop, he deserves appropriate civil and ecclesiastical sanctions. No one of us is perfect. He deserves what his actions warrant…..If, after serious examination, he is found guilty, I will support that judgment; but I will support that decision with a couple sad tears for an old friend.
We have a lot of work to do in this old church……and we need to do it with faith, open-minds and friendly and honest collaboration.