Belgian Archbishop: The Fundamental Teachings of the Church Are Currently Under Threat

On the occasion of the release of his autobiographical book retracing the last 50 years of the history of the Church, retired Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard discusses the great challenges of our time.

Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard
Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard (photo: Courtesy of subject)

Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, the archbishop emeritus of Brussels-Mechelen and former primate of Belgium, has just published a book that will undoubtedly not go unnoticed in the Catholic world.

 L’Eglise dans tous ses états: 50 ans de débats autour de la foi (“The Church in All Its ‘States’: 50 Years of Debates Around the Faith”) is presented as an autobiographical account through which its author delivers an uncompromising analysis of the events that have taken place in the Church over the past five decades — from the theological and pastoral drifts that marked the post-Vatican II period to the current debates surrounding the Synod on Synodality and the various sexual-abuse scandals that have arisen over these years. 

Born in 1940 and ordained a priest in 1964, Archbishop Léonard was appointed bishop of Namur in 1991 and then archbishop of the Archdiocese of Brussels-Mechelen in 2010. He retired in 2015. 

His reputedly orthodox views on matters of faith and his outspokenness have often earned him the wrath of the Belgian press. In 2013, feminist activists from the Femen group targeted him at a conference for equating homosexuality to a “block in normal psychological development” in a 2007 interview. The images of the archbishop in silent prayer while being copiously hosed down by the topless Femen demonstrators went viral.

The author of some 30 books translated in various languages, this distinguished philosopher and theologian was also a member of the International Theological Commission from 1987 to 1991, which led him to numerous meetings with its then-president Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI. He was also entrusted with the drafting of John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). 

In this interview with the Register, he gives his personal diagnosis of the ills that plague the Church and the Christian world today and looks back at some of the events that have marked his life as a clergyman and discusses the legacy of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 


Your book retraces the last 50 years or so of the history of the Church, of which you were a firsthand witness. In particular, you focus a lot on the post-Vatican II drifts that you witnessed without attributing them directly to the Council. You indicate the problem lies not in the texts of the Council, but in what you call the “meta-Council” of the 1970s. What do you mean by this?

I mean that the texts of the Council are objectively irreproachable as to their content, but that in the intentions of certain editors or experts there may have been, at times, a deliberate ambiguity which then allowed for a tendentious interpretation. My bishop at the time — who rightly fought for the [dogmatic] constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) not to begin with the hierarchy, but with the mystery, that is, the profound reality of the Church, and with the People of God as a whole — expressed to me, some years later, his regret that this approach had been interpreted in a way that was not in keeping with the Church’s mission, that this approach had been interpreted as if, on the model of political democracies, the doctrinal authority of the bishops came to them from below and not from Christ, and suspected that this fallacious interpretation of the order of the chapters was a hidden intention of certain experts.


You dotted the Is and crossed the Ts on a number of doctrinal issues, such as female priesthood, marriage of priests and the blessing of homosexual couples. Do you think that the teachings of the Church about these topics are really threatened at the present time? 

Yes, this threat exists! It is already present in a pastoral care that deviates from essential points of the Catholic faith, such as male priesthood, representing the (male!) Spouse of the Church, Christ, the high value of priestly celibacy in the West, and the complementarity of man and woman in marriage. Alas, I fear that many of the requests expressed in the “Synod on Synodality” — what an abstruse wording! — will seek to undermine or relativize these vital realities.


As archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, you had to deal with sexual-abuse scandals in Belgium. Nevertheless, you denounce the current use of the term “systemic” to describe this phenomenon within the Church (a term that the recent French Sauvé Report widely used). Why is this term so problematic? 

As soon as Benedict XVI appointed me as head of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels [in 2010], I had to deal with the accusations made against the then-Bishop of Bruges [Roger Vanheluwe], by obtaining from Rome his immediate dismissal. Today, I regret this haste, because neither a civil nor a canonical trial preceded this forced resignation. Questions remained.

Afterwards, to address the abuse cases committed in the past, some confreres in the Belgian episcopate have, with the help of qualified legal experts, organized a listening service for victims and procedure systems to help them. This was done in an excellent way. And measures have been defined and put into practice so that similar abuses can be avoided in the future. 

Having said this, I find it inappropriate to consider all sexual abuse as “systemic,” that is, when committed by clergymen, as being linked to the nature or functioning of the clerical or consecrated world; for, in this case, all priests and friars, having passed through a certain “mold” during their formation, the number of abusers should be very high, whereas in fact, and, fortunately, it remains a very small minority. Moreover, since most sexual violence takes place within the family cell (and committed by fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins), will we say that, here again, the problem is “systemic” and that it is “the family” that is the cause of all these evils? I fear, therefore, without being able to prove it, that the secret — perhaps unconscious — intention of the Sauvé Report was to call into question priestly celibacy and the commitment to the consecrated life. To be continued ...


You met with then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the second half of the 1980s, when you were a member of the International Theological Commission, which he chaired. Which memories of him have you remembered the most? 

I remember above all the courtesy and the immense culture and intelligence of the man. During the commission’s sessions, he did not intervene much in our debates. But in the evening, he would offer us a synthesis of the thoughts expressed in various directions during the day and would draw out precise paths for the next day’s work. Like his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, he mastered the art of depth combined with concision. In his spare time, he would always welcome us, if we wished, for a personal exchange of rare simplicity. And we had the feeling of meeting a longtime friend.


What do you think has been his main contribution to the contemporary Church, both theologically and pastorally? 

One sentence from Psalm 85 sums up his contribution: “Love and Truth will meet.” His motto was: “Servant of the Truth.” Opposed to all forms of relativism, he committed his theological work to the objective truth of biblical revelation and apostolic tradition, without compromise, but with all the necessary nuances in the expression of such truth. And, on the practical level, he knew that one cannot force the truth, which will only be effectively received by developing a pedagogy that patiently leads to it. 

I also find exemplary of his theological finesse the way in which, in his masterpiece Jesus of Nazareth, he succeeded in combining the demands of the historical-critical method and “canonical” exegesis, that which interprets Scripture by itself, referring the books of the Old and New Testaments to one another and rereading them in the light of the long ecclesial Tradition.


Your relationship with John Paul II also has had a particular impact on your personal journey. He decided to entrust you with part of the drafting of the important encyclical Fides et Ratio and also chose you to preach the Lenten retreat at the Vatican in 1998. While the spiritual continuity between him and his successor Benedict XVI is often mentioned, what would you say is the essence of each of the two pontificates? 

I was in fact asked to write a complete text on the relationship between faith and reason, which, after my appointment as bishop in Namur, was mixed, enriched, completed and shortened by experts, which is quite normal. John Paul II and Benedict XVI had different temperaments. Although he led a very deep spiritual and interior life, John Paul II had a great talent for addressing crowds. Benedict XVI was equally profound and spiritual, but excelled in more intimate encounters, but struggled to arouse the enthusiasm of a crowd. What they had in common, however, besides an unshakeable faith, was an exceptional culture, mainly philosophical in the case of John Paul II and mainly theological in the case of Benedict XVI, although both were excellent in both areas of thought.


In your book, you relate that during a private meeting with John Paul II, you pointed out to him his increasing insistence in his homilies on the approach of Parousia — the end of time and the new coming of Jesus in glory — and that he confirmed your feeling. Yet the world and the Church have known similar or even more tragic periods of chaos than today throughout history. How do you explain such an insistence on John Paul II’s part?

Your question is quite appropriate. On several occasions in the history of the Church, we have believed that the end of this world had come. In fact, since the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we are, by definition, in the end of times. But what is specific to our time is the globalization of humanity, which makes possible a Parousia with a necessarily universal dimension. For the return of Jesus in glory cannot concern a single continent; it will refer to the whole of human history and to the whole of the Earth’s geography. Moreover, I am struck by the fact that the numerous recent Marian apparitions, recognized or yet to be recognized, almost all have an eschatological flavor. Perhaps John Paul II was also sensitive to this. But it would have been inappropriate for me to ask him to specify where he personally drew this hope and this conviction.


You also make the painful observation that “even the Christian churches have often lost their soul in the West.” “Salt has become stale, and we can no longer see how we can restore its flavor,” you said. What makes you think that?

The whole of contemporary culture — or lack of it — being impregnated with this relativism, rightly denounced by Benedict XVI, it is inevitable that the lively flame of Christian life should lose its vigor.

Christmas, the wonder of the Incarnation, is dissolved in snowy landscapes, fir trees, a ridiculous Santa Claus, turkey or foie gras. The anniversary of the birth of Jesus is celebrated, but the town halls are asked never to mention the name of the one whose “birth” day is celebrated. It’s like throwing a nice party for a friend’s birthday and never mentioning his name. That’s where we are. ... Easter, the most important event in human history, has been reduced to chocolate eggs. The pandemic is used as a pretext to reduce the Holy Mass to a TV show, requiring no travel and making communion with the body of Christ incidental. Almost all Catholic institutions define themselves by so-called “Christian or evangelical values,” but without ever mentioning the name of Christ. All our societies need to be evangelized again.

Fortunately, there are centers of Christian life, movements filled with an evangelical ardor, ready to announce the beauty of Christ in good times and bad, without letting themselves be discouraged by those (including bishops) who tirelessly sermonize: “Above all, do not proselytize!” They discredit St. Paul, he who was the greatest proselyte in the history of the Church, he who spoke and acted in order to allow the greatest number of people to “come closer” to Christ. This is what the Greek word proselyte means: “the one who comes to.”


You looked back on your many pastoral visits around the world as a bishop, notably in the United States. What do you think are the most notable realities on the ground in this country?

I admire the fact that, in the United States, many Christians militate against the trivialization of abortion and link this commitment to an active concern to help women for whom a pregnancy entails many difficulties. We need both: to denounce abortion and to support pregnant women in difficulty. 

More generally, during my only visit to the United States, a few weeks before the Twin Towers tragedy, I admired the vitality of the Catholic parishes I visited.

Pope Francis (R) embraces new Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich after he appointed him during an Ordinary Public Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, 2019 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Pope Francis vs. Cardinal Hollerich

EDITORIAL: The Pope’s comments regarding women’s ordination in his interview with CBS put a damper on the movement to alter the Church’s teaching on the priesthood and diaconate.