Papal Candidates: Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Belgium

According to a June 2002 Washington Monthly article by John Allen, even though Pope John Paul II appointed a vast majority of the cardinals, it’s no guarantee that his successor will be conservative. Cardinal Danneels is perhaps the strongest evidence for this argument. On modern culture, gender roles, church structure, and even papal retirement, he clearly departs from traditionalists. But his views on other controversial issues like Islam, condoms, and celibacy hardly make him a radical. While supporters tout such moderation and pragmatism, opponents have concerns about his role in a sexual abuse case.

“Immense Richness of Contemporary Culture”

Cardinal Danneels argues that, to advance Catholic teachings, church leaders must embrace modernity:

Something else which seems indispensable and not often talked about is the cultural background or training given to our seminarians. Are seminarians familiar with the arts? With literature? With films that they could discuss afterward? Are they conversant with the technological and scientific world in which they live? Do seminarians actually ever read anything? Sometimes it seems they don’t even read the newspapers! Seminarians need to be taught how to enter the world of culture, which is immense, beautiful and interesting. They are often immature, I know, but they could at least be introduced to those things.

This idea underlines his reformist tendencies, most notably on gender issues:

I think that women are more sensitive, more perceptive to non-material matters such as religion, art or love. In that sense, they have a thinner skin. They are more connected with or embedded in the cosmos, in nature and life, perhaps also because the woman carries the child. It has also captivated me that most revelations in the Bible are made to women, and that the Pythia of Delphi were also women. But who am I to talk about this subject? I̢۪m not an expert in the psychology of women.

Although the women are more religious, the Church is a man̢۪s world. The Church may be a man in composition, but in itself she is a woman. The Church is never called our father, but our mother. Today the actual power structure in the Church is male, but it shouldn̢۪t have to be that way. It is just that government in the Church has long been closely linked with the priesthood. But I think that priest structure and power structure in principle don̢۪t need to be one and the same. Both my vicars are women, and I see no reason why a woman should not head a Roman congregation.

His structural proposals go beyond the expanded role of women. Among other things, he supports collegial decision-making within the church:

The synod of bishops is certainly the privileged instrument of collegiality. But its functioning has to be perfected. As it now functions, it does not allow for real debate in the episcopal college around Peter. The first two weeks offer an interesting “geographical map†of the problem, as John Paul II phrased it one day. The third week—that of the small groups—is too short and poorly directed: it does not permit a true confrontation of ideas. The reports in plenary session that follow are, quite frankly, disappointing. As far as the fourth week is concerned, it is overtime work that painfully produces a few propositions. Fortunately, the Holy Father saves the day by writing the post-synodal exhortation.

It is necessary to foster a true culture of debate in the church.

He also supports limited papal terms — a position that sparked controversy a few months ago:

One of Europe’s most influential cardinals called Monday for a debate on limiting the term of the papacy but denied he was suggesting Pope John Paul II should resign.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium is the highest-ranking churchman to go public with calls for a discussion on possible term limits for the papacy.

But Danneels insisted he never meant to suggest in a new book that John Paul should end his 22-year tenure as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

“If you see how much work…leaders do, I don’t see how, with a person 80, 90 or 100 years old, that person can maintain a tradition…that a pope never resigns,” Danneels said.

But, he added, “What I didn’t want to say is that this pope should resign, that he should leave or that I should want him to leave or that he isn’t doing a good job.”

In his book, “Frankly: Six Discussions with the Cardinal,” Danneels suggested John Paul might consider stepping aside next year, now that he has achieved his dream of leading the church into the new millennium.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the pope also retired after 2000. He absolutely wanted to reach the Jubilee year, but I believe he would retire afterward,” wrote Danneels, who has been mentioned as possible successor for John Paul.

Even more controversial was his stance on condoms:

“If a person infected with HIV has decided not to respect abstinence, then he has to protect his partner and he can do that — in this case — by using a condom.†To do otherwise, he said, would be “to break the Fifth Commandmentâ€, that you shall not murder.

“That’s All There Is to Say”

But there are limits to Cardinal Danneels’ progressivism. For instance, he takes a firm stance on priestly celibacy:

I think we need to purify the motivation for celibacy within the priesthood. We are celibate not to be able to work more, to put in more hours of work. There are many doctors who work longer hours than priests and who are married. The only real motivation for celibacy is being faithful to the total imitation of Jesus Christ. All other arguments for celibacy fall before this one. And if you don’t want to do this, then don’t come to seminary. Celibacy is an issue of love, and love cannot be explained or reasoned. Why am I celibate? Young people ask me all the time why I don’t marry. The answer is, I don’t know. Does that mean I’m not free? Not at all. I say to those young people who question me, “If you fell in love with a certain person and I asked you why, you would probably not have an answer either.” Love is simply love. It cannot be explained. That’s all there is to say.

Indeed, he generally defends the traditional training of priests. Consider this statement on the intellectual formation of seminarians:

So many of our priests are afraid to talk with university professors. So they go out of their way to avoid discussion groups, public meetings, forums and seminars, which I think is a shame. I don’t think that helps us. It is important to have a good intellectual training and not to think that generosity and simplicity suffice. We need intelligent, generous and prayerful priests, but never should one quality exist to the exclusion of the other.

Intellectual people, as we know, are not always appreciated, although this attitude is changing, especially here. There was a trend in the church not many years ago when people questioned why seminarians should study two years of philosophy when they should be learning only about Christ. We fell into this trap of simplifying the intellectual formation of priests. I am absolutely convinced that philosophical background is essential — and I am talking about philosophy as a discipline in its own right.

Cardinal Danneels issues tough challenges on interfaith matters as well. Most notably, he urges Muslim leaders to undergo fundamental changes:

“I think, I hope that it is possible to create a European Islam which has gone through its own French Revolution. It can already be found here or there,” he said in the interview, published by the Express India newspaper.

Danneels argued though that Muslim communities in Europe should see the contradiction between following tenets of Islam and integration into western societies.

“I think Islam should do that. Christianity did it, especially under the influence of the French Revolution. Apart from its negative aspects, there were also good things, like the separation of church and state,” he said.

Danneels, the archbishop for the Brussels-Mechelen region, also called on Muslims to adopt what he termed a “moderate” Islam that does not cover all social and economic aspects of life.

“This is fundamental. It is very difficult to talk to a monolithic Islam, because that comes down to ‘take it or leave it’ and the accomplishments of European history, culture and social order are not really integrated in that,” he said.

He claimed that Islam should allow more flexible interpretation of its scriptures.

“That is fundamental, the willingness of Islam to interpret its texts, the Qur’an in particular,” Danneels said.

And, despite his enthusiasm for scientific advancement, he has grave concerns about the dangers of new technologies:

“Technology is not only unpredictably linked to side effects, but it may have reached a level of complexity beyond our imagination,†he said.

Fear of these new technologies emerged from an unwillingness to “disturb the symbolic order considered sacred,†Danneels said. He cited Frankenstein and Prometheus’ defiance of God as examples of how humans are frightened by these new technologies.

Danneels warned that the ability to do something afforded by a new technology did not mean that it should necessarily be done. “What we ought to do is not necessarily what we can do. We can poison lots of people and creatures, but that does not mean it is right to do so. The question is not if we can, but if we should.â€

Danneels also discussed the relationship between ethics and technology, stating that ethics did not always have to conform to technology.

“It is nonsensical to believe that religion must adapt to science and that ethics must develop with technology,†he said. “Ethics is how we ought to live and act. Technology discusses new ways to do new things.â€

Danneels encouraged the Catholic Church to continue to take a paternalistic position in order to decide what treatments and technology should be permissible and desirable for its members.

“We must have … a position that is analogous to what a parent would take to protect its children,†he said. “Their duty is to protect children against harm. Essentially, that is what the church is doing in this field.â€

“We Cannot Do Otherwise”

Overall, Cardinal Danneels seems to aim for a sense of pragmatism — something that he knows often eludes priests:

That is also why the priest is so captivated by the poor and the small, by the sick and by children. In them he hears the stifled voice of the impoverished Christ. His heart will not rest until reaches out to them. Sometimes this sensitive heart also plays tricks on the priest. People say: “you priests don’t know the real world and you are naïve. You speak a strange language and your action produces nothing: it does not fit this world”. To this, priests cannot but answer: ‘we cannot do otherwise’. This passion for Christ is felt by the priest especially during the celebration of the Eucharist. Even though the service is sometimes poor, the singing awkward, and the assistance clumsy, it occurs without fail: without fail the priest instructs from the Scriptures that the Messiah had to suffer; and without fail he again recognises Jesus in the breaking of the bread (cf. Luke 24).

Indeed, pragmatism is reflected in his views on the liturgy:

“The question is, is it wise to celebrate today in Latin? For me, the answer is no. It’s not adapted to modern times, other than perhaps for intellectuals with a certain culture.â€

Danneels said helping people grasp the mystery of the Eucharistic celebration is a much more pressing task.

As for controversial issues such as dance, Danneels rejected blanket policies.

“Dance is very different by culture,†he said. “There’s no eroticism in African dance, for example. What’s important is that it shouldn’t become the Nutcracker Ballet. The dance should make you think about God, not the performance.â€

Even with his own proposals, he tries to be realistic. Consider this statement on marriage (emphasis added):

He stressed that the first principle in dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics must be compassion — pastors must not presume to judge the decisions these individuals have made, he said.

Danneels said access to the sacraments should remain an open question. He suggested that the Catholic church may need to learn from the Orthodox church, in which the sacraments are understood as “medicine for the soul†rather than as a privilege earned by correct application of church rules.

The Orthodox church permits a second and even a third marriage following divorce. The liturgy for the second and third marriages, however, is different from the first. It contains a penitential element, expressing regret for the collapse of the previous marriage.

In response to a question from the audience at the French church, Danneels cautioned that discussion of the issue may not lead to immediate change, since the power to admit remarried divorced persons to the sacraments is vested in the Vatican. That means existing practice is likely to continue — “for now.â€

“It Is Good That There Be Maximum Transparency”

Cardinal Danneels comes across as bold and outspoken. While these traits have helped him become one of the most charismatic papal candidates, they have also occasionally put him in uncomfortable positions. The sexual abuse scandals provides a case in point:

He called clerical sex abuse a serious sin, especially because it involved the abuse of “religious power.†“It is good that there be maximum transparency [in handling abuse cases]. That will do much good for the church [because] it will be purified,†the cardinal said.

Cardinal Danneels said he was “struck by the number of cases in America,†but he blamed the media in the West for hunting for scandals, “especially those involving ministers of the church in the field of sexuality…. A certain feeling has spread in recent years that the church protects, for example, pedophile priests. It is true that the church has never made scandals public, but it is excessive to conclude that the church has hidden the reality,†he said. “Certainly this doesn’t mean that one should pretend nothing has happened. The problem exists and is extremely serious. It calls the church to its responsibilities,†he added.

Even if we grant that the press is inclined towards controversy, it’s hard not to see this argument as self-serving in light of this background:

In April of 1998, a Belgian court ruled that Cardinal Godfried Danneels and a local bishop were responsible for the abuse because they were the supervisors of the priest. The cardinal and bishop were ordered to pay damages totaling $14,000 to one of the victims.

To be fair, though, he is aware of the tricky position in which church leaders often find themselves. We can see that in his recent comment on papal succession:

The Church will look for a man who will continue, in a certain sense, all the good things that this Pope has begun and will also be very open and sensitive to all the new difficulties and new problems. … because the Church is in complete revolution and evolution, so he has to adapt.


Papal Candidates: An Overview
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Papal Candidates: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Argentina
Papal Candidates: Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, Colombia

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Jim Whalen says:

    more reason for the German