Yes, I get that it’s just a parable, but some years, when the Prodigal Son is in the Sunday readings, I wince at what’s lost. The younger son says, “give me my inheritance now,” then squanders it in dissolute living. A quick google search tells me that at the time, the oldest son would receive double the share of any others, so that one-third, rather than half, the total property would have been sold in this way. Were the hearers of the story meant to understand that the family was wealthy (celebrating by killing the fatted calf) or just a middling landowner (the older son complaining he never gets to celebrate)? I don’t know. But the idea of a son having taken his patrimony and sold it must have been seen as a terrible thing to have done, and the depth of forgiveness required to overcome that, all the greater.
And that’s my reaction to reports of the Catholic leadership in parts of the world in which Catholic belief has so utterly collapsed, being indifferent or even being, to whatever degree, the cause: the patrimony they inherited, were obliged to be good stewards of, they have simply squandered. To what end? In the United States, and in Chicago in particular, when Cupich yammers on about immigration reform, one feels that his objective is to take the power the church yet has and use it in political ways — pushing for amnesty for illegal immigrants now, and in the past for health care subsidies (not quite acknowledging that to push for government funding of healthcare was to make a deal with the Devil, as evidenced by new single payer proposals which include government-paid abortions, lawsuits intended to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, and the like). In Europe I don’t quite know the story, except that bishop after bishop acts like its business as usual and is seemingly indifferent to the empty pews.
And that’s my reaction as well to two reports from Europe: the news that the German bishops will have a “synodal process” in which they will have a big Rethink on clerical celibacy and sexual morality as a way of fixing their gigantic f***-up on sexual abuse by clergy as reported back in the fall (which I’ll address more in a follow-up post) and a pair of reports by Rod Dreher about Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, “The Decadence of Godfried Denneels” and “Cdl Danneels, Euthanizer Of Belgian Catholicism.”
In the second of these, published on Tuesday, Dreher writes about the legacy of the recently-deceased cardinal, who was Primate of Belgium from 1979 to 2010. Danneels was himself personally implicated in an abuse scandal when he advised a victim of sexual abuse to keep silent rather than report the perpetrator, himself a bishop. The victim had recorded the conversation, which caused great scandal when it was revealed in the press, although Danneels had already retired earlier that year. Dreher also reports that Danneels was a part of the “St. Gallen Mafia” which orchestrated the election of Pope Francis, and was given a “prime spot” in the Synod on the Family. His legacy from Belgium also includes a catechism, and more generally, classes in Catholic schools, which promoted masturbation and sexualized children. And, finally, when Belgium legalized abortion in 1990, Danneels advised the king to sign the law. (According to the National Catholic Register, Danneels denied this, but a further link suggests this was in the form of a “no comment” rather than a denial per se.) In Dreher’s follow-up article yesterday, he adds two further details: first, in 1984, seemingly under Danneels’ auspices, a “Pedophile Working Group” appeared to encourage acceptance of pedophiles. Second, more broadly, the religious education program in the 70s and 80s did not actually appear to be all that concerned with handing down the Catholic faith, but simply with instructing students on Catholicism as one among many faiths from among which they might choose.
The end result: Catholic membership and practice in Belgium has cratered. As the Register reports,
During Cardinal Danneels’ leadership the Church lost many members: Sunday Mass attendance fell from 26.7% in 1980 to just 5% in 2009.
(This statistic is matched in Wikipedia, with a link to a local source, from which it appears that 5% of all Belgians attend church of some sort or another.)
Since that point, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and gave traditionalists hope that he would revive the church (for instance, in this 2014 First Things article) but he resigned upon his 75th birthday following church law, and Francis lost no time replacing him with someone more liberal, Jozef De Kesel, who (according to Wikipedia) has voiced his support for admitting divorced/remarried couples to communion and the elimination of the requirement of celibacy for priests, and (according to La Croix International) supported some sort of non-marital religious affirmation of gay couples. The Catholic Herald in the UK reported at the time that Leonard simply did not receive support from bishops and others with power in the country.
So what happens next? Will the last Catholic in Belgium please turn out the lights, I guess? Here’s what the Herald has to say:
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.
When the church leadership in such places as Belgium carried on as if it was business as usual, or believed they could adapt to the times — or even believed that what was of primary importance was preserving the institution and the buildings, they abandoned their responsibility, and left the next generation with — well, with nothing, really. How long before it’s all gone but the buildings, and they just say, “oh, well, that’s how people are these days”?