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Cardinal Godfried DanneelsPatrick Craine/LifeSite

MECHELEN, Belgium, March 19, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) ― Cardinal Godfried Danneels was a controversial figure who presided over the dying Belgian church, but he had admirers to the end.

Danneels died last Thursday, March 14. He was 85.

Robert Mickens, editor-in-chief of LaCroix International, described the late cardinal as a hero to liberal Catholics.

“ … Danneels was a source of encouragement for reform-minded Catholics and those who would describe themselves as theologically or culturally ‘progressive,’” he wrote.

“He was ― for me, as well ― a voice of reason, hope and patient engagement with the social realities of a rapidly changing and secularized world.”

Mickens called Danneels, who caused universal dismay when he counseled the victim of a clerical sexual predator to remain silent, “a beloved and unifying figure in his native Belgium.”

Less controversially, Mickens observed that the Belgian cardinal was “at odds” with the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and that he made his “most significant contribution to the world” by “securing” the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as “Bishop of Rome.”

“He allegedly called the election of Pope Francis a moment of ‘personal resurrection,’” Mickens reported. “The current pope brought the cardinal with him on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square the night of his papal election.”

Regarding the coverup scandal involving Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, Mickens said the Cardinal’s side of the story came out “too late” and he has “forever been branded as guilty of protecting a bishop who abused a nephew.”

“Adversaries of Pope Francis have kept the incident in the public spotlight due to the pope’s close ties to Danneels,” he stated.

John Allen Jr. of Crux called the late cardinal “a gentleman.”

“Danneels was, in a word, a real gentleman, regardless of what one makes of his political or theological positions,” Allen wrote.  “Amid the epidemic of mean-spiritedness that characterizes the era of social media and 24/7 blather, that commitment to civility means he’ll be missed.”

The veteran Vaticanist said he always found Danneels to be “smart, well-informed, charming and endlessly curious” as well as “self-deprecating” and “unfailingly patient.”

Allen characterized Daneels as a man who had once been considered a potential pontiff, a “kingmaker” who had helped to set Pope Francis on the papal throne and, at his “nadir,” a symbol of episcopal coverup.

“At the peak of his power, he was considered a candidate to be pope himself and, as a member of the celebrated ‘Sankt Gallen group,’ helped play the role of kingmaker in identifying Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as a possible pontiff,” he wrote.

“Later, at his nadir, Danneels became a global symbol of the clerical sexual abuse scandals, caught on tape appearing to counsel a victim to remain silent about his abuse at the hands of a fellow Belgian prelate who was also the victim’s uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe,” Allen continued.

Nevertheless, Francis kept Danneels close and appointed him to both the Extraordinary (2014) and Ordinary (2015) Synods on the Family. 

“Behind the scenes, Danneels was a backer of the proposal pioneered by his fellow Sankt Gallen prelate, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, which was more or less ratified by Francis in his 2016 document Amoris Laetitia,” Allen noted.

Allen tempered his praise of Danneels with the sober reflection that criticism of his record on clerical sexual abuse may be justified.  

“For sure, the role of Danneels and a host of other senior prelates in the Church’s abuse crisis is fair game for critical evaluation. Although he always denied any intent to cover up, if the conclusion is reached that’s what Danneels did, then his legacy will be justifiably tarnished,” he wrote.

Upon the news of the cardinal’s death, Pope Francis sent a telegram to Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, the current Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, praising Danneels’ service.

“Having learned with emotion of the death of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussel, I send my deepest condolences to you and to his family, the Bishops of Belgium, the clergy, the consecrated persons and all the faithful affected by this mourning,” the pontiff wrote.

“This zealous pastor served the Church with dedication, not only in his diocese, but also at the national level as president of the Conference of Bishops of Belgium, while being a member of various Roman dicasteries,” he continued.

“Attentive to the challenges of the contemporary Church, Cardinal Danneels also took an active role in various Synods of Bishops, including those of 2014 and 2015 on the family.”

Pope Francis seemed to refer to the ongoing clerical abuse scandal in the telegram, for he observed that Danneels had died at a “time of purification.”

“He has been called to God at this time of purification and of walking toward the Resurrection of the Lord,” Francis wrote.  

“I ask Christ, victor over evil and death, to welcome him in His peace and joy. As a pledge of comfort, I offer a special apostolic blessing to you and to the relatives of the deceased Cardinal, the pastors, the faithful and all those who will take part in the funeral,” he concluded.

Not everyone expressed admiration for the late cardinal. Rod Dreher, a formidable and talented writer who lost his faith in the Catholic Church because of widespread episcopal coverup of clerical sexual abuse, was scathing about Danneels’ legacy.  

In an article for American Conservative, Dreher accused the late cardinal of having helped “euthanize Christianity in Belgium.”

Rounding up articles about the decline of the Church in the once devoutly Catholic country, Dreher underscored Danneels’ role in the Vangheluwe scandal and his indifference to an obscene and pedophiliac “catechesis” for children. Dreher also published an excerpt by theologian Tracey Rowland contrasting Belgium’s traditional ecclesiastical architecture with a bizarre modern liturgy she attended. Finally, Dreher noted that even in 1998, only 11 percent of Belgian Catholics went to weekly Sunday Mass and that today fewer than 50 percent of Belgian children are presented by their parents for baptism.   


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