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Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Brussels
Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

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Pope appoints well-known ‘progressive’ protégé of Cardinal Danneels to major see of Brussels

Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

BRUSSELS, November 6, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- A new archbishop has been named to Belgium’s main see of Mechelen-Brussels: Jozef De Kesel, 68, is the successor of traditionally-minded André Léonard whose resignation was accepted a few months ago by Pope Francis. Archbishop De Kesel has the reputation of being a progressive: less outspoken than Bishop André Bonny of Anvers, who had been touted for the post by the Belgian liberal press, but nonetheless a man of “dialogue” and “openness” toward the modern culture who is seen as a more discreet version of Bonny.

Several opinion pieces in the Flemish press are presenting him as “Cardinal Danneels’ successor.” De Morgen went a step further, saying he owes his nomination to Danneels “who has the ear of Pope Francis and who insisted that his protégé should be chosen.”

The widespread speculation about Danneels’ influence on the appointment is supported also by the fact that Pope Francis specifically chose the elderly prelate as one of his special appointees at the Synod on the Family in both 2014 and 2015.

On several hot-button issues including the Church’s attitude towards homosexuals De Kesel has adopted progressive positions.

The “Sankt-Gallen cardinal” is known to have pushed Jozef De Kesel as auxiliary bishop of Brussels in 2002. He became bishop of Bruges five years ago. He had clearly been Danneels’ choice for the see of Brussels in 2010 when the cardinal was forced to resign in the wake of sex abuse cover-ups. Pope Benedict preferred Archbishop Léonard. De Kesel’s comeback is widely presented as Cardinal Danneels’ revenge.

“He is a man who chooses for renewal from within: changing minds first, and structures later. (…) The nomination of Jozef De Kesel as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels is a real win for Cardinal Danneels. At last his ‘candidate’ – after an intermission – has become his successor. It proves, by the way, that under the new pope Danneels is back with a vengeance,” writes Mark de Voorde in an op-ed in De Standaard.

During a press conference in Brussels today, Archbishop De Kesel made several noteworthy statements that prove his modernist inclinations.

Answering a journalist’s question about “homophilia,” he said: “There is a need for respect and reverence for people who are homosexual. The Church has her reasons for not calling gay marriage, marriage. She has a very precise definition of marriage, I acknowledge that. Respect for the person and for the different way of being of the person is however an important value of the Gospel, but also of the modern culture. This respect for the person, whomsoever he may be, whatever his convictions and orientation, this is a value that the Gospel shares with modern culture. And that is why they should also be valued within the Church.”

It is in a similar spirit of “respect,” Archbishop De Kesel said at the press conference, that he attended the funeral of Canon Pierre de Locht at the cathedral of Brussels in 2007: a proponent of liberation theology, contraception, and even abortion in some cases, de Locht was a member of a Right-to-Die society. At the time, De Kesel had said: “I know the Church made him suffer. He remained faithful. Faithful to himself, open and faithful to the questioning of man in our time. Faithful to the Gospel and, I can and I think should say, faithful to this same Church, people of God.”

At the press conference, he said he is “deeply convinced that the Church in the West is going through a great crisis, a process of great change. Believing is no longer a spontaneous reaction, while up to the 1950’s the Church was omnipresent and was in a strong position, with a great deal of influence.” Archbishop De Kesel sees “the separation between Church and State as very important”: “Nowadays governments should be neutral, but society itself is not neutral. Religion is present in society. That is why it is a big challenge to reflect on the position of religion in a secular, pluralistic society.”

Archbishop De Kesel went on to say that the Church has become smaller and has lost her former influence, but that she should not become withdrawn into herself, exposing herself to becoming a “sect.” “Pope Francis also pleads for this. For a Church that remains open, that does not cut itself off from society. For a Church that has convictions, but also great respect for those who do not share her ideology and who also has feeling for the great challenges of society,” he said, calling the present crisis “positive” because it will be an opportunity for change. “There is a shortage of priests, and we have to think about that, but we should not only look at what is lacking. There are many people, also lay people, who get involved for the Church. We are no longer just a clerical Church, and that is very important.”

Before his nomination to the key position of Mechelen-Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel is also known to have questioned priestly celibacy, saying that a number of men who obviously are not “made” for this state of life should still be able to be ordained.

Strangely, having qualified the Catholic faith as an ideology during his press conference in Brussels this Friday, De Kesel said about Islam: “Islam is also confronted with this question: what does it mean to Muslims to be believers in a society where sharia is not law? The same question goes for Christians: what does it mean to be Christian in a society that as a whole is not Christian?”

As bishop of Bruges, he was loath to intervene in the media. As late as in 2014, says the French-speaking Belgian daily Le Vif, he was criticized for his lack of firmness and his tardy response with regard to priests who had been implied in sex abuse and reinstated. He also remained silent in June last year when the deacon of Wevelgem was accused of having euthanized a small dozen of patients at the Menin hospital.

In 2009, the French website “Riposte Catholique” said De Kesel had very little chance of succeeding Cardinal Danneels as primate of Belgium. The site noted that one of his right-hand men, Canon Herman Cosijns, was known to have said: “For a Christian, a second marriage should be considered as an opportunity to grow in God’s love. … The second marriage then acquires a religious dimension that can become a way of sanctification, a way proposed by God.”

At the time, all this would have seemed quite incompatible with a promotion to the archbishopric of Brussels.

A contact of LifeSite in Belgium well aware of the situation of the Catholic Church there quoted a Belgian priest who had the benefit of following Archbishop De Kesel’s theology courses when he was still a professor at the seminary of Ghent and the university of Louvain (between 1980 and 1996) as saying that his courses were a modernist “disaster.”

Sylvain Peeters, president of deMens.nu, a Flemich freethinkers’ association, was quick to congratulate Jozef de Kesel on his nomination. “He has a reputation of being careful and quite progressive within the Church. A good sign. … It was he who brought up the subject of separation between Church and State, and that is essential.”

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