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Where Have All the Thinkers Gone?

The Tablet Interview by Robert Mickens, c. 2 June 2008

Progressive Catholics might think that Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who is 75 next week, would be concerned that the Church is moving away from the ideals of Vatican II. But what really concerns him, he tells Robert Mickens, is the scarcity of intellectuals among bishops

Cardinal Godfried Danneels was taking no chances. Two weeks before celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday on 4 June, he had already sent his letter of resignation to the Vatican. "Because you never know if the Italian post is working," the cardinal tells me playfully - and knowingly. After all, he lived in Rome from 1956 to 1959 while earning a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University. But as I laugh at his gentle dig at the Italian work ethic, the cardinal breaks in with a mischievous grin: "I am a polite man, so I wanted [the letter] to be on time." And there it is, in the very first minute of our hour-long visit: Cardinal Danneels' subtle and ironic humour or the "Danneels Code" as one of his admirers calls it.

It's Friday, 4 p.m., and I am in the old Flemish city of Mechlin (Malines in French) at the archiepiscopal residence, sitting at a table with one of the top intellectuals in the College of Cardinals. But the stately white "palace" is the only external sign to the unsuspecting visitor that Cardinal Danneels is a man of importance. It is certainly not evident in his dress or demeanour. As usual, he is wearing a simple black suit with clerical collar. The only thing that distinguishes him from a parish priest is the silver pectoral cross around his neck and the flat gold band on his right-hand ring finger. There are no priest attendants or secretaries fussing over him, no clerical entourage to announce his presence. There are only two laywomen - a receptionist and another who accompanies guests to the cardinal's study.

Cardinal Danneels is obviously well aware of the symbolism of all this. After all, before being named a bishop in 1977 he taught systematic and sacramental theology for 18 years, the last eight of those at the fabled University of Louvain. So I ask him to explain the significance of his modern-looking pectoral cross with its image of the risen Christ. "It is a risen Lord, not the dying Lord," he points out. And it is "very cheap ... something like half a euro in Rome", he says. But this is not because he lacks taste. On the contrary. Cardinal Danneels, in the best Belgium tradition, is a man of high culture and a patron of the arts, though he is not above  relaxing to the Dixie sounds of New Orleans jazz. "But I like it very much because it is Christ who is rising on the Cross. It is typical Johannine," he stresses. "If you look at the Cross with the crucified Jesus it is exactly correct. But you look at what we have before the Resurrection. We are [living] after the Resurrection ... and for a long time already," he says, his voice rising slightly as if to suggest that perhaps too many people have forgotten that part.

Comments like this have earned Belgium's cardinal a reputation for being a progressive. But it is a label that he accepts only cautiously and with qualification. "I have never had the impression that I was a very ideological progressive," he says, though admits that he has been "a bit progressive". Not surprisingly he quotes his visionary predecessor, Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens (1904-1996) and declares that he stands in "the extreme centre", for - after all - to be a "blind progressive is not very intellectual". Suenens, of course, was one of the key figures of the Second Vatican Council and the leading progressive voice in the immediate post-conciliar period. Cardinal Danneels tells me of his "great admiration" and "great affection" for his predecessor, pointing out that he had a good "instinct" for reading the signs of the times. "But," he says, exercising that qualifier, "it was another time."

It is a time that has deeply shaped Godfried Danneels. "I must say that the Second Vatican Council is very central in my life," the cardinal tells me with great seriousness. "My whole life has been the application of Vatican II, especially in liturgy, catechesis, the relationship between the Church and the world ..." His voice trails off. Then he reminds me that even before the council was convened in 1962 its teachings and ways of thinking were commonplace in Belgium. "It was not a surprise what was decided at Vatican II. All those things were known ... What was new was that the Church confirmed all that in a council," he says.

In more than 31 years as a bishop the cardinal has tried to encourage his priests and laity to "read the council" and to work together. Lay collaboration has become more and more essential with the declining number of new priests. Even though there are still more than 1,900 diocesan and religious-order priests officially listed as living in the Archdiocese of Malines-Brussels, many are already retired and the largest percentage will soon reach retirement age. Critics say that Cardinal Danneels has not attracted new priesthood candidates (only two were ordained in 2007) because he is, in a word, too progressive in a Church that is drawing more traditional men to service. This goes hand in hand with the criticism that he is overly optimistic about trends in society.

"From time to time they say that I see things as too rosy, but I think we have to give credit to the good that is happening," he says. "I have always had an immense respect for every feeling and every thought of every human being I have ever met," he tells me. Keeping an "open mind" and being "very hopeful" comes from a belief that "fundamentally the human being is a good being". He adds: "We need a therapy, but we can be healed."

Since this all sounds very much in the vein of Cardinal Suenens, I ask him what aspects of the Church of today would sadden his pre-decessor. Cardinal Danneels pauses for several seconds, obviously suspicious that the question is indirectly aimed at him. "Well," he begins, with a knowing look, "stupid progressivism." I smile at what seems to be one of those clever responses in the "Danneels Code". Cardinal Suenens would surely have been grieved as much or more by stupid conservatism, as well as by those who espouse it.

Cardinal Danneels, though he is open-minded and respectful, is distressed that there are not brighter men in the Church hierarchy. This point comes up as we speak about the Synod of Bishops. He has attended every assembly since 1980. "When I look at the synod assembly, so many good people are there with really pastoral hearts. They are good shepherds. But from time to time I think it would be good if 5 per cent of them were also thinkers, that don't lack hearts. We need among the bishops and cardinals some really intelligent people."

When I ask Cardinal Danneels if he would like to see some developments or changes from the Vatican he says, "I do not know the Vatican very well, I am here ..." This is despite the cardinal being a long-standing member of four Roman Congregations and a consultant to the Secretariat of State. However, he has publicly questioned the Vatican's intransigence on certain issues, such as denying the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics or speaking against the use of condoms as a means of preventing the spread of Aids. And there is also the infamous 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. "It's a problem," Cardinal Danneels says when I mention the papal document. "We have concentrated the whole problem on the pill," he adds, pointing out that the encyclical has deflected people's attention from the other good things the Church has to say about marriage.

However, he accuses not only the Church as an institution, but also himself, for not having done enough for families. When asked what more he could have done, the cardinal says without hesitation that he could have "been much more positive to support and encourage" strong families rather than mostly focusing on broken families. "They feel like orphans and the Church sometimes forgets she is a mother," he pleads.

When Cardinal Danneels became Bishop of Antwerp in 1977 he wrote the first of what are now more than 50 pastoral letters, which are issued at Christmas and Easter. He speaks proudly of these pamphlets, which he says are widely read "outside the Church". He has covered a huge range; one of the latest focused on stress. But it is the first letter that seems to sum up the ideal he has tried to live. It was about the "ministry of encouragement".

Cardinal Danneels has always shunned talk about his his legacy, saying it is "better to remain humble". But he says there is a line from St Francis of Assisi that could be an epitaph for his life: "You should never let anyone leave your presence in sadness." Trying to follow these words is the only achievement the cardinal is willing to ponder. "When I am before the throne of God at the end of my life, the first thing I will say to God is, ‘Have compassion on me.' And he will probably say, ‘I have. Come in ... maybe a bit of Purgatory first ...'" The cardinal begins to laugh and finishes the thought, "‘... but it is just to get you acclimatised.'"