Cardinal Godfried Danneels, formerly head of the Catholic Church in Belgium, has died at the age of 85, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel has announced. Cardinal Danneels was appointed archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, the highest post in the Belgian Church, in 1979. Four years later he was named cardinal. In 2010 he stepped down from the archbishopric to be replaced by André Léonard, but remained a cardinal for the rest of his life.
The period of his tenure saw society developing policies on a wide range of issues on which the Church was expected to have a view, including the ordination of women, contraception, divorce and abortion. When Belgium passed a law to make abortion illegal, Danneels strongly opposed it, while admitting publicly his voice would have no effect. He was there when King Baudouin abdicated for a day so that the legislation could pass without him having to sign it into law.
The end of his career in Belgium, however, was marked by the major scandal of sexual abuse by clergy, brought home to Belgium when the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, was accused of having sexually abused a member of his family over the course of years. Danneels was criticised for not doing more to make Vangheluwe step down. The affair ended ignominiously for Danneels when police raided his bishop’s mansion in Mechelen and were photographed passing cardboard boxes of seized documents out of a window.
Danneels took a successful legal action to oppose the seizure, but the incident was the low-point in his career, and he stepped down soon after.
Pope Francis sent a message by telegram to Cardinal De Kesel. “As a devoted servant he always supported the Church with great strength, not only in his bishopric, but also at national level, as chairman of the conference of bishops. He was always very aware of the challenges facing today’s church.”
The cardinal’s biographer Jürgen Mettepenningen described him as, “nothing less than a monument in the Belgian church, a wise man and a great spiritual leader”.
Mechelen mayor Bart Somers knew him well. “He was a very kind, friendly man,” he said. “I knew him well as we regularly met in the course of our functions. He always worked for good cooperation with the city. I had a great deal of respect and appreciation for him.”
Meanwhile Wouter Beke, president of the Christian democrat CD&V party, said Danneels had striven to reconcile church values with new developments in the lay world. “As a bridge-builder, he was invariably on the list of papabili,” Beke said, referring to the speculative list of possible future popes.
The funeral of Cardinal Danneels will take place next Friday on 22 March in the Sint-Rombouts cathedral in Mechelen, officiated by Cardinal De Kesel.