Cardinal Danneels: 'Muslims would be better off if they would have their own Vatican'

MO* spoke with cardinal Godfried Danneels, the man who is, until further notice, the head of, again till further notice, the biggest religious community in Flanders. We talked about religion, world economy and politics. And about ‘flexible’ conscience and religious power.
The ways of the Lord are mysterious, and in Rome they make the biggest effort to follow His example religiously– when it comes to appointing their own high ranked personnel that is. Godfried Danneels’ letter in which he as a 75 year old requested his retirement was delivered almost a year ago to the Vatican. An answer and successor are still awaited. The motives for this slow procedures remain unclear for civilians, parishioners and the cardinal himself.
Danneels doubts that the Vatican is waiting for the Belgian political impasse to clear, if only because this deadlock is by now threatening to remain for thousand years, just like the wait for the return of the messiah. It seems more plausible that they want to offer the cardinal time to complete certain projects; the gathering of then thousands young people in the spirit of the Taizé-community in Brussels last Christmas holiday, the celebration of 450-years archbishopric Mechelen-Brussels in 2009 and the sanctification of farther Damian – Tremelo, hometown of the ‘saint-to-be’, is a part of his archbishopric.
Godfried Danneels saw his church change the last 25 years from a great and powerful institution to a community of empty churches and greying believers. Non-the-less he managed to be very much present in the Belgian media, although they are far from Christian-minded. Often church related topics or Christian values were at stake on such occasions.

MO* wondered if the cardinal and his church have an opinion about globalisation, economical crisis and intercultural relations as well. At first the cardinal answers that ‘God is the core business of the church, not geopolitics or mondial economy’. But he immediately adds that everyone who recognises God as his farther should also care for his brothers and sisters. That familial vision on humanity forces every Christian to pursuit a globalisation that ‘doesn’t destroy man as man but seeks a harmony between the individual and social aspect of man and mankind.’ A bit more precise: ‘The church is in favour of a globalisation of love, not a globalisation of profit. A better regularisation of economy, finance, consumption, possession, water, climate, basic goods…’

This sounds a lot more specific than the cardinal’s intention because ‘in the end, when it comes to transforming our vision for a solidary mankind into concrete laws, structures and world organisations, we reach an area that is beyond the competence of the church. That actually is the mission of the United Nations, but they don’t have enough power. If a violent situation occurs, you see that in the end the member states do as they please. The standpoints and agreements reached by the UN are difficult to enforce, there are nearly no sanctions available.’ The role for religions and ideologies is to create a ‘world conscience’ according to the cardinal. But that is far from accomplished: ‘the idea that a world without world conscience will be a world adrift hasn’t yet sunken in properly.’
That brings us back to more familiar issues. The conscience. In the sixties theologians managed to open the strict moral of the church, saying that each individual received from God the liberty to chose and to act and that this freedom should be guided by a person’s own conscience, not by some hard laws generated by the clerical hierarchy. In Europe and the United States the debate focused mainly on issues about sexual morality and reproductive rights. That created the image of a catholic church specialised in the region surrounding the belly button, while the area of mondial injustice seemed to escape the attention of the prelates.
That picture isn’t entirely correct. Pope Johannes Paulus II voiced some strong opinions that belong more at the World Social Forum than on a meeting of strict religious Catholics. In 2003, he was one of the strongest opponents of the war that the US started in Irak. And looking at the texts brought forward by the Vatican ambassador for the UN, mgr Celestino Migliore, on the recent Conference for Financing Development (Doha, November 2008) you find that something like a mondial, social ethics exists within the church.

Still, all that is too little, too late, so agrees cardinal Danneels. ‘For ages we have been specialists in individual morals rather than a collective morality. The real social doctrine of the church isn’t that old. It was pope Leo XIII who created its beginning in 1891, with his encyclic Rerum Novarum. But in the area of social rights, the church is usually quite a bit behind.  The fact that it doesn’t only concern the attitude of one person towards another but also about structural relations and institutions, has as a result that it takes a lot of time to develop a proper vision.’

In the build-up to the elections in the US, a few catholic bishops recommended not to vote for Barack Obama because of his views regarding abortions. This gave raise to criticism from commentators, they saw an one-issue-church in action; in four years time no bishop called on not voting for Bush because of his views on climate change, anti-poor politics or the war in Irak.
Danneels doesn’t let me finish that remark before he intervenes in a decisive way: ‘I would never issue such statements. The church shouldn’t attack politics in such a direct manner. By the way, regarding to the abortion question, there is a document coming from the Vatican stating that catholic representatives of the people confronted with a bill concerning abortion, can vote in favour of the bill if they thereby can avoid a more far-reaching law from being accepted. The church leaves room for consultation of the own conscience in parliament. There is therefore a lot of discussion in the American church about the bishops with their radical statements. After all, personal conscience has to be able to speak up when it comes to judge a moral act. At least, that’s my opinion.’
The church leaders with the strictest ideas about personal morality often turn out to be the most flexible if it comes to social morals. On the responsibility of people in leading functions in the finance world or multinational companies, the assertions are seldom as straightforward as when homosexuals are on the agenda, for instance. Religious managers compromise to meet the demands of their shareholders – although they are supporters of fair wages and work environments. The argument is that the system otherwise would find much harsher managers to organise abuses.
Danneels: ‘In these situations you have to consider a maximum and an optimum. The maximum will never be reached I think, no matter how much you honour and defend moral principles. The optimum is the best you can obtain now, in the given circumstances. If it is well considered, you can accept that it is incomplete.  You can’t blame someone for being unfaithful to his personal moral ideal when he opts for such an optimum. Even if company leaders are forced by the system to relocate or let off employees, they can include humane considerations into the realisation of the decision. They shouldn’t only consider cold criteria, they can take into account that someone has a larger family to support for instance.’

The Catholic Church is more and more measured by her own moral standards. That leads to very painful conclusions about paedophiliac priests or other abuses of power by pastors. But what about the money of the church? Has it been invested in the most profitable shares or does the church use her shares to move multinationals closer to ethics? Cardinal Danneels refers first of all to Oever (abbreviation of ‘Overleg Ethisch Vermogensbeheer’, to be translated as ‘deliberation on ethical asset management’), the cooperation of catholic congregations that works towards a more ethical management of their means since 1992. Secondly, the cardinal says, there is an economical board functioning in the archbishopric that attentively observes the financial decisions of the church. ‘Investing our money in the weapon industry, I would have a problem with that.’
And was there any money of the Belgian Catholic Church invested in high-risk, high-gaining, derivate financial products that caused a worldwide crisis? The cardinal doesn’t know. ‘Even people within the economical board have only a limited view on what is happening, you never really know what is happening to your money, even if you put in an account of a ‘good bank’. That doesn’t take away the responsibility of a well-considered investment.’ If you want to know more about the ins and outs of the church, you no longer bump into vast church walls. Because like every non-profit organisation, the church has to bring forward her year balances to the National Bank and therefore the public can look into these accounts. The cardinal applauds this rule: ‘No that we needed this obligation to handle our means ethically, but you never know.’

Cardinal Danneels stresses that the wealth of the Catholic Church is less impressive than it seems. All schools, hospitals and nursing homes are difficult to cash, he says. Of course it is a fact that the church has a massive institutional patrimony, while the number of practising believers decreased enormously. Is the church in Europe evolving towards what the Brazilian bishop Helder Camara called ‘Abrahamic minorities’ in the seventies: communities empowered by their convictions rather than by the power of its institution? Danneels: ‘I think mgr Van den Bergh (the previous bishop of Antwerp) was right when he said that we are not a minority but a fading majority. That position is much harder, because the acts of a minority are based in a clear identity, having a certain sense of being able to overcome. A minority recruits. A fading majority disappears without a sound.

In any case, cardinal Danneels is happy that the Catholic Church of 2009 is no longer the big power it used to be fifty or three hundred years ago. ‘A religion exerting power for its own sake, is ready to implode. The church made that mistake in the course of history and those never were the happiest moments in the history of the church. We are now cured from that hunger for power – partly because power is taken away from us, but also as a result of our own reflection.’

The Belgian church might have seen her position of power disappear, but that same cannot be said about the Roman Catholic Church as a worldwide institute. The Catholic Church is for instance the only world religion that has its own state – Vatican City – which gives permission to all sorts of forums and platforms, such as within the UN where the Vatican has the status of permanent observer. Critics think that the church doesn’t keep enough distance compared to all other religions that are apparently more radical in their opposition to the mingling between the church and state affairs.
Danneels is not convinced: ‘A state of forty hectares only gives a certain autonomy towards Italy – although it’s the Roman police of course that guards the Saint-Peter square. The own state prevents the pope to be a civilian of another country but if that lends him any power on the world stage? I doubt that. It does give him the possibility to act as a state anywhere in the world. The church gained a voice in the choir of all nations while otherwise, religion could be marginalised by considering it to be a private undertaking. I believe that a church representing hundreds of millions Christians is more than just that.’ That remark can of course be applied to Islam, protestant churches and Hinduism, Buddhism… as well. Danneels: ‘Islam is often identified with the state. Maghreb countries, Egypt, Iran and Irak: there the religious organisation often overlaps with the organisation of the state. My reaction is: maybe they would be better off having a Vatican City of their own.’

The cardinal stresses the danger of religious fundamentalism, but observes mainly moderate believers in Belgian churches and in the Islamic world as well. At the same time he warns against the loss of principles and norms. ‘The last fifty years really everything has been liberalised, also public morals. It is no coincidence that right wing politics became a lot stronger in that same period. Fundamentalism and sectarianism are often reactions to relativism. A number of people prefers to follow a strong leader than a world adrift lost of any anchor points.’
Doesn’t the cardinal sometimes feel the urge to speak up more clearly, to define the boundaries more explicitly, to fill that existing need?  He reacts slightly surprised as he thinks that he always drew the lines quit clearly and transparent. What he did not do was ‘being tempted into one liners or slogans, as the big blow that is created by saying them is lost the next day into the subsequent silence. My motto is: say what you have to say, say it clearly and with love and if necessary with compassion. There is misery enough in the world.’    

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