The Pope Destroys Catholicism’s Left Wing

The Catholic Church is ready to burst onto the political scene in Europe.

For years Pope Benedict xvi and his predecessor John Paul ii worked quietly to move the Catholic Church to the right. Last week, that was largely achieved as Benedict appointed one of his disciples as the new archbishop of Brussels.

As of 1999, “the liberal bloc in the European church had long been led by three towering cardinals: Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Basil Hume of Westminster … and Godfried Danneels of Brussels,” wrote John Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter. Last week, Danneels became the last of these three to go.

His replacement is André-Mutien Léonard—known as “the Belgian Ratzinger” because of his right-wing views.

As rumors of Léonard’s appointment circulated last week, Allen Jr. wrote that if they were true “the changing of the guard at the senior levels of the European church will be virtually complete” (emphasis mine throughout).

“By Catholic standards, the facelift has been remarkably swift,” he wrote. “In Milan, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi followed Martini in 2002; in Westminster, Archbishop Vincent Nichols took the reins from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor last April, who had succeeded Hume in February 2000. Now it seems that Léonard, 69, is poised to arrive in Brussels.”

The liberals have been booted out of power. Their replacements have been more centrist Catholics—until the appointment of Léonard on January 18.

Allen Jr. said that “By some accounts, Léonard may represent a more dramatic change in tone” than Tettamanzi or Nichols. Bert Claerhout, editor of the Catholic weekly KERK&Leven (Church and Life), said that the choice of Léonard is clearly a conscious choice for a totally different style and approach: for more radical decisiveness rather than quiet diplomacy, for more confrontation with the secular society instead of dialogue, reconciliation and the quiet confidence that the tide will ever turn.

Belgian politicians are taking note, and fear clashes with the Vatican’s new man in Brussels. “Church and state are separate in Belgium, but when there are problems in our society, all the social partners sit down around a table, including representatives of secularism and of religion,” said Deputy Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinx. “Cardinal Danneels was a man of openness, of tolerance and was able to fit in there. Archbishop Léonard has already regularly challenged decisions made by our parliament.”

As his nickname would suggest, Léonard is a man Benedict can trust. Allen Jr. wrote that the appointment of Léonard reflects “a tendency under Benedict xvi to entrust important assignments to people with whom he’s personally familiar.” Léonard worked with Benedict on a couple of occasions, including when Benedict was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the modern name for the old Office of the Holy Inquisition), the office entrusted with the universal enforcement of Catholic doctrine.

The Catholic Church has been working quietly behind the scenes to influence the EU for years. But the Vatican has made very few public pushes for power in Europe. Why?

Part of the answer is that the Catholic Church is accustomed to operating in the shadows. But also, the Vatican may have been biding its time while it maneuvered all of its pieces into position. Today, there are no powerful liberal voices left in the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. Benedict can now go on the offensive, without having to worry about dissension within the most senior and influential ranks of the church.

The Catholic hierarchy is now arrayed for battle. Watch for the Vatican to push for more power within the EU. The Catholic Church has already pushed to have Sunday worship enshrined in EU law, but so far has been unsuccessful, though it is embodied in the law of the church’s traditional protector, Germany. Perhaps its efforts will now be redoubled.

Although the Catholic Church has been successful since World War ii operating in the background, the past few years have seen the more affluent nations of Western Europe, in particular, become less committed as practicing Catholics and more secular. (On the other hand, the ex-Soviet satellite countries, since release from under the Soviet bootheel, have flocked back to the Church of Rome.) Governments in the traditionally Catholic countries of Spain and Portugal have angered the church with their leftward drift. Both have liberal laws on homosexual “marriage.” Spain has made divorce easier and has repeatedly tried to liberalize abortion laws. Yet even in these countries, where over 80 percent of the population is Catholic, the church has done little more than organize popular protests.

But now the Catholic Church may be about to stand up and confront secular Europe. Men like Léonard certainly want to.

If the Vatican has indeed been waiting while it consolidated its power, then it will now move quickly to recover lost ground. Watch for the Catholic Church to explode onto the European political scene.