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Belgian primate tells his flock: ‘I owe you some explanations…’

Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard writes a letter to his flock explaining remarks which have sparked heated controversies in the Belgian Church

By on Thursday, 4 November 2010

Here is the full text of my translation of Archbishop Andre Joseph Leonard’s letter to his flock published yesterday. It is a fairly rough translation.

I owe you some explanations…

The wave of the extremely negative reactions which have arisen by what have been called “my remarks” have no doubt shaken some of you. Maybe even these indignant reactions were also yours. I myself would react strongly to those “remarks” such as they have been presented to you.

Among so many other possiblities, three scandalous “remarks” have been put forward by the media: 1) one concerning the Aids which I was said to have presented as a just punishment sent by the heavens on those who have adopted a certain daring sexual behaviours; 2) one concerning homosexuals whom I am said to have stigmatised as abnormal beings; 3) one concerning the priests or religious guilty of grave sexual abuses, whom it is said I would like to spare a trial by the civil justice system, when they are old or ill. Let us examine one after the other these three controversies

Aids: a divine punishment well deserved?

In the press, there has been much emotion about my “declarations” about aids. In fact I have not recently made any “declaration” on the subject. Instead, the Dutch translation of a work by Louis Mathoux, published in French four years ago, under the title, Monsignor Leonard. Conversations with Louis Mathoux” by the Edition Mols, in Brussels. At the time the book was reviewed by a number of newspapers without giving rise to the least bit of emotion. But the day on which it appeared in Dutch, a media wave was unleashed concerning the pages 173-174 (Dutch edition) of this book. That said, I admired the capacity to read of some journalists, who in a few hours had already got so far in the work…I only regret that the fatigue which resulted from this reading frenzy did not permit them to get to page 175.

Let me explain. In a book of interviews, the person being questioned depends cruelly on the preoccupations and obsessions of him/her who is questioning him. In my last response, reported in the original French, I said, not without some teasing that I thanked my interviewer for his interest, even if he had questioned me very little about what is at the heart of my life and the heart of the Christian faith. Spontaneously, I only very rarely speak about the neuralgic issues (ordination of women, priestly celibacy, questions of sexual morality and of bioethics, etc), but politeness required that I respond to the questions which had been asked…

I haven’t therefore, I repeat, made any “declaration” about Aids. I simply responded, in 2005 (date of the interviews) to a question and my response that followed has then been quoted in part recently in the press. This was the question: “What do you think about Aids? And do you see it as the punishment of God following the sexual revolution?” Nothing is more instructive than to read the response I gave in pages 173-174 (243-244 in the French edition). I will summarise it but first I will underline the context of the question.

It was a question of knowing whether the “incubation” of this illness was a punishment from heaven. It was therefore a question about the first spreading of Aids in the human race. Without question, in this context the contamination by blood transfusions or by syringes filed with drugs or even less the contagion passing from a mother to her child. Although the interviewer might have been happy (I know nothing of it) if I said that Aids was a divine punishment (the more a remark is shocking, the better papers sell) I began by underlinling that I did not reason in any way in those terms and I did not consider, in any way, the spread of Aids as a heavenly punishment.

But as the journalist appeared to be taken, by the very nature of his question, by this category of “punishment”, I added that “as well” one “might eventually” consider the first spreading of the illness as a “sort” of “immanent justice”. Three precautions, therefore, (the expressions in quotation marks), to introduce the classical concept of “immanent justice”.

I admit that the expression is not known to everyone. But when one is responding to a journalist one responds to a person, by definition cultivated, who works from dawn to dusk with words and therefore knows their meaning perfectly. Without counting that he has at least two dictionaries to hand.

As to the concept of immanent justice has precisely as its meaning to exclude all idea of a “punishment” coming from above or outside. This means that the adjective “immanent”, which means “interior to the thing in itself” (from the Latin manere in = to dwell in) without needing to call in an external cause or a “transcendent”. If, then, there is “justice” then in this expression it is absolutely not that which results from a “justice” divine or human, but one which flows from the nature itself of the actions we commit. To illustrate the meaning of this phrase (which I never use spontaneously, but which I used in 2005 in order to try to put myself in the frame of mind of the person interviewing me) I gave examples (which one took care not to quote). If we harm the earth through irresponsible environmental behaviour, one must expect that in her turn the earth starts harming us (climate change, rising sea levels, extinction of species etc). For that not a single divine decision is needed. It flows from the nature of our behaviour itself.

Similarly when ministers of health have “Tobacco seriously damages your health” written on packages of cigarettes, their idea is not that your chronic bronchitis or your lung cancer will be the results of divine punishment or from a decision of the minister of justice, but simply that it arises from your smoking. According to a number of articles I have read, it appears that the first diffusion of Aids was due, at least by one part, to a contamination linked to risky sexual practices (multiple partners, anal intercourse etc).

I therefore do not really see why it is unseemly to say that our polluting risks giving a nasty turn to the ecological plan, or that the immoderate consumption of alcohol which can damage our brain or our liver or to consider that the contamination by HIV was linked, from its beginnings, in part to risky sexual behaviours.

But I am told, you have stigmatised and discriminated against Aids sufferers. It is here that the readers who arrived with avidity to page 174 would have done well to also read page 175 (page 245 in the French edition) where I explicitly and forcefully say that the Aids sufferers ought never be discriminated against. Since when did [trying] to prevent the ravages caused by tobacco discriminate againstand stigmatise smokers? The same thing concerns the question of Aids.

Homosexuals: Abnormal?

Already in the past, one had attempted to get me to say this monstrosity, to acknowledge that homosexuals are abnormal or ill [people]. Having explained myself a number of times on this question (on which I almost never speak spontaneously but only ever in response to the questions that have been imposed on me), I shall be more short. I think, from a philosophical point of view, that there is in the homosexual tendency and homosexual practices, an orientation which is not coherent with the objective logic of sexuality.

This logic of sexuality (vegetal, animal and also human) which consists of differentiation and in some ways, to separate the masculine and the feminine, thereby permitting their complementarity. It is furthermore the meaning itself of the word “sex” which probably comes from the Latin “secare”, a verb which means cut, divide . “Sexuality” consists of sundering the masculine and the feminine in light of their re-unions (in coupling, for animals, or in the loving encounter between persons with the human being) through a gesture (sexual union) which also permits the transmission of life. The philosophical problem posed by homosexuality is, in this case, that the sexual tendency strikes out the sort of polarity between the masculine and the feminine and turns to a person of the same sex.

Some express this by saying that the homosexual tendency is not “normal” or is “abnormal. For my part I avoid this kind of language like the plague, except when the questioner uses it insistently. At a push one could, if one really holds to it, risk saying that that tendency is not normal, in the sense that there is no coherence with the objective logic of sexuality. But it is worth avoiding the ambiguity of the term for a reason. And, at all counts, this does not authorise us in any way to say that homosexuals are “abnormal”, which would be gravely injurious.

To make the difference between a philosophical judgment about “homosexual tendencies” and the hurtful discrimination in respect to “homosexual persons”, I risked, during a television panel, a comparison of the attitude which we adopt in regard to anorexic persons and that which we need to have in regard to homosexual persons.

Certain organs of the press pretended to believe that I was therefore comparing homosexuality to anorexia and therefore treated homosexuals as ill people. But I never compared homosexuality with anorexia, which would sere no purpose, especially as homosexuality is no longer considered as an illness today.

I was simply comparing the attitudes which we adopt or can adopt in respect to people living in these two totally different situations. Oh well. The majority of us believe that anorexia is a development of appetite which is not coherent with the objective logic of the appetite, which drives us to eat, allowing us to regain strength. But I hope that the people who reason in this way would never therefore consider anorexics as “abnormal”. Similarly, even if you think that homosexuality is not coherent with the objective logic of sexuality, this does not authorise you in any way to treat homosexuals as “abnormal” or “sick”.

Elderly or ill paedophiles: shield them from justice?

A recent broadcast presented one of my responses as though I wanted to shield from civil justice, priests or religious guilty of sexual abuse when they are infirm or elderly. But does one believe me to be really incoherent on this point, when actually, like the other bishops, I have not stopped repeating since April 23, that the victims should always address themselves to civil justice in the first instance, which is alone equipped to determine the grave reality of the actions and to define if they are prescribed or not? All of this is the exclusive jurisdiction of justice. And so this is very clear, we have held back from established any form of new “Adrianssens Commission”, despite the services which this had given to numerous victims. We therefore systematically send the alleged victims to the civil authority and to the public organisations set up for taking this type of complaints.

On the level of the Church, in the meantime, for each case of grave sexual abuse we need to compile a dossier which we are required to send to Rome. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would like in effect to insure that in each concerned diocese, the Bishop will fulfil his duty. Such a file was sent to Rome concerning the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe. While waiting for the Roman decisions for each case the bishop must of course, if the facts appear to be established, take immediate preventative measures, especially when there is a risk of re-offending.

It is in this context, then that I was asked at the time of the recording what sort of measures I wished to take concerning priests who were often very aged and guilty of such abuses. As a pre-amble during the course of the interview, which lasted for an hour and a half I had of course as always emphasised how important it was for victims to address themselves to civil authorities and/or the relevant public authorities. But what to do when the complaints were closed by the law because the facts were prescribed in its eyes or when the victims obstinately refuse to address justice? Must I, on learning of the facts, often from a long time ago, immediately impose a public canonical punishment without even awaiting the judgment of Rome?

In answering this delicate question (was it a trap?) I had in my heart the deeply moving experience which I recently lived. Some victims came to tell me their tragic tales experienced [at the hands of] a priest who had seriously abused them. They explicitly told me: “We do not want to go to the courts; it is too late; we simply ask that you go and find them, and that in front of you they recognise the evil they have done to us and from which we still suffer today.” I therefore took up contact with these priests, elderly, ill, a bit confused but still able to express themselves.

One of them told me, after I told him of my meeting with the victim: “I had never spoken to anyone of this black chapter of my life: I am happy to be able to recognise it in front of you before I die. I asked him if he would accept to meet the victim and finally recognise in front of her, the evil which he inflicted on her and he said, “yes”, and that it would be a great relief to be able to do it, finally, before his death. I took up contact with the victim who told me their profound joy on hearing this and confirmed their intention of meeting this priest. I was very deeply moved by this, to tears.

I do not know if I did the right thing in proceeding in this manner. But I believe that, in similar cases, when no civil procedure is possible or at least wanted by the victim, it is not unreasonable to finally allow an abuser to recognise his guilt in having abused. It is perhaps more profitable for one and the other than to simply forbid this old priest to concelebrate regardless at the Mass celebrated by the chaplain in his house of rest. In the cases I have personally experienced, the victims resolutely did not wish this public punishment in extremis, this sort of final vengeance. They wished mostly that the hateful truth of these actions was finally recognised by their author himself.

It is precisely the pastoral responsibility of the Church that, when civil justice has finished its work where it is still possible, that the victims should be listened to with respect and that the abusers finally recognise their crime. If I am wrong, no one will miss out on telling me that I am.


Here the clarification which I felt the need to give concerning the recent upheavals. It seems to me that I owed this explanation to those whom I involuntarily have made suffer on being the source of so much criticism, misunderstanding and incomprehension. I hope in this way to contribute to the peace in [people’s] hearts. In the meantime, who knows which new controversy will emerge which I absolutely do not seek. I am, of course, conscious to always say what I think in conscience, to be the truth. This can surprise sometimes, but my goal is never to shock.

Mgr A-J Leonard

Archbishop of Malines-Bruxelles

  • Rory

    Cardinal Leonard was badly treated. The childish and arrogant resignation of his “spokesperson” was a selfish act which did nothing to help clarify the misunderstandings and only furtherer hurt the faithful people of Belgium. They are all in my prayers.

  • Tony de New York

    Great man, the archbishop A-J Leonard. God bless him.

  • Anthony

    Yes, God bless Archbishop Leonard.

  • Barvaux

    My wife is from Belgium, and I visit there often. It distresses me that the Church there is in such disarray. However, if the people of Belgium allow themselves to become agitated by these sensible, rational comments from Archbishop Leonard, then it is because of their own stubborness and cold hearts.

    In fact, I do not believe that this is the case – that the people are stubborn and cold-hearted. Rather, it is because they rely on the mainstream media, which has an agenda of systematically libeling the Church. The stories that they present are tailor-made to slant stories against the Church and holy prelates; and to obsfucate the facts, so that their readerships become confused.

    This was an excellent letter from His Excellency; and I only hope that the Belgian people will read his words on the matter and not get them second-hand, filtered through the spectrum of distrust and, yes, even hate.