VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who headed the Catholic bishops’ conference of Belgium for more than 30 years — and who favored changes to the Church that often put him at odds with Catholic teaching — died Thursday at the age of 85.
Pope Francis paid tribute to Cardinal Danneels, calling him a “zealous pastor” who served the Church “with dedication,” both as archbishop and as president of the Belgian bishops’ conference.
The cardinal, who led the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels from 1979 to 2010, died at his Mechelen residence after a prolonged illness.
In a telegram issued within an hour of the announcement of the cardinal’s death, the Pope recalled how “attentive” Cardinal Danneels was “to the challenges of the contemporary Church” and that he took an active role in various synods of bishops, including those of 2014 and 2015 on the family.
“He has been called to God at this time of purification and of walking toward the Resurrection of the Lord,” the Pope said in a reference to the clerical sex-abuse crisis, and he asked the Lord to “welcome him in His peace and joy.”
Born June 4, 1933, in western Flanders, Godfried Danneels was the eldest of six children and was ordained a priest in 1957 on the 25th wedding anniversary of his parents.
Pope St. Paul VI appointed him bishop of Antwerp in 1977, and he was later appointed archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 1979, becoming primate of Belgium.
Pope St. John Paul II elevated him to cardinal in 1983.
He was president of the peace movement Pax Christi International in the 1990s, was a member of several influential Vatican Congregations, and voted in both the 2005 and 2013 conclaves.
Considered a genial, “modern” and gifted preacher by the media, Cardinal Danneels was often feted as a leading and influential “reformer” open to engaging with the world. Some even considered him a successor to Pope St. John Paul II.
He embraced the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council and firmly advocated a more collegial governance of the Church, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.
“Our gratitude to Cardinal Danneels is very great,” Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, the current archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, said Thursday.
“For many years, he guided the Church as a true pastor, at a time when the Church and society were experiencing fundamental changes,” he said.
Cardinal De Kesel said his predecessor’s influence had “increased over time” in both Belgium and in the universal Church and that he had led the Church in Belgium with “a very gentle hand.”
At the end of his life, “he was weak and exhausted,” Cardinal De Kesel said, adding: “We remember him with gratitude; he now rests in the peace of God.”
But the cardinal will also be remembered for many controversies.
In 2010, Cardinal Danneels was accused of covering up a clerical sex-abuse case, which led to civil authorities raiding his private residence, as well as St. Rombaud Cathedral and archdiocesan property.
Leaked audio recordings revealed the Belgian cardinal urging the victim in that case not to make public that his abuser was the victim’s own uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, and pressuring the young man not to force Bishop Vangheluwe to resign, which he did in 2010.
The cardinal’s spokesman said at the time that “there was no intention of any cover-up” and the recording had been taken out of context. But even if there was never a policy of cover-up, commentators criticized Cardinal Danneels for keeping Bishop Vangheluwe’s admission of guilt to himself, failing to convince his brother bishop to resign immediately, and for never involving a commission for protection of minors or his successor.
Although regarded by his supporters as a “man of consensus,” Cardinal Danneels’ critics accused him of being a plotter who surprised many by openly admitting in 2015 to being part of what he called a “mafia” group, organized in the Swiss city of Sankt Gallen, to thwart Pope Benedict XVI’s election 10 years earlier.
The “Sankt Gallen group” wanted a drastic reform of the Church, to make it “much more modern,” and for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to head it, Cardinal Danneels said in 2015.
The group, which also comprised German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, and the late English Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, was fundamentally opposed to Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, among other teachings, and “did everything it could, legally and illegally,” to prevent Cardinal Ratzinger’s election in 2005, according to German author Paul Badde.
Although the group had formally disbanded by 2013, its members, including Cardinal Danneels, are believed to have exerted influence to ensure Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected during that year’s conclave. He is one of a select group of cardinals pictured standing next to Francis on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica on the night of the election.
The cardinal was also well known for holding a number of positions that placed him at odds with definitive Church teaching. He refused to forbid pornographic “educational” materials being used in Belgian Catholic schools, and he once said same-sex “marriage” was a “positive development,” although he sought to distinguish such a union from the Church’s understanding of marriage. He also advocated for condom use to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Some have argued that he tried to persuade King Baudouin of Belgium to sign a law softening the country’s abortion laws, but he always denied the charge. And he took a firm countercultural position against euthanasia, according to a 2015 biography.
The Register reached Cardinal Danneels by telephone in November 2015, but he said he was under instruction not to talk to the press, possibly on legal advice, according to one source close to the Church in Belgium.
He appears to have given no interviews since a television interview in October 2015, during which he spoke of the Sankt Gallen “mafia.”
Given the criticism directed against him, Pope Francis came under fire when he twice personally chose Cardinal Danneels to take part in the two synods on the family, in Octobers 2014 and 2015.
The cardinal once predicted that future popes were likely to retire due to modern medicine extending lifespans — something that came to pass in 2013 with Benedict XVI’s resignation.
“We live too long and people cannot continue to carry that responsibility if they turn 90 or 100,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how well they are looked after.”