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Cardinal Danneels.

Cardinal Danneels in full choir dress(left)

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Godfried Danneels
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Informal style Cardinal
See Mechelen-Brussels

Godfried Maria Jules Danneels (born June 4, 1933) is a Belgian Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He currently serves as the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and the chairman of the episcopal conference of his native country. He was elevated to the cardinalate in 1983. His resignation at the age of 75 has not been accepted yet.


Born in Kanegem, Tielt, West Flanders, he was the eldest of six siblings. Danneels entered the Grand Seminary of Bruges to become a priest. He was ordained on August 17, 1957 by Emiel-Jozef De Smedt, Bishop of Brugge. He studied Thomistic philosophy at the Higher Institute of Philosophy in Leuven and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. After obtaining his doctorate in theology, he taught at the Bruges seminary and at the Catholic University of Leuven.

As a scholar, he carried out a profound study of the liturgy. The articles he wrote for the Dictionary of the Liturgy have made him famous throughout the Catholic world. Danneels was actively involved in writing Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document which initiated the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council.

On November 4, 1977, Danneels was named Bishop of Antwerp by Pope Paul VI. He received his episcopal consecration on the following December 18 from Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens. Danneels was promoted to the Archbishopric of Mechelen-Brussel on December 19, 1979, and thus the Primate of Belgium and the Bishop of the nation's Catholic military ordinariate.


He was created Cardinal Priest of Santa Anastasia by Pope John Paul II in the consistory of February 2, 1983.

Since 2001, Cardinal Danneels has been a part of the permanent secretariat of the episcopal synod. He is also a member of the Curial Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of the Congregation for the Clergy. Between 1990 and 1999, he was international chairman for Pax Christi, a Catholic peace organisation.

Danneels was awarded honorary doctorates by Georgetown University and the Catholic University of Tilburg.

In 1996, he underwent a major heart operation.

Perhaps his most difficult moment came in 1998, when a court found that the Belgian Catholic Church had failed to protect the victims of a paedophile priest. Danneels voluntarily testified in court, but denied he had known anything about the abuse. It was the first time ever that a cardinal appeared before a secular court in Belgium.

In 2003, he was voted the "most remarkable personality of the year" by Flemish television viewers.

In 2008, he reached the age of retirement, where it was expected that Pope Benedict XVI would name him a more conservative successor, either André-Mutien Léonard, Guy Harpigny or Johann Bonny.

Cardinal Danneels' mother tongue in this bi- (or tri-)lingual country is Dutch. But he speaks English, French, German, and Italian fluently.

In 2005 he also led the funeral service of Grand Duchess Josephine Charlotte of Luxembourg.

Papal Conclave of 2005

Danneels' name was mentioned often as a possible future pope (papabile) upon the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. To many Vatican watchers this seemed mere speculation because of several reasons, the main ones being that he is archbishop of a country where abortion, euthanasia and same-sex unions have been legalized recently and that, under his watch, church attendance and pastoral vocations have dropped to historical lows.

For many years Cardinal Danneels has been a more than welcome guest in neighbouring country Holland. He gave many lectueres that seemed to inspire Catholics both by his light touch and deep insight. His peer Cardinal Archbishop Simonis of Utrecht has always been the more melancholic type.

Although the 2005 papal conclave ultimately selected Pope Benedict XVI, Danneels did participate as a cardinal elector.


Danneels' episcopal motto, Apparuit humanitas Dei nostri (Titus 3, 4), shows his attachment to a Christian humanism. He is seen as one of the leaders of the "reformist party" within the Church.


For instance, he has said that, although abstinence is preferable, condoms are acceptable as a means of preventing AIDS. In an interview with the Dutch Catholic broadcaster RKK, he said: "When someone is HIV positive and his partner says 'I want to have sexual relations with you', he doesn't have to do that, if you ask me. But, when he does, he has to use a condom, because otherwise he adds to a sin against the sixth commandment (thou shalt not commit adultery) a sin against the fifth (thou shalt not kill)." He added: "This comes down to protecting yourself in a preventive manner against a disease or death. It cannot be entirely morally judged in the same manner as a pure method of birth control."


When asked what he thought of homosexuality, Danneels answered: "The question is not what one thinks about it; it is simply a fact. To be homosexual is a natural disposition, just as being heterosexual. One chooses neither one nor the other. The question is rather: 'What do I do with it?' I know excellent priests who are homosexuals; I also know excellent priests who are heterosexuals. Celibates are not 'nothing' — that is, 'neuter.' We are always one or the other. But it cannot be denied that homosexuals are deprived of certain dimensions of existence: the distinction between man and woman, between parents and children. This clearly distinguishes them from heterosexuals. But this is no reason for excluding them..." In 2004, he distanced himself from remarks made by another Belgian cardinal, Gustaaf Joos, who had claimed that in his pastoral experience, a majority of people who call themselves homosexuals are actually sexual perverts. However, in 1999, he suspended a gay priest who lived together with his partner. After a law was passed by the Belgian parliament legalizing same-sex marriages in 2003, the Belgian episcopal conference maintained its position that a union of two people of the same sex does not constitute a proper marriage. The cardinal has also remained vague on the question whether or not homosexual practices are illicit.

Role of women in the Church

Danneels favours a greater role for women in the Church. In a 2003 interview, he said: "Today the actual power structure in the Church is male, but it shouldn't have to be that way. It is just that government in the church has long been closely linked with the priesthood. But I think that priest structure and power structure in principle don’t need to be one and the same. Both my vicars are women, and I see no reason why a woman should not head a Roman congregation." However, Danneels never questioned the Vatican's position on female priests.

Church organisation

Also in 2003, he revealed his views on the future organisation of the Church in an interview with De Standaard, a Flemish newspaper: "The biggest challenge for the next pope will be to maintain unity in the phenomenal diversity of the Church. I don't think a high degree of centralisation is still opportune. There was no such centralisation during the first thousand years of the Church's existence. It developed during the second millennium, following political centralisation. At the beginning of the third millennium, this centralisation is no longer necessary — but what this means in practice, remains to be seen."

Islam and Europe

In September 2004, Danneels made another headline-grabbing statement, this time on Islam: "In a unified Europe, Islam can have a place only if it goes through a kind of French Revolution, just like Christianity". In his Christmas homily that same year, he spoke in support of a factory manager who had received death threats for employing a Muslim woman and allowing her to wear a head scarf at work.

Papal mandates

He has also called for a debate on limiting the papal term; he even suggested that popes should step down if they become too frail to fulfill their duties. Nevertheless, after the death of Pope John Paul II, he declared that the pope, in his suffering, had "led by example" and demonstrated his "deep humanity".


Regarding euthanasia Danneels said on April 13, 2008

"... it is a choice between two civilisations, a civilization of people who want to take control of themselves and a civilization with a god and place for superhuman elements ... it is an excrescence of a typical evolution, of a cancerous growth of consciousness that woke up during Renaissance but that has taken cancerous proportions now, that broke away."

Priestly ordination

To mark his golden jubilee of priesthood, celebrated in August 2007, Cardinal Danneels took part in an interview entitled Grote Jongens Huilen Niet ("Big Boys Don't Cry") with Belgian journalist Peter-Jan Bogaert.

In it Cardinal Danneels when asked about his priestly ordination says "It was in the church of Kanegem, there was a feast that day in the village where I was born. Not for me, but for the new town hall, right across from the church, that was being inaugurated that same day. The festivities were disturbed by a terrible thunderstorm, a typical August storm. I presume it was not symbolic".


When asked about his celibacy he says that "In itself it is not difficult to remain true. Not when your ideal, your life plan, is clear. If you put God absolutely above yourself and others. Those vows are symbolic. You are really saying that your life for Christ is worth more than money, passion, getting married, children, or power. It becomes more difficult when your ideal fades, when the inner vitality and dynamics are not there anymore", the interview continued with Bogaert asking how he was informed of his appointment as bishop of Antwerp, he answered:"I was called into the nuncio’s office, the representative of the Catholic Church in Belgium, and was asked to become bishop. You can ask for a little time to consider, but much time isn’t needed. You know then what you have to do".

When asked that question Does celibacy add extra value for you personally? the cardinal replied by saying that, "It is the expression of your putting God above everything. That you can dedicate yourself totally to him. That is a point of principle. There is also a practical element. Because by being celibate you have much more time to dedicate to your pastoral task."

The cardinal was then asked if he sympathised with priests who have problems with celibacy?, he responded by saying that, "I know it isn’t necessarily bad intentions. It is hard to imagine, when you are 24, how you will feel when you are 40. But when your life’s project is clear enough, that nothing is too difficult. That is why a crisis of celibacy in priests often has to do with the crumbling away of their own faith. (pause). And there exists something like a midlife crisis. Why would we [be able to] escape that?"[1]

Obedience to the Pope

Bogaert then asked Danneels if he could think of circumstances in which you could not remain faithful to the pope?. The reply was that "the obedience to the pope implicates also the frankness to say what you are thinking. And he is happy with that. Inside the church there is room for dialogue, more than you would think. I feel confident in that, and that is the reason I confide in him from time too time. Or ask: is that really necessary? Especially this pope, Benedict XVI, will respond to that. It is easy to have a conversation with him, man to man. But when he, after thinking it over, says that he wants to do things a certain way, then I accept that. Often I realise afterwards that he is right, that he has made me see things in a different way. It is therefore certainly not blind obedience."

Women priests

When asked if there will ever be women priests he answered "that is a very important point, and one that touches the essence of the church. I’m not so sure there will ever be female priests within the Catholic Church. Not now, and also not in 50 or 100 years. In other Christian churches it is possible – and I don’t deny that there are good female priests there - but it remains, also in those churches, a big point of contention. There are many arguments one can give for that, and I know it is not explainable in our society, but yet I sense that it isn’t possible. But that isn’t the biggest problem in the church today".

Views on death

Cardinal Danneels has spoken about the line from St Francis of Assisi that could be an epitaph for his life: "You should never let anyone leave your presence in sadness." Trying to follow these words is the only achievement the cardinal is willing to ponder. "When I am before the throne of God at the end of my life, the first thing I will say to God is, ‘Have compassion on me.' And he will probably say, ‘I have. Come in ... maybe a bit of Purgatory first ..." The cardinal begins to laugh and finishes the thought, "... but it is just to get you acclimatised." [2]

External links

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Jules Victor Daem
Bishop of Antwerp
Succeeded by
Paul Van den Berghe
Preceded by
Leo Jozef Suenens
Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Leo Jozef Suenens
Bishop of military ordinariate
Succeeded by
Preceded by
James Francis McIntyre
Cardinal Priest of Santa Anastasia
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Franz König
International President of Pax Christi
Succeeded by
Michael Sabbah

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