Bishop Léonard of Namur, Belgium, this past week succeeded Cardinal Danneels of Brussels, who recently retired. This appointment was not greeted with rejoicing by many Catholics in that country. Cardinal Danneels was very liberal; Archbishop Léonard is not, to say the least.
In 2006 he was interviewed rigorously by a Belgian reporter. The transcript may be found here. Some of the more interesting issues discussed:
Other animals also have a form of consciousness.
LÉONARD: Of course. Animals also respond in an adapted manner to their surrounding, but they are not aware of the deeper meaning of those responses. They also do not develop strategies to fundamentally change their environment. That is why animals have no history, no culture. A modern cat leads roughly the same life as a cat in ancient Egypt. Only man has the capacity to change his environment. Animals respond to what is, man can also consider that which is not. And so he has the pretense to say: things are not as they should be. And so man is an animal that creates values and norms. Animals do not do that.
It didn’t make us really happy, did it?LÉONARD: (laughs) Exactly, that is precisely it. I used to give this example to my students: give a cat a tomcat, some kittens, a ball of wool, some milk and a basket to sleep in. I don’t think that a cat in those circumstances would long for a different world. That is totally different for humans. Give someone as much money and fun as he can handle and he still won’t be happy. . . .
Then who or what is God for you?
LÉONARD: (bracing himself) The first important question is: where does the information come from that precedes us and that works in the world? We know by now that matter is able to organise itself. But some information must be available before that. Elemental particles already contain some information. Where does that come from?
LÉONARD: But everyone wonders. There are two possible answers. Either matter has no beginning and is therefore eternal. But there is a problem with that. In our experience information is always preceded by thought. Information can never exist by itself. But it is clear that humans are not at the source of information. That is why there is a second possibility: at the origin of matter is a thought, a desire. Not ours, but a different thought, a different desire. Namely, God's. . . .
Is it our duty to fulfill this world? Or will God do that?
LÉONARD: It is our responsibility to improve the current state of the world, knowing that we will never make it into a paradise. We can improve a lot, but we can also destroy much – but the final change will come from above. Everything we do to improve the world is like a foretaste of what is to come. Just like the miracles of Jesus in the gospel: those were also not definitive solutions. All the people that Jesus healed, fell ill again later. And the people he brought back to life, did not stay alive forever.
So Lazarus died twice.
LÉONARD: And they had to pay for his funeral twice. (laughs) Those miracles of Jesus were no definitive solutions. But they were signs, a promise, a prophecy. The message is that humanity is not created to suffer and to die. . . .
What is your explanation of evil then? That God wanted it?
LÉONARD: No, certainly not! If I may use a philosphical term, I’d call evil contingent – something that exists, but does not necessarily have to exist. It exists, but could just as easily not have existed at all. That is why I think it is so important that we keep interpreting the original sin as a spoiling of the world, not as a required element of it. . . .
Good comes from God, evil from what we do ourselves?
LÉONARD: Yes, that is our reasoning. The modern world, in which evil is so prominently present, is not part of the original intention of the creator. God is not content with the current situation. God has no sympathy for evil.
Why doesn’t he intervene?
LÉONARD: (sighs) That is the hardest question there is. And it is difficult to answer in words. Someone suffering does not want to hear an intellectual explanation. You could say that their decline and death are in accordance to the laws of nature. And that’s good, because life would be horrible if we lived eternally, biologically speaking. Imagine if we lived forever, who would want to be in charge of pensions? (laughs) Who would dare to promise to be faithful to his partner? A hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand years? Admit it, it would be unbearable.
Death makes life bearable?LÉONARD: It does. (Suddenly serious) But that message will not comfort a mother who has lost her child. That is impossible. A possible answer can be found in the death of Christ on the cross and his exclamation of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me . . . ?”
What is your first question to a candidate priest?
LÉONARD: I must verify if that person wants to be a priest to serve the Lord and the Church and the people. Not because he has nowhere else to go. I must also verify if he is balanced, if his vocation is not a dream or an illusion.
Must you also ask if he is homosexual?
LÉONARD: That is indeed an important point. It is very meaningful for a priest that he is a man. Why don’t we ordain women? Not because they’re not capable. On the contrary. But a priest is someone who acts in the person of Christ. And theologically speaking, Christ is the bridegroom of the Church. Who does the Church symbolise? A woman: Mary. And who represent Christ as the bridegroom of the Church? Men. (shows his ring) That is why the bishop is a man and wears a ring. The ring symbolises that I must love my diocese and my people as a man loves his wife. . . .
Do you think that the Belgian Church has been too quiet in the last years on important ethical topics?
LÉONARD: I think it is painful that there hasn’t been a bigger reaction to the euthanasia laws in Belgium, for example. We are too passive. The reactions from the Church and the people is much more intense in France, Italy, Spain and even Germany. (silence) In our society we do so much to make death possible, that we eventually don’t put any effort into life. . . .
In closing: what is the purpose of life, monsignor?
LÉONARD: The purpose of life is to prepare for a life that never perishes. We are on a launch platform, so to speak. We can use the years we spend here on earth to get to know God, so that we are not homeless when we come to Him later. The purpose of life, in other words, is to know the deeper meaning of our existence as well as possible. Why do I exist? What am I doing here? What is the ultimate goal of this existence? And I find all those answers thanks to my faith. . . .