The Belgian Borromeo

Bishop André-Mutien Léonard has been named to succeed Cardinal Godfried Danneels in Brussels.

On January 18, 2010, the Vatican announced that, in keeping with canon law, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, metropolitan archbishop of Malines-Brussels since 1979, had submitted his resignation upon completing his 75th year of age and that the Holy Father had accepted it. The same press release announced the appointment of Bishop André-Mutien Léonard, who had served as bishop of Namur (Belgium) since 1991, as his successor.

Traditionally, the Archdiocese of Malines-Brussels—the only bilingual diocese in Belgium—is governed alternately by French-speaking and Flemish- speaking ordinaries; true to form, a Fleming who speaks fluent French has now been succeeded by a Walloon who speaks perfect Flemish and wrote a column for the weekly newspaper, Katholiek Nederland.

Bishop Léonard defended the demands of the Flemish minority during the 2007-2008 political crisis in Belgium; he was also indicted under the country’s 2003 Anti-Discrimination Act (though later acquitted) for stating in a 2007 interview that homosexuality is caused by “a blockage in normal psychological development.” He has proclaimed the Church’s moral teachings clearly, forcefully, and unwaveringly in a nation where abortion, homosexual marriage, and physician-assisted suicide are legal and where euthanasia has been decriminalized.

A former university professor, prolific author, and member since 1987 of the International Theological Commission, Léonard has been called “the Belgian Ratzinger”; the sound-bite encapsulates several parallels between the careers of the two churchmen, but the younger bishop is no “clone.”

André Léonard was born in 1940 in Jambes, in the southern-Belgian Diocese of Namur, the youngest of four brothers who all became diocesan priests. During his seminary formation he studied philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain and Thomistic theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Namur in 1964. From 1966 to 1974, he taught at the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique while pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at Louvain-la-Neuve (as the French-speaking branch of the university was renamed after the Flemish-speaking branch became an independent institution). In 1974, he completed and defended a doctoral thesis on Hegel’s logic.


Father Léonard’s advanced studies may seem abstruse, but he was just being “the Belgian Fulton Sheen.” While doing graduate work in philosophy at Catholic University of America, young Father Sheen told one of the professors, “I should like to know two things— first, what the modern world is thinking about; second, how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the philosophy of St. Thomas.” The professor replied, “You will never get it here, but you will get it at the University of Louvain in Belgium.”

In September 1921, Sheen entered the School of Philosophy in Louvain, where the required curriculum for all doctoral candidates included “metaphysics, rational psychology, cosmology, modern space and time.” Courses were grounded in Aristotle and Plato, but contemporary thought was stressed in every area. Aquinas was studied, not as a historical figure, but as a present-day Doctor of the Church. Sheen earned his Ph.D. in 1923 and in 1925 won the University’s Cardinal Mercier International Philosophy Award (named after a professor who had applied Thomism to the new field of “experimental psychology” and later became archbishop of Malines-Brussels).

Anyone who ever read Sheen’s books or heard him on the radio or watched his weekly television program learned that ideas have consequences. He vividly explained how the thought of Karl Marx mattered to middle-class Americans in the 1950s, when Communism was expanding its influence and a Cold War was being waged.

Belgium, with its coal mines, had been one of the earliest European nations to industrialize. In the 1960s, Father Léonard studied Hegel, who had “tutored” Marx, because Communism and Socialism were competing with the Catholic Church for the souls of urban working-class Belgians. The universities of Europe were on the front line in the battle between the Judeo-Christian heritage and atheistic materialism.

There were ideological casualties even on Catholic campuses. In 1968, the bishops and almost all moral theologians in Belgium dissented from Humanae Vitae. The medical school of Louvain experimented with in vitro fertilization and accepted large sums of money from a pharmaceutical firm in the early 1980s to host a “seminar” about its new abortifacient contraceptive.

Father André Léonard taught philosophy at Louvain-la-Neuve from 1976 to 1991. From 1978 on he served in addition as rector of St. Paul Seminary in Louvain. During those years he wrote a book entitled Jesus and Your Body: Sexual Morality Explained for Young People.

In an interview on January 19, 2010, however, he humorously dismissed the caricature of him as a zealous hardliner on the Church’s difficult moral teachings. “You mustn’t think that the whole Bible…speaks of nothing but contraceptives, homosexuality, and abortion. I’m ready to talk about those questions when I have to and when it is helpful to speak about them, but it’s not my everyday business…. My main preoccupations are elsewhere, on the level of faith. I’m concerned about the questions that are being asked today, when people see the earthquake [in Haiti]. Does God exist? Is he really good? Is he as powerful as they say? How can it be that there is so much evil in the world? Does Jesus have any bearing on those questions?”

The list of books published by then- Father Léonard reflects those priorities: Reasons to Believe (1987), The Coherence of the Faith: An Essay in Fundamental Theology (1989), and the award-winning volume, The Thoughts of Man and Faith in Jesus Christ: Toward Christian Intellectual Discernment (1980).


With his appointment as the Ordinary of Namur in 1991, André Léonard took the middle name Mutien in honor of the Belgian St. Mutien-Marie Wiaux (canonized in 1989). He had to learn about the pastoral work of the average diocesan priest “on the job” but proved to be an excellent student. Bishop Léonard resolved to become personally acquainted with as many of the faithful in his diocese as possible. For him “pastoral visitation” was not
just going to a parish to celebrate confirmation or a Mass commemorating a centenary; he would take up residence for weeks or months at a time with the dean of an administrative region in the diocese while participating in the life of its parishes, even those in the smallest villages. “I try to be accessible,” he recently told a Catholic interviewer.

As a bishop he has also labored to get the Christian message out in a variety of media: books on theology, ethics, and spirituality; regular and occasional articles for the press and on the Internet; radio interviews and speeches at conferences.

Catholics in Namur will perhaps remember Bishop Léonard best for his exemplary work in rejuvenating its clergy. Currently half of all Belgian seminarians are studying for the Diocese of Namur, which is by no means the largest in Belgium. Every four years he led his seminarians in a pilgrimage to Rome. He also gave strong support to new religious communities and lay movements.

The documents of Vatican II describe the bishop as a successor to the apostles who, besides his own diocesan duties, shares in the responsibility for the whole Church. Bishop André-Mutien Léonard demonstrated his awareness of the bonds between his diocese and the Universal Church by popularizing magisterial teaching in his book about the encyclical The Splendor of Truth, and in the volumes that he wrote about the Trinity and the Eucharist in preparation for the Jubilee Year of Redemption. He preached the papal Lenten retreat in February 1999 and has publicly defended Pius XII against charges of indifference to the persecution of the Jews.

Bishop Léonard has also been active in the “reform of the [post-conciliar] liturgical reform.” In 2001 he spoke at the traditional Benedictine monastery in Fontgombault (France) during a conference on the liturgy in which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Robert Spaemann also participated. In 2007, Bishop Léonard ordained “Tridentine rite” priests for the fully Catholic Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Wigratzbad in Bavaria. Since the promulgation of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, he celebrated a Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the Eucharistic Congress in Quebec in 2008 and has also celebrated the traditional Latin Mass several times in his diocese.

The day after his appointment as metropolitan archbishop of Malines-Brussels, André-Mutien Léonard decided to drop the surname Mutien and replace it with Joseph, the patron saint of all Belgium. This gesture simultaneously exemplified a due regard for ethnic sensibilities, the impeccable logic that one expects of a philosopher trained in Louvain, and a lively sense of the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints.

Later that day, André-Joseph Léonard was asked by radio interviewer Bertrand Henne whether he, the archbishop- designate, could be described as a “conservative.” In good Thomistic fashion, Léonard began his reply by making a distinction. The French word conservateur has two connotations: no, he was not a “conservator” or museum curator, but there are things that ought to be conserved. “The Christian faith has a source, an origin: we come from Jesus, we come from the apostles, we come from a long tradition, over 20 centuries. It is like a river. A river does not flow or irrigate or vivify unless it remains connected to its source. If you cut it off from it source, well then, it dries up. But at the same time a river must be wedded to the terrain; it twists and turns because it has to flow over the uneven surface of the terrain. And it is possible to be conservative by conserving the source, the origin, and at the same time to be very attentive to the needs and challenges and sufferings and hopes of today.”

Bishop Fulton Sheen was once accused of plagiarism because his commentary on a Gospel passage in one of his books made the same series of points as a commentary by another Catholic author. The critic did not realize that both authors had used as their template the classic treatment of that same passage by St. Thomas Aquinas, who was first and foremost a Scripture scholar.

Similarly, one cannot sum up (or write off) Archbishop-designate Léonard by calling him “the Belgian Ratzinger.” The fact that these two former professors and world-class theologians have promoted some of the same causes (thereby ruffling some of the same secularist feathers) is due, not to emulation or calculation, but to fidelity. Both are loyal Catholic bishops, yet their temperaments and pastoral approaches are quite distinct. Léonard, who has already served for almost two decades as an ordinary (rather than in a curial appointment), could more aptly be likened to St. Charles Borromeo, who did so much to implement the reforms of the Council of Trent concerning diocesan governance and the education of priests.

As one Catholic blogger put it: “A brave and excellent choice by the Pope. Let us hope it is not too late for the Church in the capital of the European Union.”

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.