Friday, December 2, 2011

Belgium Catholics Issue Reform Manifesto

By John A. Dick

Editor's Note: This article was first published December 2, 2011, by The National Catholic Reporter.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – The week before the start of Advent, four Flemish priests issued a church reform manifesto that called for allowing the appointment of laypeople as parish pastors, liturgical leaders and preachers, and for the ordination of married men and women as priests.

By the week's end more than 4,000 of publicly active Catholics had signed on to the "Believers Speak Out" manifesto. By Dec. 1, the number of signers had reached 6,000.

Among the supporters are hundreds of priests, educators, academics and professional Catholics. Two prominent supporters are former rectors of the Catholic University of Leuven, Roger Dillemans and Marc Vervenne.

"These are not 'protest people.' They are people of faith. They are raising their voices. They hope their bishops are listening," said Fr. John Dekimpe, one of four priests who launched the manifesto.

"Some people are fearful about approaching church leadership," said the priest, who lives in Kortrijk. "Is this being a dissident? I don't think so. The Belgian church is a disaster. If we don't do something, the exodus of those leaving the church will just never stop. ... I really want the bishops to reflect deeply about the growing discontent of so many believers."

Among the manifesto's demands, made "in solidarity with fellow believers in Austria, Ireland and many other countries," are that:

• Parish leadership be entrusted to trained laypeople;

• Communion services be held even if no priest is available;

• Laypeople be allowed to preach;

• Divorced people be allowed to receive Communion;

• As quickly as possible, both married men and women be admitted to the priesthood.

So far there has been no official reaction from Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, the Catholic primate of Belgium, any of the other Belgium bishops, or the Vatican. Privately, and off the record, one Belgian bishop has applauded the manifesto.

Jürgen Mettepenningen, a Leuven theologian and former press officer for Léonard, told the Belgian newspaper De Morgen that he hopes the manifesto can lead to a well-thought-out church reform. "When I reflect on what I have written and said over the past years, I can only say that the spirit of the manifesto is the very same spirit in which I have been trying to work to make the church more credible: true to the faith."

Last year, after reports of abuse rocked the Belgian church, an independent commission discovered sexual abuse in most Catholic dioceses and all church-run boarding schools and religious orders. The commission said 475 cases of abuse had been reported to it between January and June this year.

In one of the more prominent cases, Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe was forced to resign after admitting to years of abusing his nephew. In April of this year, he told Belgian television that he had molested another nephew and that it had all started "as a game."

The full text of the manifesto, "Believers Speak Out":

Parishes without a priest, Eucharist at inappropriate hours, worship without Communion: that really should not be! What is delaying the needed church reform? We, Flemish believers, ask our bishops to the break the impasse in which we are locked. We do this in solidarity with fellow believers in Austria, Ireland and many other countries, with all who insist on vital church reform.

We simply do not understand why the leadership in our local communities (e.g., parishes) is not entrusted to men or women, married or unmarried, professionals or volunteers, who already have the necessary training. We need dedicated pastors!

We do not understand why these our fellow believers cannot preside at Sunday liturgical celebrations. In every active community we need liturgical ministers!

We do not understand why, in communities where no priest is available, a Word service cannot also include a Communion service.

We do not understand why skilled laypeople and well-formed religious educators cannot preach. We need the word of God!

We do not understand why those believers who, with very good will, have remarried after a divorce must be denied Communion. They should be welcomed as worthy believers. Fortunately, there are some places where this is happening.

We also demand that, as quickly as possible, both married men and women be admitted to the priesthood. We, people of faith, desperately need them now!

John A. Dick, an American historical theologian, has lived in Belgium for 30 years. He is currently visiting professor of Religion in American Society at the University of Ghent. This report includes some information from Catholic News Service.

See also the previous PCV posts:
Council of the Baptized Launched in Minneapolis-St. Paul
American Catholic Council Issues "Declaration for Reform and Renewal"
Hans Küng Says Only Radical Reforms Can Save the Catholic Church
Hans Küng on Church Reform: "The Base Must Gather Its Strength and Make Itself Heard"
It's Critical That Catholics Find Their Voice
Let Our Voices Be Heard!
Austrian Cardinal Roils the Vatican
A Church in Flux
Urgent Tasks for Church Renewal
The Call of the Baptized: Be the Church, Live the Mission
The Independent Spirit and "Divisible Unity" of the Modern Church
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3)
Colleen Kochivar-Baker on "Why We Stay"

Image: Bruges, Belgium (2005) – Michael Bayly.


  1. Mr. Dick doesn't seem to know very much about the Catholic Church. He obviously has spent too much time away from the U.S. Church in Belgium, a country where virtually nobody goes to church anymore. It is also a country on the verge of splitting in two. Belgians can't agree with all their current countrymen. It's not surprising that they don't agree with the Church when they know so little about it because they are hardly ever there to learn.

    • Parish leadership be entrusted to trained laypeople;

    One would hope that all employees and member of church councils and committees would be trained lay leaders. Otherwise, why would they be hired or appointed.

    • Communion services be held even if no priest is available.

    That is the policy now in many small parishes

    • Laypeople be allowed to preach;
    Laypeople can preach now, before or after the Mass. They may not give the homily during the Mass. Would it be too much to ask the congregation to stay 15 minutes longer?

    • Divorced people be allowed to receive Communion;

    Divorce is not a sin. Divorced people may receive Communion now. But not if they have remarried without having received an annulment from the Church.

    • "As quickly as possible, both married men and women be admitted to the priesthood.

    That won't happen. If 70% of Catholics already aren't going to Mass, why do we need married man and women as priests? That number might grow. Jesus said He would be with us until the end of time. He didn't say that the Church would always grow.

    Four out of five are already allowed. So what is the problem?

  2. Ray, your comment reminds me of Michele Bachmann's recent statement that gay people can get married -- but just to people of the opposite sex. As with her statement, I find yours both ignorant and insensitive.

    I prefer to go with the spirit of hope and renewal that is inspiring the thousands of Belgium Catholics to sign the manifesto in question (including the hundreds of priests, educators, and academics), than with whatever it is that fuels your angry, fearful and mean-spirited outbursts on this blog.



  3. Ray, it's too bad you can't see how much damage has been done to Body of Christ because of the cancer of hanging on to the all male celibate priesthood. Please explain to me how shrinking the Church to fit the size of it's dwindling priesthood mirrors the thinking of Jesus? I can certainly see where this strokes the elitist egos of some True Believers, but I don't see any love or compassion or concern for the flock at all.

  4. Ray, I'm thrilled. I've known for a long time that you know the Catholic Church because you tell PCV readers that you do. I'd like to know the Catholic Church as well as you do. Should I get a copy of the Baltimore Catechism for my kindle?

    Now, I discover that you know Belgium, too. I'm planning a three week tour of Belgium and would like to visit as many empty Catholic Churches as I can while I'm there. Have you any suggestions about where to go? Should I stick to the big cities or go to rural areas? If there are that many empty Catholic Churches, there are surely empty rectories, too. They'd probably be much more comfortable to stay in that a hostel, youth or elder, and a lot cheaper than any hotel. I'll pack bed linens just in case. The only drawback is that I might not get through customs in Belgium. I'm morally unstable, you know. Oh, of course you know! You're the one who gave me my diagnosis. I feel so secure when you share a small portion of your vast knowledge. I'll send you a postcard from Bruges if I can get by security. NanookMN