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Posted April 19, 2005 at  8:30 a.m. CDT

Progressive Belgian laity want a pope
'attentive to the real needs' of people

Priestly celibacy, woman in the church are major issues

By Marc Mazgon-Fernandes
Brussels, Belgium

The features of the crisis affecting the Catholic church in Western Europe are present at an exacerbated degree in Belgium. The reasons might be because Belgium is a small country, and in many ways has been influenced by the evolution in the Netherlands. Church-going faithful have fallen under 10 percent of the population, and both the clergy and the laity are much more "progressive" and critical of the hierarchy than they would be in some other European countries such as France.

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NCR talked to representatives of two lay groups, which may be considered as illustrative of the progressive movement, about their expectations of the next pope and the challenges he faces in Western Europe.

We Are Church, defines itself as a "grass-roots movement" of Catholics asking for more democracy in the church. It claims 400 to 500 members in Belgium, but "the numbers are dwindling," its leadership says, "because the church is not reforming." The Brussels section is directed by a couple, Edith Kuropatwa, 72, a teacher and the daughter of members of the Belgium resistance who were exterminated in Auschwitz during the Second World War, and her husband, Louis Fevre, 80, a married priest who is the author of books on philosophy. The movement sprouted from a growing frustration toward the church that culminated with the eviction of the controversial French bishop, Jacques Gaillot, from the diocese of Evreux in 1996 for questioning the pope's edicts.

The second movement, the Equipes Notre-Dame, is a self-help movement for married couples created in 1947 by Fr. Henri Caffarel in France. It has a presence in 57 countries. In Belgium, they number around 3,500 persons, most of them engaged in local parish life and in social activities. It is directed at the national level by a couple, Peter and Christiane Annegarn, both 56. They insist that the Equipes Notre-Dame in Belgium is more "progressive" than, for instance, in France. They also claim to be supported by Belgium Cardinal Godfried Danneels.

Both these movements are represented on the Belgium church's Interdiocesan Council of Laity. We Are Church, however, is classified within the lay council as representing "alternative Catholics."

Dialogue first
When asked about the qualities that her movement expects from the next pope, Kuropatwa replied, "Before anything, dialogue."

Fevre, a psychosociologist and former priest, added, "The church cannot be governed any more as did John Paul II. Account has to be taken of local circumstances, of different mentalities. This includes also different conceptions of the magisterium."

Christiane Annegarn of Equipes Notre-Dame said she hopes the new pope will be more "attentive to the real needs of couples and the family" and for "a power less centralized in Rome." Annegarn, trained as a criminologist, would like to officially admit remarried divorcees in their movement, even if her teams are already receiving them "unofficially."

"The pope asked Equipes Notre-Dame in 2003 to be 'open to those who are wounded by love.' I do not see why the church should have the right of judging those who made a mistake and of excluding them," she said. Annegarn is very careful, however, to stress that there are theological grounds for this exclusion, which she is not competent to discuss.

On moral questions, such as abortion and euthanasia, Kuropatwa made a plea for the church to take into account moral pluralism. "The attitude should be less dogmatic. These are serious problems, which cannot be solved by edicts," she said.

Fevre added: "Attention should be paid to the person, and to our better knowledge of human psychism, namely that each individual is unique. The church has no right to judge someone who has chosen a different moral option. The same stands for homosexuality."

He concluded, "Christianity did not expand because it was a set of moral rules, but because it was the Good News."

Annegarn said Equipes Notre-Dame has a more tempered position. "I can only speak for myself, since there are members who totally share the views of Rome on those questions," Christiane said. "However, I find that [such issues] are subjects too serious to warrant a black or white reply. In the Equipes Notre-Dame, we use a case by case analysis in group."

Agreeing with a statement of We Are Church, Annegarn said that the new pope should form commissions of specialists "and couples who have concrete experience of life" before defining "directives," but she added, "I stand, personally, for a more Protestant view on morals, which leaves a space to personal conscience."

One difference she had with the leaders of We Are Church she said was that she believes that the pope "should keep the ideals high."

Annegarn also said that the church's position on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS has been badly understood. She said she wishes the next pope would clarify this point, stressing that she believes condom use should be allowed.

Women in the church
High on the agenda of both We Are Church and Equipes Notre-Dame are what they view as two major problems: the celibacy of priests and the place of the woman in the church.

"The place of the woman is a central problem in our church: an equal dignity should be recognized to the women in the reality, and not only in texts," said Kuropatwa.

For Annegarn of Equipes Notre-Dame, there is a discrepancy between the actual importance of women in the church and the fact that the hierarchy is composed of men. "Women occupy a very important place in the daily functioning of the church. We would also like to see couples called to serve ministries in the church."

Annegarn suggested that the pope convoke a "Vatican III" on the place of the woman in the church, as well as on the clerical celibacy. She said, "Here in Belgium there are many priests who have an affective life. Many are also 'accompanied,' and it is known to all. Others suffer intensely from their solitude."

Kuropatwa and Fevre said that they believe that "many priests would marry if that was possible." They also called for requiring "adequate affective training" in seminary programs to avoid later sexual abuses.

The We Are Church leaders also criticized pontifical infallibility and primacy. "The church was not defined as an aristocracy nor as a dictatorship, but it works as the latter," Fevre said. "There should be a greater repartition of power among the people of God." He said the pope's role should be more as the "Western Patriarch."

We Are Church calls for reforming the status of the clergy. "We advocate a return to the Church of the origins: there should be more power for the laity, and the responsibles should be elected in the heart of each community for temporary periods," said Kuropatwa.

While the leaders of Equipes Notre-Dame also would like to see greater decentralization of church power and reforming church structures, Annegarn called the suggestions of We Are Church "excessive."

Curing 'sick old Europe'
Annegarn said the new pope should "cure 'sick old Europe' " and address the spiritual needs of the younger generations. "These generations are looking for sense," she said. "My children are being taken in by materialism, but I feel they need something else. They need lasting love, but maybe not always as the church defines it."

"The church should be more coherent in its message. It should be more compassionate towards the persons wounded by love," she said.

On "sick old Europe," Kuropatwa and Fevre rejected initiatives of re-evangelization started by some European cardinals and bishops. "I would rather stand for humility," Kuropatwa said. "I would try to work hand in hand with other persons of different convictions. The church should leave the grass-root communities to flourish. There is a need for spirituality, without the customs we inherited from paganism, such as the elaborate clothing and the institution of a pontifex maximus (supreme pontiff)."

Marc Mazgon-Fernandes is a freelance journalist who writes from Brussels.

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