On June 27, 2010, Belgian police raided the offices of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Brussels while a meeting of that organization was going on. The police was looking for evidence of cover-ups of crimes of child abuse by members of the clergy. While a search of the premises was undertaken, a group of bishops was detained for nine hours. In a protest the Belgian archbishop, Andre-Joseph Leonard, described the raid as “worthy of The Da Vinci Code”. Police also raided the home of Leonard’s predecessor, Godfried Danneels, seizing various computers. The church’s finance department was also raided and all its computers were taken away. No one can accuse the Belgian authorities of taking this matter lightly. This must have been the biggest police operation in recent Belgian history. But there is a peculiarly bizarre part of the operation: The police drilled into the tombs of two former archbishops, Cardinals Jozef-Ernest Van Roey and Leon-Josef Suenens, using cameras to find documents.
What on earth could they have been looking for? Child pornography entombed with the cardinals… in imitation of concubines buried along with Egyptian pharaohs? Or did the police expect the cameras to find films of necrophiliac orgies? The Vatican, in protesting the entire action, expressed particular outrage at the extension of the crusade against clerical lechery from the living to the dead. Those of us who are not directly involved with this episode will be not so much outraged as puzzled: What is it with the Belgians ?
Given the fact that Belgium is not only situated in the heart of Europe but, as the headquarters of the European Union, is Europe’s capital, most of us (myself included) know rather little about it. I visited Belgium only once, years ago, for some conference or other in Brussels. The conference had nothing to do with Belgium. I recall being impressed by three things—the excellence of the cuisine, the splendor of the Place d’Armes in the heart of the old city, and how small is the statue of Manneken Pis, the urinating small boy who is the main Brussels tourist attraction. (The story is that the boy was lost and his father promised to erect a statue if the boy is recovered – a statue depicting him doing whatever he was doing at the moment of recovery.) Beyond that, my knowledge of things Belgian is lamentably meager. What do I know?
The country attained independence from the Netherlands in 1830, as a result of complicated deals by the great powers. It had very little if any history as a national entity, and its identity has been ambiguous ever since. Although from the beginning the Dutch-speaking Flemish have been in the majority, the country’s elite came from the Francophone Walloons and French was the only official language for decades. As the political system became more democratic, the majority came to flex its political muscles, and to assert its cultural and linguistic rights. The identity of the nation continues to be in dispute between the two ethnic groups. In 1831 a German prince from the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was invited to be king of Belgium. He accepted and became Leopold I. Upon ascending the throne of a country he knew little about, he asked his newly appointed prime minister: “Who are the Belgians?” The prime minister replied: “Sire, the Belgians do not exist.” Obviously this was something of an exaggeration: They have existed for close to two centuries, though their history has been that of a small country squeezed in between more powerful ones. Leopold II acquired a big slice of Africa as a personal fiefdom in 1885, called it the Congo Free State and exploited it with ruthless brutality until 1908, when, to end the worst atrocities, the Belgian government took it over as an official colony. In World War I Germany invaded neutral Belgium in order to invade France from, as it were, the back door. Allied propaganda made much of alleged German crimes against the civilian population of “plucky little Belgium”; most of these allegations were probably false. Since governments notoriously fail to pay attention to history, France built its supposedly impregnable Maginot Line along the border with Germany but left out of it the border with Belgium, apparently dismissing the idea that the Germans might again invade from the back door. They did, in 1940, and this time around marched victoriously into Paris. This time around the German occupation did in fact commit war crimes against Belgian civilians.
The tensions between the two ethnic groups have continued since the liberation. Indeed, the “language wars” have gotten worse. In 1962 a “language border” was established, with Dutch mandatory in the communities on one side and French in those on the other side. Since people move in both directions, failing to stay on “their” side of the border, there are ongoing efforts to change the linguistic allocations. Possibly the climax of this conflict occurred in 1968, when the venerable University of Louvain was split into two: a Dutch university remaining in the old location, now called Leuven, while the French moved a few miles across the border. A problem was what to do with the library. It too was split into two, the books divided by shelfmarks. (I have not been there. I don’t quite know how it works. Are all the works in one place—say, the works of Immanuel Kant in German—or is the Critique of Pure Reason in Leuven and the Critique of Practical Reason in Louvain? Apparently the rumor that the volumes of encyclopedias and periodicals were also split in two was false. In any case, one hopes that a good library exchange system is in place.)
Back to the child abuse crisis: I have no doubt that there have been a good many cases involving Catholic clergy and that, like any institution, the church hierarchy would first be concerned with protecting the interests of the institution. But the church authorities are quite right when they point out that there have been many scandalous sex crimes against children which had nothing to do with priests (indeed, there were a number of particularly terrible cases in Belgium before the present crisis). And spokespersons for the gay movement are right when they remind us that many of such crimes, probably the majority, are committed by heterosexuals. There remains the legitimate question whether clerical celibacy has been a factor in the creation of a homosexual subculture within the church. Be this as it may, there is an anti-Catholic animus at work in the zealous prosecution of each and every accusation against members of the clergy—perhaps a late echo of Voltaire’s famous cry against the church, “Destroy the infamy!”
It has been pointed out before that it is very ironic that the EU, whose great idea is to solidify the unity of Europe, has its headquarters in a country whose own unity is perilously fragile. Belgium can hardly define itself as a successful miniature version of the multinational European identity sought by the EU. Perhaps it can now define itself as a paragon of Eurosecularity. What is Belgium? A country whose police drill into the tombs of cardinals in search of child pornography?