Some personal thoughts about a resignation

Is it customary these days to blacken one’s former employer after one has resigned? I would hope not, but that is exactly what Mr. Jürgen Mettepenningen, the former spokesman of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, seems to have done in a press statement released yesterday.

The reasons he lists for his sudden resignation are perhaps good ones, but the way he publishes them seems unethical and defamatory, they also point at the state of large parts the Church in Belgium, I fear. Mettepenningen’s words do not stand alone. With the customary zeal for hyperbole, Catholic media have declared that the entire middle field of Catholic Belgium (including priests and some bishops) have turned their backs on Msgr. Léonard. All this for his recent statements about AIDS (which have been discussed recently in this blog as well) and his calls to to exact revenge on elderly priests guilty of sexual abuse of minors. The former can well be defended with recourse to some theological and philosophical contexts, while the latter does seem to be in full agreement with civil law. But reasoned debate of topics that are sensitive in modern secular society (and no less so, by the way, in Catholic society) is now severely curtailed. Only the generally accepted opinions are deemed  so. Statements like the ones made by the archbishop are worthy of contempt, attacks and defamation. Or so it now seems. Considered objectively, that is of course complete nonsense.

But Mr. Mennepenningen, who has recently become one of the most heard Catholic voices in Belgium and beyond because of his job as spokesman, seems to have fully embraced that nonsensical attitude.

But even that may be forgiven. No one, after all, is perfect, and we all make mistakes. No, Mr. Mettepenningen’s full embrace of the popular attitude does not end with merely following its beliefs, but extend to the level of defamation. What’s worse is that this seems to be made worse by the strange view that Mr. Mettepenningen has of his former job. He likened himself to the GPS to Msgr. Léonard’s driver. The directions of a GPS, however worthy they may be, are of course not to blindly accepted in all situations. A driver may choose to take a different road. The GPS will then recalculate the route, all in the service of the driver. GPS-Mettepenningen seemed to look to take the role of driver, deciding on where to go and how to get there. That is odd in any situation, but more so when the driver is the primate of a Church province.

The Church is hierarchical. That is not popular in modern society, but it is no less true because of that. When a bishop is appointed he is also assumed to take upon him the office of teacher. Msgr. Léonard has never shunned that. In fact, unlike certain other prelates, he takes it very seriously. Teachers, as I can say from my own experience, are not always popular. But what they teach can and usually is still to our benefit. To say that what a teacher says is not to one’s liking is one thing. To then discard it (and the teacher) out of a misguided belief that we know it better anyway, is wholly irresponsible.

Mr. Mettepenningen’s resignation is probably for the best. If there are serious differences of opinion between employer and employee, a parting of ways is sensible. But to then take the different opinions of one person and ridicule them in the public forum is nothing short of unethical. For what purpose does it serve in this case? I adds fuel to the fire of the popular opinion of Msgr. Léonard as a person, a teacher, and a bishop. All that for the satisfaction of one man who wants to see his opinions validated?

Msgr. André-Jospeh Léonard is the archbishop of Malines-Brussels and chairman of the Belgian bishops’ conference. Simply in light of that role, of his appointment as shepherd of the faithful in his diocese, he must be taken seriously, and we owe it to him, to ourselves and to the Church we claim we are part of (and of which we are objectively part) to take his words seriously, to consider what they mean and why he says them. Dismissing them out of hand is not an option. Disagreement is fine, but not when it is disagreement because we couldn’t be bothered to think for a bit. And like in any discussion with anyone, we should act ethically. Venting before all to see is not very ethical.