Thursday, February 20, 2014

Belgium on the Cutting Edge of the Culture of Death

"What's Wrong with Belgium?" asks Tracey Rowland in a recent post in Crisis Magazine. (Actually, there is a lot that's wrong with Belgium, a society deeply divided between its French and Flemish speaking populations.) Roland's response is that Belgium's "Catholic culture has been trashed by a couple of generations of intellectuals at war with their own heritage."

Well, the same could be said, of course, for much of contemporary Europe, its Christian heritage having been increasingly marginalized in both Protestant and Catholic countries. Belgium (fittingly the headquarters of the strongly secularist and democratically deficient EU) stands out only for being  one of the leaders in pushing the moral and cultural envelope in once-Christian Europe. The latest example is new legislation allowing the euthanasia of children. (Belgium has already allowed euthanasia for adults since 2002, and euthanasia is also legal in its neighbors, The Netherlands and Luxembourg).

The proposed legislation seems to have widespread support in Belgium (75% according to one calculation). If so, that speaks volumes about the transformation of Belgium and its neighbors since World War II. Curiously, some opponents are pinning their hopes on Belgium's King Philippe (b. 1960), who acceded to the throne last July on the abdication of his 79-year old father King Albert II. The speculation is whether Philippe might follow the example of his saintly uncle, King Baudouin, who in April 1990 famously refused to sign a law legalizing abortion. (On the other hand, nothing comparable occurred in 2002 when Belgium's current euthanasia law reached King Albert's desk.)

Baudouin's cousin, Italy's last king, Umberto II, was once asked by a British journalist why his father, King Victor Emmanuel III, had signed the declaration of war against Britain and France in 1940, knowing full well Italy's woeful military unpreparedness. Supposedly, Umberto said something to the effect that in the modern world a king must do what everyone wants him to do. The actual facts in that particular case may or may not support Umberto's answer. It is far from certain that the war was all that popular in Italy even in 1940. It is possible that the King (who could still count on the loyalty of the military) might have been able to act differently - as he did three years later when he finally removed Mussolini from office. Be that as it may, the principle certainly still stands. A modern constitutional monarch may exercise all sorts of political influence, but in the final analysis he cannot veto a law enacted by the democratically elected legislature.

In 1990, Belgian politicians produced a clever constitutional compromise. Having heard officially from the King that he could not act against his conscience and sign the law, the Government declared the King temporarily incapacitated. Acting as a collective regency, the ministers all together signed the bill into law. Then, the next day, the King's incapacity came to an end, and Baudouin resumed his reign.

But that was 1990 - a generation ago. There was much more tolerance for conscience and religious liberty then than there is now in society and especially among governing elites. In 1990, the Brave New World of the Culture of Death was still new and still controversial. Today it is more and more the norm in the moral wreckage of increasingly post-Christian societies.

Also, in 1990, after almost 40 years on the Belgian throne, King Baudouin was personally quite popular, and the monarchy more valued as one of the few institutions holding the fragmenting country together. Many who might have disagreed with the King about abortion were willing nonetheless to respect his sincerity. Many also probably felt some sympathy for the King, whose strong personal commitment to children could be seen through the painful prism of his childless marriage. (Queen Fabiola had been pregnant 5 times and had miscarried 5 times.)

But the situation is certainly very different today, when anti-Christian ideology is increasingly in the driver's seat.

King Baudouin's action was admirable as a conscientious public profession. It deserves to be considered as an act of heroic sanctity in the event he should be seriously considered for canonization. But it made no difference in terms of the actual political outcome. And it raised (and raises) significant questions from a political and constitutional standpoint. Referencing Baudouin's action in 2005, when the Spanish Cortes was debating the legalization of same-sex marriage (an unrelated, but comparably controversial issue), the Catholic King of increasingly post-Christian Spain famously said, "Soy el Rey de España y no el de Bélgica" ("I am the King of Spain, not of Belgium").  

It is important to recall that the official acts of a monarch are not primarily his personal moral choices or the personal moral choices of an elected politician, but the actions of the Crown. Belgium has a multitude of problems, particularly political problems caused by politicians. The supra-political, constitutional character of the office of King is, on the other hand, one of the country's few remaining assets. Undermining the monarchy will not appreciably aid the pro-life cause, and it could well further strengthen its already stronger opponents.

Defenders of the human rights of the sick and of life in general have a lot of work to do to transform societies that have embraced an alternative path. But the internal moral transformation of post-modern secular societies will require powerful personal persuasion and will not be accomplished by purely symbolic gestures, however courageous or admirable.

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