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Sources et approches des biographies cardinalices (XIXe-XXe s.)

The curious case of cardinal Willebrands. Oscillating Between the College of Bishops and the College of Cardinals

Karim Schelkens


The present contribution focuses on the Dutch cardinal J.G.M. Willebrands in the late 1970s. This case study aims at offering insight into the problematic of the structures of universal governance in the postconciliar Church. It does so by highlighting the position of cardinal Willebrands as both a cardinal archbishop in the local Church of the Netherlands and the head of one of the curial secretariats. This position reveals the problem of double loyalties – both to the pope and to the local flock – and thus may provide insight into the tensions present in the postconciliar Church and the effect these have on members of the college of cardinals.

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General Introduction

  • 1 Denaux - De Mey 2012.

1« The only sadder thing than a retired cardinal is a retired cardinal in Rome ». This phrase was uttered on several informal occasions by Cardinal Johannes Willebrands after his retirement in 1989. In these years Willebrands stayed in the eternal city but became increasingly isolated and eventually returned to the Netherlands in the spring of 1997. For two decades, from april 1969 to september 1989, he had served as a member of the curia romana. The place and role of Willebrands in that esteemed organisation and more particularly the sources documenting his position are the subject of my contribution here. Before entering into that subject, it is necessary to give a very concise biographical survey of Willebrands’ life1. My contribution will then try to combine attention to ecclesiological developments affecting the cardinalate in the twentieth century with an interest in particular source materials. In all this, the remarkable double position of Willebrands as both a curial cardinal and a cardinal archbishop plays a considerable role.

The Young Willebrands

  • 2 Cf. the annotated edition of the dissertation Schelkens - Witte 2013.
  • 3 Bouyer 1936.

2Johannes Willebrands was born on September 4, 1909 in the Dutch province of North Holland. He grew up in a religiously segregated environment where catholics and protestants lived alongside each other, without any real contact or exchange. After receiving his education in the minor seminary of the redemptorist order, he attended the seminary of the diocese of Haarlem and was ordained a priest in 1934. From there on, Willebrands moved to Rome, and obtained a doctorate in philosophy at the Angelicum dealing with the epistemology of John Henry Newman. The dissertation formed an important step in his development : initially, he had planned to draw up a neo-thomist refutation of some of the intuitions of the Victorian cardinal, but through the readership of Newman, Willebrands became a Newmanian theologian2. In fact, it was his study of the epistomology of Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, and in particular the influence of the early writings of Louis Bouyer that caused him to turn away from the neo-scholastic thought world3. Newman’s key notions such as the distinction between « notional » and « real » assent and the importance of the « illative sense » would shape Willebrands’s intellectual evolution. Then followed some years as a chaplain in Amsterdam, where he became acquainted with the Amsterdam Jews. After the outbreak of the Second World War had already started he became a professor of philosophy at the diocesan seminary of Haarlem, which he would remain until he moved to Rome in 1960.

  • 4 See Warringa 2015, p. 157-215.
  • 5 De Mey 2011, p. 271-308.
  • 6 The inventory of the archive is published by Declerck 2015.
  • 7 Velati 2011.
  • 8 A manifold of studies have already been devoted to Willebrands’ role at Vatican II. One of the mos (...)

3In the meantime, during the 1950s, Willebrands became engaged in both dialogue with the Jews4 and ecumenical dialogue : he took up the leadership of an international network of catholic ecumenists5 and befriended theologians such as Yves Congar and Christophe Dumont. These Parisian Dominicans strongly supported his initiative to establish, in 1951, the Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Questions6, which, throughout the decade, would unite catholic ecumenists from various centres (Istina in Paris, the Belgian Benedictines monastery of Chevetogne, the Foyer Unitas in Rome, the Johann-Adam-Möhler-Institut at Paderborn) on an international scale. As a result of his efforts and also in reaction to the painful experience of the lack of an official Catholic instance to engage in ecumenical encounters – which culminates in the quasi breach of relationships between Willebrands and the secretary general of the World Council of Churches, Willem Adolf Visser ‘t Hooft, during the WCC meeting at Rhodes in August 1959 – John XXIII establishes a Secretariat for Christian Unity in 1960. Willebrands is appointed secretary to this newly established secretariat7, led by Cardinal president Augustin Bea, whom he already knew since the mid-1950s and who was supportive of the activities of Willebrands’ Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Questions. In the Secretariat, Willebrands plays a key role during the Second Vatican Council8, and when Paul VI decides that the Secretariat will not remain just a conciliar body, but will turn into a lasting part of the Roman Curia, Willebrands serves as secretary until the death of cardinal Bea in November 1968.

  • 9 Schelkens 2013a.
  • 10 Wicks 2011.

4The moment of 1968 is not without importance, because precisely in the years that preceded, a reform of the Roman curia was commissioned by Paul VI. Willebrands was the main architect of the restructuring of the Secretariat9 into the curial office he would come to lead. From the start, he was well aware of the tense position of the Secretariat for Christian unity, which risked an overlap of competencies with both the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Then, in the spring of 1969, and somewhat against the tradition of finding « outsiders » for the leadership of curial offices, Willebrands was created a cardinal and immediately appointed as successor to cardinal Bea. For two decades, he would be the leading protagonist of Catholic commitment to ecumenism and Jewish-Christian dialogue10.

On ne naît pas cardinal

5In the context of a project on the cardinals and the cardinalate, it is important to study the biographical background of those who become members of the college of cardinals. Any prosopography of the « élite » requires insight into their origins. Or to paraphrase the famous words of Simone de Beauvoir : « On ne naît pas cardinal, on le devient ».

  • 11 Only scarce literature is available on the postconciliar cardinalate. See Chenaux 2010, p. 255-266 (...)
  • 12 For a survey of recent literature on Vatican II, one can best consult Roy 2012.
  • 13 Schelkens - Dick - Mettepenningen 2013, p. 147-148.

6Another factor is that of the evolution of Catholicism in the twentieth century : Willebrands belongs to the generation of what one could call « postconciliar » cardinals11. This description faces its own difficulties : not only is the biographical background at stake, one should also consider the general framework of catholic ecclesiology and the profound shift from a juridical-hierarchical framework of thought to the conciliar ecclesiology as laid out in Lumen Gentium, Christus Dominus, and Gaudium et Spes12. This ecclesiological groundshift is fundamental for any understanding of the Church and thus also causes the need for a relocation of the cardinalate within Catholicism. A project on the cardinalate cannot escape paying attention to the theological and canonical evolutions in the 19th and 20th century regarding the respective role of the Roman Pontiff and the cardinals, as well as to the debate regarding universal governance. The latter point is vital : Vatican II’s constitution on the Church promoted an ecclesiological thought frame founded on the sacramental order. Not only did it revalorize the laity as the community of those united through the sacrament of baptism, it also redirected the attention to the bishops and their participation in the universal governance of the Church, as the council stipulates : vi consecrationis. This is not without effects : whoever reads the documents of Vatican II will have to notice that for the council, with all its attention to the sacramental nature of the Church, the cardinalate does not exist as an ecclesial category. Not a single council decree of Vatican II mentions the cardinals13. Moreover, pressing questions arise as now not only the leaders of the Roman curia but also the bishops become co-responsible for universal governance.

7Let us return, then, to the particular case of cardinal Willebrands in order to touch upon the matter of Church governance through the lense of one single cardinal. His particular story may serve to illustrate the problematic situation of the post-Vatican II cardinalate. I will therefore investigate further into the delicate relationship between local ordinaries and the Roman Curia, but now from the angle of the person of Willebrands, who combined both roles.

The Willebrands Papers

  • 14 Some studies have been made on individual cardinals, such as cardinals Giacomo Lercaro, Leo-Joseph (...)

8Any attempt at scholarly research into the career and activities of the postconciliar generation of cardinals soon reveals serious problems regarding the availability of sources: the Vatican archives are still largely closed, unless one considers the collection regarding the Second Vatican Council, which has been inventoried and is accessible for scholarship. This in itself provides with an opportunity for research. Indeed, among the massive literature on the council, hardly any attention has been paid to the role of the cardinalate as a group at the council14.

  • 15 Declerck 2013.

9For the postconciliar era however, historians will have to rely on private collections, which is possible in the case of Willebrands. A rather unique archive is available here, holding vast documentation. Recently it has been entirely inventoried, and the inventory was published by canon Leo Declerck15. It holds a survey of some 380 dossiers and, given Willebrands’s personal habit of safeguarding all his materials, it constitutes a very rich source of information, even if no archive is ever complete. Offering a full survey of the scope of his archive is impossible at this juncture, yet some indications may be of value. The archive as a whole contains eight sections, with information ranging from Willebrands’s childhood, through his preconciliar activities, up until his role as president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity and his position as archbishop of Utrecht. The present paper will only make use of the latter two sections, and still there, it needs to be underlined that the materials are not complete. More information can be found in the archives of the archdiocese of Utrecht, and several other archives documenting the activities of the Council for Christian Unity also complement the files. For instance the archives (held at the Istituto per le scienze religiose, Bologna) of Pierre Duprey, staff member of the Secretariat (at present Pontifical Council) for Promoting Christian Unity from 1963 to 1999 ‑ and its secretary as of 1983 ‑ contain copies of the « punti » of the cardinal prepared for papal audiences in the 1970s. In order to understand the early developments of Willebrands’s ecumenical career, the archives of the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions (conserved at the monastery of Chevetogne) ought to be taken into due account.

Personal Notes

  • 16 Van Schaik 1997, p. 368-486.
  • 17 Regarding the nomination of Willebrands as archbishop of Utrecht, see Declerck 2013/2, p. 29-48.

10In the limited scope of this study of the ecclesiological tensions surrounding the cardinalate in the period after Vatican II, I will make use of just one type of document. The study of the members of the college of cardinals and their self-perception within the Church may be well served by the scholarly use of retreat notes. Such notes often contain more personal reflections and have the benefit of also offering insight into the particular spirituality of the person at hand. These notes were kept carefully by Willebrands and they offer interesting data. To conclude, I will cite some passages jotted down by the cardinal in the second week of February 1977, in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. These notes are utterly important, given that they belong to a period in which Willebrands’s position as a cardinal was a double one : he was at the same time the cardinal archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and he held his position as cardinal president to the Council for Christian Unity. This nomination did not so much results from an intention to reconcile the two juxtaposed means of universal governance in the postconciliar Church (i.e. the Roman Curia, with most of its bureaus led by members of the college of cardinals, on the one hand, and the universal college of bishops on the other hand, which according to the third chapter of Lumen Gentium participates in the Roman pontiff’s universal governance). The background of Willebrands’s nomination was essentially polarization in the Church of the Netherlands which had already grown under the episcopate of his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Alfrink, who had run into a clash with Paul VI16. In 1975, it was clear that Willebrands had gained the personal confidence of Paul VI, who appointed him because of his capacities of achieving reconciliation17.

  • 18 For background, see Schelkens 2013b.
  • 19 On this, see the seventh chapter of Schelkens - Mettepenningen 2015.

11If anyone was ever able to see the tensions between these two poles, it was definitely Willebrands. For here we have a cardinal who held both a position in the local Church and in the universal governance of the Church. In the quotations that follow, these tensions become clear : « this silence here, in which I can hear God’s voice, the prayer, the meditation and study. Will I be able to enjoy this in any future period in my life. In Utrecht, in the Church of the Netherlands, I encounter God in the struggle and unrest, in the suffering of the Church ». This first passage already indicates the troubled situation in Willebrands’s local Church, which was heavily polarized at the time, regarding debates on ministry, on priestly celibacy, and on the role of the laity in the Church18. Three years later, in January 1980, and in close agreement with John Paul II, Willebrands would be one of the main instigators behind the Special Synod for the Bishops of the Netherlands19. All the aforementioned topics will be addressed during the synod, and the overall idea would be to restore the bond of unity between the local episcopate and universal leadership of the Church. These tensions were almost embodied in the person of Willebrands who, himself a curial cardinal, felt the pressure of the Roman Curia on his action as a cardinal archbishop. In January 1977 already, one month before his retreat, his colleagues from the Roman curia, cardinals Gabriel-Marie Garrone – the then prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education ‑ and Cardinal Franjo Seper – the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ‑ had called him and accused him of not being faithful to the directives coming from Rome. Precisely this attitude of the cardinals responsible for the Church’s universal governance had been a shocking experience, as shown in another section of Willebrands’ notes on February 18 :

  • 20 Declerck 2013, Dossier 324.2, translated from the Dutch original.

At last, yesterday, I have been able to write the report of my conversation with cardinals Seper and Garrone. In the end I had to write it even when it has cost me a lot of pain. Undoubtedly do cardinal Seper and I strive toward the same goal, the wellbeing of our Church. Our insights on the manner this goal ought to be served in the Netherlands however, differ essentially. He should allow me to play my role as archbishop of Utrecht, since this task was given to me by the pope. I do not feel the slightest ambition to enter into rebellion against the Holy See. In fact, through my long years and my work in Rome the Church of Rome and the person of the Holy Father are very dear to me. Still, I shall determine the policy in Utrecht in prayer, in collaboration with the other bishops, and with my staff. We are willing to listen to the guidelines coming from the cardinals in Rome, but there exists something as responsible obedience. The council talked about this.20

  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 Ibid.

12In essence, Cardinal Willebrands touches upon two issues that have a wide importance for any study of the cardinalate, especially in the post-Vatican II era: what is the sense of obedience and how is this to be respected? And then, back to the issue of ecclesiology : to what extent can the curial cardinals claim universal Church governance for themselves as a group, and what are the effects on the implementation of collegial governance of the catholic Church by the bishops ? Having raised these questions, I will close this contribution with some quotations from Willebrands, which give food for thought regarding the position of the cardinalate in the postconciliar era. In his notes he critically observed that « the cardinals in Rome should not govern over us without our consent. Their attitude could cause serious errors and grave damage, also to the authority of the Holy See to the extent that they represent this authority »21. It is striking that precisely his position as a « Roman » cardinal did not prevent the archbishop of Utrecht to put forward essential questions such as « what does it mean to be the cardinal-archbishop of Utrecht ? What is the effect for my relationship to Rome, to the curial congregations ? How free am I to determine my policies in Utrecht in the Netherlands ? »22. In the end, for Willebrands, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council offer a criterion for judgment. In the end, the fact that he ultimately refers to article fourteen of the conciliar decree on the religious, Perfectae Caritatis, where the document defines the relationships between religious superiors and the brethren in a religious order in terms of activa et responsabilis obedientia, throws an interesting light on both this cardinal’s self perception vis-à-vis the college of cardinals and the pope. Willebrands himself pondered that he hoped « to understand this in the right spirit whenever I need to actively respond »23.

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Bouyer 1936 = L. Bouyer, Newman et le platonisme de l’âme anglaise, in Revue de Philosophie, 6, 1936, p. 285-305.

Chenaux 2010 = Ph. Chenaux, La réception du Concile Vatican II dans la curie romaine, in L. Kenis, J. Billiet, P. Pasture (ed.), La transformation des églises chrétiennes en Europe occidentale 1945-2000, Leuven, 2010 (KADOC-Studies on religion, culture and society, 6), p. 255-266.

De Mey 2011 = P. De Mey, Précurseur du secrétariat pour l’unité : le travail œcuménique de la conférence catholique pour les questions œcuméniques (1952-1963), in G. Routhier, Ph.J. Roy, K. Schelkens (ed.), La théologie catholique entre intransigeance et renouveau. La réception des mouvements préconciliaires à Vatican II, Louvain-la-Neuve, 2011 (Bibliothèque de la revue d’histoire ecclésiastique, 95), p. 271-308.

Declerck 2009 = L. Declerck (ed.), Les agendas conciliaires de Mgr. J. Willebrands, secrétaire du Secrétariat pour l’Unité des Chrétiens, Leuven, 2009 (Instrumenta Theologica, 31).

Declerck 2013a = L. Declerck, Inventaire des archives personnelles du cardinal J. Willebrands, secrétaire et président du Secrétariat pour l’Unité des Chrétiens, archevêque d’Utrecht, Leuven, 2013 (Instrumenta Theologica, 32).

Declerck 2013b = L. Declerck, Les relations entre le Cardinal Montini/Pape Paul VI et Mgr/Cardinal J. Willebrands. Quelques données nouvelles d'après les archives personnelles de Willebrands, in Notiziario dell’Istituto Paolo VI, 66, décembre, 2013, p. 29-48.

Declerck 2015 = L. Declerck, Mgr. J. Willebrands et la Conférence catholique pour les questions œcuméniques, Leuven, 2015 (Instrumenta Theologica, 39).

Denaux - De Mey 2012 = A. Denaux, P. De Mey (ed.), The Ecumenical Legacy of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, Leuven, 2012 (Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium, 253).

Fouilloux 2011 = É. Fouilloux, Eugène cardinal Tisserant 1884-1972. Une biographie, Paris, 2011.

Riccardi 1989 = A. Riccardi, Preparare il Concilio. Papa e Curia alla vigilia del Vaticano II, in Le Deuxième concile du Vatican (1959-1965), Rome, 1989 (CEFR, 113), p. 181-205.

Roy 2012 = Ph. J. Roy, Bibliographie de Vatican II, Rome, 2012 (Atti e documenti, 34).

Schelkens - Dick - Mettepenningen 2013 = K. Schelkens, J.A. Dick, J. Mettepenningen, Aggiornamento ? Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI, Leiden-Boston, 2013 (Brill’s Series in Church History, 63).

Schelkens - Witte 2013 = K. Schelkens, H. Witte (ed.), J.G.M. Willebrands. De denkleer van kardinaal Newman en haar toepassing op de kennis van God door het geweten, Bergambacht, 2013 (Willebrands Studies, 1).

Schelkens 2013a = K. Schelkens, From Superno dei nutu to Regimini ecclesiae. The Secretariat for Christian Unity and the 1968 Reform of the Curia, in, P.J.J. Van Geest, R. Regoli (ed.), Suavis Laborum Memoria. Chiesa, Papato e Curia Romana tra storia e teologia, Rome, 2013 (Collectanea Archivi Vaticani, 88) p. 167-181.

Schelkens 2013b = K. Schelkens, Paul VI and the Postconciliar Crisis in the Netherlands. An Exercise in Implementing Collegial Governance, in J. Ernesti (ed.), Timoniere in tempi difficili. Paolo VI e la crisi postconciliare, Concesio, 2013 (Pubblicazioni dell’Istituto Paolo VI).

Schelkens – Mettepenningen 2015 = K. Schelkens, J. Mettepenningen, Danneels. Une Biographie, Turnhout, 2015.

Van Schaik 1997 = T. H. M. van Schaik, Alfrink. Een Biografie, Amsterdam, 1997.

Velati 2004 = M. Velati, Giovanni XXIII e la Curia romana. Stato delle conoscenze e prospettive di ricerca, in Cristianesimo nella Storia, 25, 2004, p. 659-693.

Velati 2011 = M. Velati, Dialogo e rinnovamento. Verbali e testi del segretariato per l’unità dei cristiani nella preparazione del concilio Vaticano II (1960-1962), Bologna, 2011.

Warringa 2015 = A. Warringa, Willebrands en het Mysterie van Israël. Laveren temidden van een veelheid aan idealen, in A. Denaux, De Nederlandse jaren van Johannes Willebrands, Bergambacht, 2015 (Willebrands Studies 2), p. 157-215.

Wicks 2011= J. Wicks, Cardinal Willebrands’s Contributions to Catholic Ecumenical Theology, in Pro Ecclesia, 20, 2011, p. 6-27.

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1 Denaux - De Mey 2012.

2 Cf. the annotated edition of the dissertation Schelkens - Witte 2013.

3 Bouyer 1936.

4 See Warringa 2015, p. 157-215.

5 De Mey 2011, p. 271-308.

6 The inventory of the archive is published by Declerck 2015.

7 Velati 2011.

8 A manifold of studies have already been devoted to Willebrands’ role at Vatican II. One of the most important sources of information is and remains the edition of his personal agendas. See Declerck 2009.

9 Schelkens 2013a.

10 Wicks 2011.

11 Only scarce literature is available on the postconciliar cardinalate. See Chenaux 2010, p. 255-266 and Riccardi 1989, p. 181-205.

12 For a survey of recent literature on Vatican II, one can best consult Roy 2012.

13 Schelkens - Dick - Mettepenningen 2013, p. 147-148.

14 Some studies have been made on individual cardinals, such as cardinals Giacomo Lercaro, Leo-Joseph Suenens, Julius Döpfner, Paul-Émile Léger, Giuseppe Siri, Ernesto Ruffini, Stefan Wyszynski, Giuseppe Battista Montini... Yet very few authors have studied the group as such. See in this regard, an article by Velati 2004, p. 659-693. At this juncture, one cannot neglect the excellent biography of cardinal Eugène Tisserant (Fouilloux, 2011).

15 Declerck 2013.

16 Van Schaik 1997, p. 368-486.

17 Regarding the nomination of Willebrands as archbishop of Utrecht, see Declerck 2013/2, p. 29-48.

18 For background, see Schelkens 2013b.

19 On this, see the seventh chapter of Schelkens - Mettepenningen 2015.

20 Declerck 2013, Dossier 324.2, translated from the Dutch original.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

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Référence électronique

Karim Schelkens, « The curious case of cardinal Willebrands. Oscillating Between the College of Bishops and the College of Cardinals », Mélanges de l’École française de Rome - Italie et Méditerranée modernes et contemporaines [En ligne], 128-1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 03 mars 2016, consulté le 11 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Karim Schelkens

Tilburg University –

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