Pope John Paul II ended a visit to Belgium tonight where he received the popular acclaim that was absent during his stay in the Netherlands last week.
Where the Dutch alternately protested violently or displayed indifference to the pontiff, John Paul was welcomed by friendly and enthusiastic Belgians at every stop. He flew back to Rome at the conclusion of the 11-day trip that also included a visit to Luxembourg.
In one demonstration of his special appeal, John Paul overcame Belgium's strong linguistic divisions and brought together an estimated 100,000 French- and Dutch-speaking worshipers for a rare joint service at the national cathedral.
But as he enjoyed their warm reception, John Paul saw evidence that many Belgian Catholics share the opposition to Vatican policies of Catholics in the Netherlands and other western countries.
The pope also drew criticism after he urged Belgian officials yesterday to follow "certain principles" that would rule out abortion and experimentation on human embryos. Abortion is illegal in Belgium except when a mother's life is in danger but the law is enforced sporadically.
Brussels' Le Soir newspaper said today that while it was "perfectly legitimate for the pope to outline his ethical views," this legitimacy "ends at the doors of the church and should in no way bear on a civil society that must take into account the beliefs of all its members."
Earlier in his visit, lay Catholic leaders appealed to John Paul to relax the Vatican's policies on the role of women in the church, the involvement of the church in politics and divorce.
And on Sunday, in the French-speaking city of Liege, John Paul heard his constant traveling questioned by Anne-Marie Gilson, the leader of a rural Catholic woman's group. "When your visit to this country was first announced," she said, "I was beset by one question: why? The inevitable pomp and splendor surrounding every voyage of yours did not appeal to me at all."
But Gilson said that after she was asked to speak to the pope, she had decided the visit was an opportunity to "voice what so many people feel," including the realization that, "our church is not perfect" and "our bishops are not perfect."
At one point during Gilson's speech, the pope threw up his hands, perhaps showing some exasperation with her frank remarks. According to Belgian church officials, however, it is just this kind of open dialogue that has helped head off the divisions that split the Dutch church.
For the past 15 years, for example, lay representatives have held monthly meetings with the bishops of the Flanders region to talk about the situation in the local church.
The Belgian bishops have also won support by showing some independence from the Vatican. In 1968, after pope Paul VI issued his encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which condemned all forms of artificial birth control, the Belgian bishops published a pastoral letter telling Catholics to follow their own "Christian conscience" on the contraception question.
The Belgian bishops, however, have not felt pressured to tolerate the kind of experiments in liturgy and doctrine that brought a Vatican clampdown on Dutch church authorities. This has been true in the northern Flanders region, which shares with the Netherlands a common border and language, as well as in the southern French-speaking region.
The explanation for these differences, Flemish church officials said, lies in the history of the two countries and the effect it has had on the character of the people and the church.
Dutch Catholics, who form about 40 percent of the population, historically have faced a "struggle for emancipation" in their predominantly Protestant country, said Paul van den Berghe, the bishop of Antwerp. To assert their own identity, Dutch Catholics traditionally were more "Roman than Rome," strictly interpreting church teachings on morality and other questions, another Flemish church official said.
In the postwar period, the search for identity led to equally extreme tendencies in the Dutch church that rejected Vatican orthodoxies, the Flemish official said. Liberal Dutch Catholics, explaining their rebellion against papal authority, also said their country is sensitive to outside influence of any kind because of past occupations by foreigners.
In Belgium, Catholics make up more than 70 percent of the population. While conflicts between church and state have been common since the country gained independence in 1830, the disputes have most often concerned the extent of church influence on education and government policies.
Because Belgian Catholics did not have to fight against discrimination as Dutch Catholics did, church officials said, Belgian Catholics have found it easier to maintain an "equilibrium" in the midst of the controversies sweeping the church.