There is a strange idea in circulation that Leopold III was not a devout Catholic. In fact, the Belgian kings, in general, are sometimes portrayed as lacking spiritual fervor until Leopold's son, Baudouin. I was shocked to read, in one account of Baudouin's life, that Albert I and Leopold III were "lukewarm" Catholics, in contrast to Baudouin, whose deep faith was presented as a radical departure from family tradition. Other authors have tried to explain the so-called "estrangement," beginning around 1960, between Leopold and Baudouin, in terms of a conflict between the supposedly more secularist outlook of Leopold and Lilian and the piety of Baudouin and his wife, Fabiola (married in 1960).
The cooling of relations, (which, previously, had been warm and affectionate), between Leopold and Baudouin, following the departure of Leopold and his second family from Laeken in 1960, and their move to the country estate of Argenteuil, was, in fact, largely due to reasons of state. Leopold's presence undoubtedly aided and reassured his son, during the early years of his reign (especially as Baudouin ascended the throne at age 21, as an inexperienced and vulnerable young man). Once, however, Baudouin achieved sufficient maturity, political necessity, to some extent, obliged father and son to keep a mutual distance. Close relations provoked charges that Leopold had not truly abdicated but was continuing to rule through his son. As Michel Verwilghen describes in Le mythe d'Argenteuil, demeure d'un couple royal (2006), a number of King Baudouin's close advisers were determined to distance the young monarch from his father and step-mother. It is also true that misunderstandings and personal conflicts within the royal family fed the process (It is, however, false that Leopold and Lilian, during the honeymoon of Baudouin and Fabiola, spitefully stole all the furniture from Laeken and installed it at Argenteuil. This calumny, based upon distortion and exaggeration of the facts, and often repeated in efforts to explain the estrangement between the two royal houses, is refuted in great detail in Verwilghen's book).
Regarding the religious question, it is true that Lilian did not favor the charismatic movement, with which Baudouin and Fabiola eventually became involved. Apparently, it is also true that Leopold was strongly opposed to the Belgian Primate, Cardinal Suenens, who gained considerable spiritual influence over Baudouin. Yet, the idea that Leopold was a "lukewarm" Catholic is false. Leopold's father, Albert, was also far from "lukewarm"; he was, in fact, deeply pious. Albert took pains to inculcate his own religious devotion, and critical conscience, in his children. "As you nourish your bodies," he told them, "so you ought to nourish your souls" (quoted in La Regina Incompresa, tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia, 2002, by Luciano Regolo, p. 22). Leopold appears to have inherited a good measure of Albert's faith.
From his youth, Leopold displayed a touching religious sense. At age 12, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Leopold (who had been sent to safety in England) wrote to his father, King Albert, under German siege in Antwerp: "Every day I pray the good God to help us and enable us to return to you very soon."(quoted in Léopold III, 2001, by Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al. p. 22) As a young man, it was (according to a close companion) Leopold's "Christian charity" that inspired his concern for the poor (see Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation, 1987, by Jean Cleeremans, p. 13). Leopold's faith was also demonstrated, under tragic circumstances, at the death of his wife, Astrid. Leopold's secretary, Robert Capelle, relates in his memoirs that, after the car accident in Switzerland, the King, tearful and sobbing, confided to him: "Why did the good God take her away from me? We were so happy...she is still so, but me...how I need her to protect me!"
In The prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact (1941), written to defend the King from charges of treason during World War II, Emile Cammaerts noted that he was probably playing into the hands of the Leopold's enemies, by emphasizing the role of religion in his life, as expressions of piety could easily be interpreted as signs of weakness or hypocrisy. Yet, Cammaerts asserted, Leopold (and his father, Albert) could only be understood in terms of faith put into practice. In support of his claim, he quoted several passages from Leopold's speeches to the Belgian clergy. In 1936, Leopold declared:
The love of one's neighbors, the sense of duty, truth, and justice, if applied to daily life, would spare mankind countless sufferings, troubles, and anxieties... The solution to the problems which oppress the world can only be found in the practice of Charity between individuals and between nations.
Similarly, in his Political Testament, in 1944, the King would assert that "Christian charity and human dignity" required the institution of extensive social reforms in Belgium. Cammaerts also recalls a conversation with the King during the 1930's, when Leopold deplored the political divisions and abuses in Belgium, exclaiming: "And to think, that we call ourselves Christians!"
In his public speeches and orders of the day, Leopold repeatedly invoked divine aid. He concluded his abdication speech in 1951 with the words: "God protect Belgium and the Congo!" Given the other indications of the sincerity of his faith, such invocations were surely not mere formalities, but, rather, heartfelt prayers.
Another biographer, when mentioning the King's interests, after his abdication, in nature, travel and exploration, asserts: "Deeply religious... he found, in nature, the presence of the Creator God." (Léopold III, 2001, p. 338) This biography is not completely sympathetic to Leopold, portraying him as upright, but rather stubborn and authoritarian; it also treats his political enemies quite gently. Therefore, I do not think there can be any question here of "hagiography" of the King.
In 1983, Kagabo Pilipili, an African student, and his wife were received by Leopold at Argenteuil. During the audience, Pilipili's wife mentioned her son's heart problems, and Leopold immediately promised the aid of Lilian's cardiological foundation in obtaining treatment for the child. As Leopold's own son, Alexandre, had suffered from heart problems, he was especially sympathetic to the family's plight. When Pilipili and his wife thanked the King for his assistance, he replied, in a tone of deep emotion: "I will do what I can. But God will do the rest for you." Leopold's guests were greatly touched and consoled by his belief in Providence (see Léopold III, homme libre, 2001, by Jean Cleeremans, pp. 57-58).
It would be false to say that Baudouin was the first Belgian king to be religious.