An Interview with Pieter De Witte

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: What was the topic of your Doctoral Dissertation? Pieter: I wrote on the ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of justification. It was an investigation of the genesis and the reception of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a remarkable ecumenical document signed in 1999 by official representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. Even though my research focus has somewhat shifted to other domains in the last few years, I still think it is an extremely interesting topic. Moreover, I learned that ecumenical encounters are often stimulating environments to deal with fundamental theological issues.


I started to do my doctoral research after having lived in Zimbabwe for two years (2004-2006), where I was teaching exegesis, systematic and fundamental theology and philosophy of religion at Chishawasha Regional Seminary in Harare. The Zimbabwe experience not only instilled an awareness of the existence of so many Christian churches (an awareness that is often lacking when one grows up in a country that is traditionally exclusively Catholic), it also aroused my interest in classical systematic theological topics, such as Christology, Trinity, and, indeed, justification. Gordon: As a member of Research Unit Systematic Theology and the Study of Religions. what is the primary focus of the organization? Pieter: When I was a student, our research unit within the theological faculty was still called ‘dogmatic theology’. The fact that the name is now ‘Systematic Theology and the Study of Religions’ reveals, of course, a certain evolution towards a broader perspective in research and teaching.


But even when we were still called ‘dogmaticians’, I never had the impression that the teaching and the research was characterized by dogmatism. I have always appreciated and enjoyed the Leuven spirit of open, contemporary theological reflection that is at the same time firmly rooted in our Catholic tradition. The research unit (and the faculty as a whole) is also very diverse and international.

Gordon: When and why were you initially interested in prison challenges? Pieter: While I was doing my doctoral research, I felt a strong need to get away from my desk and to do some additional work that was relevant to people in a more direct way. I got in touch with the prison chaplain of the Central Prison of Leuven and we agreed that I would visit two prisoners once a week. So I became a volunteer in the pastoral team of the prison.


I immediately experienced the importance of this pastoral work is, even though I never imagined in those years that this work could become my job. I was also convinced at that time that I never wanted to mix up my academic work with this pastoral commitment.


In a strange way, the work in the prison had become also a safe haven for myself where I could have authentic, rewarding and spiritual encounters with people, sometimes even in contrast with the academic environment, which I experienced as highly competitive and at times trapped in a typically middle-class worldview.


It all ended up differently. I was appointed as a part-time prison chaplain in 2012 and my pastoral activities did become deeply intertwined with my academic work ever since. Gordon: What are your responsibilities as Prison Chaplain? Pieter: My work in prison mainly consists of individual conversations with prisoners. Usually, I visit people in their cells (of which I have a key). Due to the current Covid19-measures, however, cell visits are not allowed, and pastoral counselling needs to take place in my office or in a meeting room.


These temporary restrictions have made me realize once more how precious and extraordinary the encounters between prisoners and chaplains are. There is a deep symbolic significance in the fact that as chaplains – in non-corona-times – we knock at people’s door and can enjoy their hospitality – being offered a cup of coffee – while listening to the people’s stories in their daily surroundings. Somehow, this setting embodies the kind of trust that is characteristic of pastoral encounters in prisons. When people enter the prison, they soon learn that one has to mind one’s words as a prisoner.


‘Everything you say can be used against you’, is not only applicable to exchanges with police officers and judges, but also, to relations with psychologists and even fellow prisoners. Prison is an environment of multilateral distrust. In this environment, chaplains attempt to offer a ‘sanctuary’ where prisoners can feel free to say the things they want about the topics they choose.


Another crucial responsibility of the chaplain is the liturgy. As I am a lay person, I felt some reluctance at first to take up a liturgical role in the prison. It simply did not seem my vocation. Gradually, I became aware of the importance of liturgy in the prison. Right now, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to preside in prayer services in prison and to pray, sing and reflect together with the prisoners. Regularly, a priest comes over to celebrate the Eucharist.

Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as coordinator of the KU Leuven based Center for Religion, Ethics and Detention? Pieter: The Center for Religion, Ethics and Detention (CRED) is a collaboration between the Flemish prison chaplaincy, the Leuven Institute for Criminology and the KU Leuven Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. From the side of the prison chaplains, we try to organize relevant and high-quality training sessions for our remunerated and voluntary colleagues.


Because of the complexity of their job, prison chaplains need training in a number of fields: counselling skills, pastoral theology, law, prison sociology, psychology, suicide prevention, and so forth. Through its connection with the university, CRED can offer a valuable academic input in the organization of these trainings. Conversely, the experiences of prison chaplains provide a valuable starting point for a fundamental academic reflection on religious, ethical and political aspects of our criminal justice system.


CRED aims at promoting such reflection. Moreover, we try, on the basis of our analysis of the prison system, to participate in the public debate on criminal justice and to engage in advocacy work.


One of the projects we initiated is a service-learning course at the university for 12 regular university students (mostly enrolled in criminology, law, or theology programs) and 12 prison-based students. The course takes place in a Belgian prison and focusses on the question: ‘What is a good and just punishment?’. It consists of both lectures and intensive discussions among the participants. Every year, it turns out to be a powerful personal and academic experience for both the students and the lecturers. The course exemplifies the kind of fundamental and participatory reflection CRED wants to promote.

Gordon: Based om your experience, what are the three primary challenges to prison care in Belgium and what are your recommendations to correct them?

Pieter: The challenges are many, especially because of the poor ‘moral performance’ of the existing prison system (utilizing a term sometimes used in prison research). So, the first challenge would be: How can we contribute to a more humane (or less degrading) system of punishing offenders? Because the most fundamental problems in our prisons are of a systemic nature, individuals and individual organizations are often powerless and unable to offer real solutions. The most well-intended initiatives even run the risk of becoming the oil that makes an essentially inhumane machine run more smoothly.


Therefore, prison chaplains face an additional challenge: How can we bring some humanity in the prison while at the same time fostering a spirit of open and critical reflection about the context in which we are working? (‘being in the system, but not from the system’). There are no clear-cut strategies to deal with both challenges (changing the prison and working as critical agents in the prison). Still, I think the mission of CRED is precisely to deal with those challenges by offering spaces of critical reflection, lobbying for the rights of prisoners and making practitioners aware of the complex dynamics of the prison environment.


A final challenge of the prison chaplaincy is to find the right people to do the job. Even though there has been some improvement in our terms of employment lately, the working conditions are still dire in many prisons and the salaries are hardly competitive. Moreover, it takes some maturity to start this job and some perseverance to continue it. On the other hand, it is beautiful and rewarding work and it is a joy to see so many colleagues being passionate about their work. Somehow, I am confident that we will always find the right people who feel a vocation for prison chaplaincy, for a vocation it is.


Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional and insightful interview.