Léonard, who Pope Benedict XVI appointed this year to replace a much-loved liberal, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, compared the suffering of AIDS victims to human-caused degradation of the environment, for which people themselves then pay the price.
"Maybe human love also responds when she is treated badly, without the need of a transcendent source," Léonard said in a just-published book of interviews he gave to two Belgian journalists over the past few years. "Badly handling physical nature causes it to treat us badly in turn, and badly dealing with the deeper nature of human love will ultimately always lead to catastrophes on all levels."
The reaction against Léonard's comments has been swift and sharp.
Belgian parliamentarians have called the archbishop's statements "disgusting" and "stupid," and some are calling for the government to re-examine the favorable tax status of the Catholic Church, which receives hefty government subsidies.
Even conservative Christian Democratic party leaders expressed outrage. Léonard's words "strike me speechless. For Jesus there were no justified illnesses," said parliamentarian Mia De Schamphelaere, according to a National Catholic Reporter story.
Such official condemnation comes at a difficult time for the Belgian church, which is engaged in a tug-of-war with government investigators who have seized documents in a probe of clergy abuse of children going back decades.
Léonard's comments are also not winning him or the institutional church many points with Catholics themselves, who are increasingly indifferent to their religion, as is the case in many European countries.
The clergy scandals have shocked Belgians, with revelations of at least 475 victims over the decades, 13 of whom committed suicide. The reports brought down the country's longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, and even tarnished the legacy of Cardinal Danneels, whose negotiations with an abuse victim were surreptitiously recorded and released, portraying him in a harsh light.
Danneel's successor, Archbishop Léonard, came under fire in September when he released a report detailing the abuse and condemning it, but at the same time he refused to apologize.
Léonard had already drawn fire for earlier comments on homosexuality, which he described in 2007 as "abnormal" behavior resulting from "an imperfectly developed stage of human sexuality which contradicts its inner logic. Homosexuals have encountered a blockage in their normal psychological development, rendering them abnormal."
Earlier this year, when asked again about the topic, Léonard said that "homosexuality is not the same as normal sex in the same way that anorexia is not a normal appetite."
Now his latest remarks, which he first made in 2006 and are now being translated for wider distribution, have again dismayed Catholics and some of his own clergy.
Father Johnny De Mot, pastor Our Lady of Good Help parish in Brussels, noted that his own brother had died of AIDS in 1996. "It hits me very personally when AIDS is presented as a punishment. I find this (Léonard's words) just terrible -- actually outrageous."
Since the furor erupted this week, church officials have tried to clarify the archbishop's remarks, noting that he explicitly rejected the idea of AIDS as punishment from God, but rather a self-inflicted punishment, or "immanent justice."
"AIDS flows logically from the facts: from a loose lifestyle. It is a bit like the person who smokes. That person has a greater chance of getting lung cancer," Léonard's spokesman, Jürgen Mettepenningen, told the Belgian newspaper De Stadaard.
"Let's be very clear," Mettepenningen continued, according to the NCR translation. "Léonard is here speaking about victims who got AIDS as the result of a promiscuous lifestyle. He is not speaking, for example, about babies who are born with the virus."
On the other hand, Mettepenningen noted that when he first read the proofs of the book he cautioned Léonard that the passage on homosexuality could cause problems, but the archbishop decided to let it stand. The same thing happened when his spokesman tried to warn him off his earlier statements.
"When the Archbishop spoke of homosexuality as a misunderstood form of sexuality I also sounded the alarm. I thought that this could be formulated in a better way," Mettepenningen said, according to Belgium's national news service. "But I don't have the job of thinking for him. I am only his spokesman."
Here is the passage that is causing the controversy, as translated by a Dutch Catholic blogger:
Q: What do you think about AIDS? Do you consider the disease as a 'punishment from God for the sexual revolution?
A: "Someone once asked John Paul II if AIDS was a punishment from God," Léonard says. "He then wisely answered that it is very difficult to know God's intentions. I myself don't reason in those terms at all. So I do not see this epidemic as a punishment, but at the most as a sort of immanent justice, sort of like how, in ecology, we are faced with the consequences of what we are doing to the environment. Maybe human love also responds when she is treated badly, without the need of a transcendent source. Maybe it is a sort of immanent justice, but as far as the concrete causes are concerned, doctors should some day be able to say how this disease came to be, how it was initially transmitted and then spread further...But considered more generally, I stick to something in the order of a sort of immanent justice. Badly handling physical nature causes it to treat us badly in turn and badly dealing with the deeper nature of human love will ultimately always lead to catastrophes on all levels."