Will Cardinal Martini's '200 years out of date' comments echo in the conclave?By Simon Barrow
Not long before he died in August last year, the Catholic Archbishop of Milan and papal candidate Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini’s final comments on the Church were that its leadership was “200 years out of date” — bureaucratic, pompous, autocratic, inflexible and seemingly remote from the spirit of Christ on key issues.
The devastating remarks by a highly respected cardinal and biblical scholar were made in the last media interview he gave to an Italian newspaper.
At this moment, as the Catholic Church again finds itself at a leadership crossroads, Martini’s words cry out from behind the welter of tributes and immediate comments on who will succeed Pope Benedict XVI. But will they and can they be heard?
Robert Mickens, the Rome correspondent of The Tablet, said at the time that the Cardinal’s deathbed remarks “must be seen in the context of coming from a man who loved the Church and who gave his life to the institution. He made a profound statement, which he had already said many times to Benedict and John Paul II in private.”
These were not the bitter outpourings of someone who wished ill on the Church, who was a fly-by-night liberal, or who lacked respect for (and understanding of) its deepest traditions and texts. Far from it. That is what makes them so significant. As with the profoundly positive thought of someone like theologian Nicholas Lash, once an adviser at Vatican II, they were offered in a spirit of “renewal based on fidelity.”
Today, understandably, many faithful Catholics — even those who remain highly critical of, and disillusioned by, Benedict — will wish to focus on the positive attributes of a pope who has now taken the world by surprise in his resignation after eight years, due to ill health — perhaps “the most modernizing thing he has ever done,” jested Sean Winter.
Those strengths include Benedict’s intellectual rigor (noted even by those inside and outside the Church who disagree with him), his resistance to cowboy capitalism, advocacy for peace and justice, opposition to the death penalty, and continued interfaith conversations with Jews, especially.
But for many, especially many at the grassroots of the church, not least those (like women and LGBT people) who feel marginalized and rejected by the reaction that has set in over the past 30 years, it will be Cardinal Martini’s unvarnished verdict — offered in love and deep frustration — that will sound loudest in summing up the situation the Church now finds itself in overall.
Losing numbers, trust and vocations in many parts of the world, the Catholic Church, as an institution, finds itself facing a huge crisis of identity and direction. It is being rocked not just by abuse scandals, but by growing skepticism and a lack of basic respect in many quarters. To fail to see this would be fatal for its future.
Cardinal Martini’s final earthly verdict was that the Church he had served and loved was failing to move with the times, not in some merely ‘trendy’ sense, but in a way that resonated with the core of the gospel message and the calling of the Christian community to model a way of hope for an often-broken world. Tradition and faithfulness, he argued, was not about fixity but about following Christ as he leads his companions to the God who is always compassionately ahead of them.
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