Martini Will Leave Vatican Neither Shaken nor Stirred

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini celebrates the Christmas Mass
(Photo by Pigi CipelliArchivio Pigi CipelliMondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

So Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, once considered a top candidate for the papal crown, has died. He was 85.

Martini was a liberal, a progressive, a reformer, pick a label. He was a Jesuit. That’s all you need to know.

Martini frequently voiced openness to divisive issues for the church, such as using condoms to fight HIV/AIDS, priestly celibacy and homosexuality, which, while not at odds with church teaching, nevertheless showed his progressive bent. He was an intellectual and a noted biblical scholar, yet he nevertheless was warm and personable and seemed to connect with his flock like few high-ranking prelates.

And, despite his liberal views in a College of Cardinals that grew increasingly conservative under Pope John Paul II, he was considered a possible contender in the 2005 conclave that brought the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to the papacy.

Martini was well known and well-liked by Italians, many of whom got to know him by his frequent contributions to leading daily Corriere della Sera, which for three years ran a popular column “Letters to Cardinal Martini,” in which Martini would respond directly to questions submitted by readers.

It seems that Martini gave one last interview before his death, one in which he apparently laid down some landmines. I don’t see them, frankly, so no need to tread lightly here.

“Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous,” Martini said in the interview published in Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

“The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation,” he said in the interview. …

Martini, famous for comments that the use of condoms could be acceptable in some cases, told interviewers the Church should open up to new kinds of families or risk losing its flock.

“A woman is abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion to look after her and her children. A second love succeeds. If this family is discriminated against, not just the mother will be cut off but also her children.”

In this way “the Church loses the future generation”, Martini said in the interview, made a fortnight before he died. The Vatican opposes divorce and forbids contraception in favor of fidelity within marriage and abstinence without.

Wow. This is so . . . completely uncontroversial. Did I mention Martini was a Jesuit? Earth to religious press: This is what Jesuits do: stir the pot. Ignatius Loyala—he dead.

What, is the pope suddenly going to feel obliged to call a council to consider modifying its moral theology?

Listen, Catholic reformers: You want to really shake up the church? Throw it for a real loop? Forget Hans Kung and Crossan and Boff. They’re lightweights. And for the love of all that’s been downloaded by a 16-year-old during “private browsing”: forget the sex stuff. You lost that debate about a millennium and a half ago, when St. Jerome was lionizing the eremites as sure models of sanctity.

No, you have to do it the way Teilhard de Chardin did. Write stuff only the .1% of the 99 percentile even understand. Initially there will be pushback, but also hesitation, because it’s too intense, and no one knows where either the science or the theology is going to wind up in fifty years. Eventually there will be a partial rehabilitation as orthodox seminaries began referring to your work. Finally, a pope will even reference one of your metaphors with warm approval.*

In another hundred years, your books will be off the condemned list and someone will be swearing up and down that they were healed because of your intercession, and you’re on your way to a feast day.

But first you have to be freaking brilliant. Like a hundred years ahead of the next most brilliant guy in your older genius brother’s class.

So good luck with that.

*”It’s the great vision that later Teilhard de Chardin also had: At the end we will have a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. … Let’s pray to the Lord that he help us be priests in this sense … to help in the transformation of the world in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves.” —Benedict XVI, 2009

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