Will Cardinal Martini's '200 years out of date' comments echo in the Conclave?

By Simon Barrow
February 11, 2013

Not long before he died in August last year (2012), 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and papal candidate Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini's final comments on the Church were that its leadership was “200 years out of date” - bureaucratic, pompous, autocratic, inflexible and seemingly remote from the spirit of Christ on key issues.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 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 modernising thing he has ever done", jested Sean Winter.

Those strengths include Benedict's intellectual rigour (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 marginalised 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 scepticism 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.

“Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up; our rituals and our cassocks are pompous,” Cardinal Martini said in his interview, published in Corriere della Sera. "The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope and the bishops. The paedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation.”

The Cardinal, who recognised that the use of condoms could be acceptable in some cases, also told interviewers that 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.” he declared. “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.”

The cardinal’s final message to Pope Benedict XVI, of whom he was a thoughtful theological critic, was that a shake-up of the Catholic Church had to begin without delay. “The church is 200 years out of date,” he summed up. “Why don’t we rouse ourselves? Are we afraid?”

In 1999 Martini had in fact urged that a council should be held to look at church governance, the shortage of priests and the role of women and marriage, alongside a raft of other reforms. He and his supporters were rebuffed.

Cardinal Martini's courageous voice is one that, many Catholics believe, can help take the Church forward in fidelity to the dynamic of the Second Vatican Council, which those around Pope Benedict have been seeking to pull back on and contain.

Whether his rallying call for reform can be heard with decisive force in the immediate future has to be in severe doubt, of course.

The Conclave that will choose Pope Benedict's successor has been shaped in the current pontiff's image, and by the tradition he represents. He is physically frail, but he will surely continue to shadow the Church, even in retirement. The shock felt within the Vatican is also likely to strengthen the hands of those with conservative instincts.

But as an acquaintance of mine, who sadly resigned her orders as a religious sister, once said: "Change is never predictable in the Catholic Church. It tends to come in leaps, as well as incrementally. One day a Pope may well wake up and say, 'You know, we must ordain women', and it may not be from the voice or place we have been expecting."

Is a less hierarchical, post-Christendom Catholic Church possible, and who will lead the way? We watch and wait with interest, and with not a little pain.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. An Episcopalian with strong Mennonite/Anabaptist leanings, he has also been on the staff at a Catholic university college, and worked for nine years in the ecumenical movement, as global mission secretary and as an assistant general secretary for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

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