The recent death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, known as the Roman Catholic Church’s most influential progressive thinker and who was once considered as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II. His death has made Catholics who called for church reform on issues such as homosexuality, female ordination and priestly celibacy wonder have they lost one of their last leading lights in the top echelons of the church’s hierarchy.
His death was announced by the Archdiocese of Milan on 31st August, where he had been archbishop for 22 years before retiring in 2002. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for some time. More importantly, he was considered for decades the informal leader of “liberals” inside the church. But he has no clear successor in the current crop of cardinals.
In the later years of Pope John Paul II’s tenure, Cardinal Martini was frequently mentioned as a contender to be the next pope, especially by members of the church’s progressive wing. But in the 2005 conclave after the pope’s death, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a hard-line defender of the faith, was the choice, becoming Pope Benedict XVI.
In a message sent on the same day as the announcement of Cardinal Carlo Martini death to the current archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola, Pope Benedict praised Cardinal Martini as an “authoritative biblical scholar” and “a zealous prelate.”
A Jesuit who was a respected expert on Scripture and the early church, Cardinal Martini espoused liberal, if diplomatically couched, views on a range of subjects — including priestly celibacy, the right to die, condom use and even abortion — that sometimes put him at odds with church doctrine. He was often said that he had the rare combination of skills as a scholar, pastor, communicator and holy man.
In 2005, for instance, the Catholic News Service described him as having expressed “openness to the possibility of allowing married Latin-rite priests under certain circumstances,” as well as to the ordination of women as deacons.
Cardinal Martini was sometimes described in the news media as having gone as far as suggesting the church consider ordaining women as priests. But in an interview with The New York Times in 2002, the cardinal, who spoke impeccable English and a number of other languages both ancient and modern, disavowed that position, saying that his views on the subject were “much more nuanced.”
He also expressed notably liberal views on issues relating to health and the human body. In 2006, in a dialogue published in the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso between Cardinal Martini and the Italian bioethicist Ignazio Marino, the cardinal challenged official church policy by arguing that condom use was justified in some cases to prevent the spread of AIDS.
More striking still, in the same exchange he characterized the legalization of abortion as a “positive” development, inasmuch as it could “reduce or eliminate” illegal abortions. He added, however, that the availability of legal abortion should not be construed as a “license to kill.”
In 2007, in a letter to an Italian newspaper, Cardinal Martini expressed qualified support for a patient’s right to die, urging the Vatican to honor the requests of terminally ill patients who ask “in all lucidity” for life-prolonging treatments to be withdrawn.
Cardinal Martini, who never held a parish pulpit, was also known for his inclusive approach to contemporary theology. In Milan, he helped draw young people to the church by presenting a series of forums in which religious believers, atheists and agnostics met to discuss issues of mutual concern.
And in recent years he wrote a column for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in which he answered questions from readers on topics like the clergy sex abuse scandal and divorce.
An advocate for interfaith dialogue, Cardinal Martini served on the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews. In the 1960s, as rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, he created a program under which Catholic students go to Israel to study Judaism, biblical archaeology and Hebrew.
In a 2004 speech at Gregorian University in Rome, Cardinal Martini said that Catholics could not fully understand their own faith without a meaningful understanding of Judaism.
“It is not enough to be ‘anti’ anti-Semitism,” he said. “We need to build friendships, recognizing our differences, but not allowing them to lead to conflict.”
He expanded on those views in his book “Christianity and Judaism: A Historical and Theological Overview.”
At the end observers were stunned when around 200,000 people queued outside Milan’s cathedral to pay their tribute to the remains of the deceased cardinal.
“Thanks to his example, many who feel estranged from church structures and policies would listen to the Gospel,” noted Vittorio Bellavite of We Are Church, a group that advocates for church reform.
Even more amazing was even after death Cardinal Carlo Martini spoke of the fact that the Catholic Church was in need of reform and was 200 years behind the times in his last interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Corriere Della Sera plans to give a copy of his last book entitled Speak From The Heart to all its readers.
This demonstrates what Cardinal Carlo Martini’s spiritual legacy will be; a courageous and outspoken figure in which during his years he headed Europe’s largest Catholic diocese, a eligible successor to Pope John Paul II and the Cardinal who galvanised Catholic liberals in life and death, shining the light that reforms can be made.