When Cardinal Carlo Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan, died on August 31, many must have wondered what kind of leader the Church had just lost. “Progressive Catholic Icon . . . Dies After Saying Church ‘200 years’ Behind,” headlined CBS news on September 3. The following day, the Catholic News Service reported Pope Benedict’s tribute: “The late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini was a ‘generous and faithful pastor of the church,’ who not only studied the Bible ‘but loved it intensely and made it the light of his life.’”
Could the secular press and Benedict, be speaking about the same man? Yes, and their reactions to Martini’s passing reflected his multifaceted and sometimes controversial life.
There are two dimensions to Cardinal Martini’s legacy, and it would be a mistake to downplay either one.
The first derived from his expertise on the Bible. Cardinal Martini was a renowned Jesuit Scripture scholar, and was at his best when exploring its teachings, leading figures, and showing how they related to contemporary life. Whether he was recounting the sufferings of Job, the conversion of St. Paul, or the trust and surrender of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Martini had a unique ability to highlight the Gospel’s power and immediacy. As much as anyone, he helped revive the ancient practice of lectio divina—the spiritual reading of Scripture—and the Church is far better off because of it.
At the heart of Cardinal Martini’s spirituality was an intense devotion to Christ. Understanding the Lord, drawing closer to him, and becoming his faithful servant, was what directed Martini’s exegesis. Of course, he knew that in order to be a disciple of Christ, one first had to accept the Incarnation, and truth of the Gospels, which is often a struggle for those contending with modernity. It is a trial Martini experienced himself.
In one of his most memorable essays, “My Life with Christ,” the Cardinal wrote:
My journey started very early, in childhood and early adolescence. It is the story of a boy who knew Jesus in the family, at school, in his various surroundings and was greatly drawn to him, in love with him. The boy knew at once that it was impossible to treat such a figure lightly: either you accept all or you reject all. It was a time of increasing, enthusiastic knowledge: the time of fire.
But that passionate burst of faith was followed by doubt:
. . . at first scarcely noticeable, then more insistent. Can it really be so? How could we know that the evangelists were telling the truth, that things happened in that way? What is the historical basis for what these books tell us about Jesus? Why are these pages credible? May we not be building up a figure on the fantasies of fanatics in the past? What is said about Jesus may all be very fine, but is it soundly based?
Longing to find the truth, Martini plunged himself into studying the New Testament, and read everything he could on “the historical Jesus”—including Christianity’s fiercest critics. Only after testing the Church’s claims against the most rigorous demands did he see “more and more clearly the solid basis for what we can know about Jesus” and that “there were significant and decisive sayings and events in his life that could not be eliminated by any criticism.” Having liberated himself from his fear of embracing Christ fully, he did so, and was inspired to evangelize others:
When we consider the mystery of God crucified and God’s weaknesses, seeing these in Jesus crucified and risen, then the words and actions of Jesus, the parables, the beatitudes, the miracles and cures, the teaching of forgiveness, and his being tortured to death take on a new meaning. Reading the Gospels again, one finds in them . . . a profound coherence, an unexpected richness of meaning. Everything is linked again in a new understanding of Jesus, which makes it enter the pith of our living experience as weak creatures seeking a hope that will not disappoint us. It is this mysterious, enticing journey which I should wish for everyone.
It was for passages like these that Cardinal Martini is now being fondly remembered.
Yet there was another side to Cardinal Martini, one far removed from the contemplative exegete and spiritual master. This was the prominence he adopted as public commentator, would-be Church reformer, and unofficial pope of progressive Catholics. It is a role he evidently welcomed, right up to his last interview.
“Many of his positions on social issues,” noted CBS, “were frowned upon by the Vatican. He was open-minded toward homosexuality, believed that divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive full sacraments, and said he understood—even if he did not support—abortion.”
This is actually an understatement. Cardinal Martini was not merely “open” toward homosexuality, he approved civil unions for same-sex couples. He often praised the family and Christian love, yes—but did so in the context of assailing Humanae Vitae, and advocating the use of condoms to fight AIDS. He challenged the Church’s position on bioethics. Most seriously, he wrote that there was a “positive” aspect to legalizing abortion, and referred to this crime euphemistically as a “termination of pregnancy.”
The Cardinal’s defenders say these statements shouldn’t be isolated, but viewed in a broader picture, alongside his strong statements in favor of life, traditional marriage, and the papacy. But they don’t realize, anymore than did the late Cardinal, that once you make a statement undermining Church teaching, it contradicts and fatally undermines anything orthodox you say. The world hears only the dissent, and edits out all the rest.
The biggest disappointment here is that the Cardinal’s persona as a public commentator was often at odds with his strengths as a biblical interpreter. Serving as the latter, he stressed the need for interior conversion, a renunciation of worldly values, and deeper obedience to Christ. Yet his outreaches to the world became not so much pastoral as fashionable. There was a reason he was “respected among nonbelievers and lapsed Catholics,” as the Washington Post put it, and it wasn’t because he challenged his secular audiences: it was because he accommodated them.
The word “reform” was often mentioned in connection with Cardinal Martini, but rarely in its proper Christian sense. Authentic Christian reform does not—as so many dissenters think—mean secularization and moral laxity, but a deepening of commitment to Christianity’s highest standards. Vatican II called for a vibrant spiritual renewal, not dissolution.
In a thoughtful reflection on his passing, Father Raymond de Souza praised Cardinal Martini’s achievements, noting his long-time friendship with Pope Benedict, but also outlined the significant differences between the two men. Pope Benedict sees “a culture drifting farther and farther away from its Christian roots” and thus views the Church “as one of prophetic witness, offering criticism and even rebuke.” Cardinal Martini, in contrast, “took the gap between the ambient culture and the Church as an invitation for the Church to move toward the culture.”
Which brings us to Cardinal Martini’s last interview, the one in which he called the Church “200 years out of date.” What was so striking about it was how familiar it sounded. As Pietro De Marco of the University of Florence pointed out, the Cardinal’s list of grievances and suggestions echoed those of the 1960’s, which “no longer have any meaning, after half a century of failures.” More importantly, Cardinal Martini was vastly underestimating the situation. The Church is not 200 years out of date—it is 2,000 years out of date, and will remain so, for the eternal truths of Jesus Christ are timeless and not subject to the trends of any particular age, however “forward” it thinks it is.
At Cardinal Martini’s funeral, Cardinal Angelo Scola, his successor as archbishop of Milan, appropriately noted the phrase the famed Biblical scholar chose to have engraved on his tombstone: “Thy word is a lamp to guide my feet, and a light on my path.” (Psalm 119).
May the Cardinal now experience that full light, frequently obscured on earth, and may we all strive to find, live under it and protect it.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
“Cardinal Carlo Martini, Papal Contender, Dies at 85,” The New York Times, August 31, 2012.
“Progressive Catholic Icon Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini Dies After Saying Church “200 Years” Behind,” CBS News, September 3, 2012.
“Pope Says Cardinal Martini’s Love for Bible Guided His Life,” Catholic News Service, September 4, 2012.
“My Life with Christ,” by Carlo Maria Martini, The Tablet, March 29, 1997.
The Testimony of St. Paul by Carlo M. Martini (Crossroad, 1989)
Perseverance in Trials: Reflections on Job
The Gospel Way of Mary
Belief or Non-Belief? A Dialogue
“Controversial Retired Cardinal Martini Calls Legal Abortion, ‘Positive’,” Lifesite News, April 21, 2006.
“Cardinal Martini’s Book Gives Scandal to the Faithful, Archbishop Says,” Catholic News Agency, December 2, 2008.
“Cardinal Carlo Martini, Symbol of Vatican II, Represented Catholic Church That Might Have Been,” by Tom Heneghan, Reuters, September 3, 2012.
“Was Cardinal Carlo Martini the Last Liberal Catholic Bishop?” By Alessandro Speciale, Religion News Service, Washington Post, September 7, 2012.
“Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Advocated for Church Reform,” The Catholic Register, September 5, 2012.
“Cardinal Martini’s Jesus Would Never Have Written Humanae Vitae,” by Sandro Magister, L’espresso, March 11, 2008.
“After Martini, the Fight Over His Spiritual Testament,” by Sandro Magister, L’espresso, September 6, 2012.
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