“His recently published last testament has stunned the Vatican” and “rocked the ecclesiastical establishment,” declares the English writer Jonathan Aitken, writing of Cardinal Carlo Martini’s last interview. It’s the standard line in secular reporting, when a liberal Catholic has said something the secular reporter wants him to have said.

It’s rarely if ever true, and almost certainly isn’t true in this case. You can imagine, when the newspapers reported that the cardinal said out loud what the cardinal was known to believe, a few in the Vatican rolling their eyes and a few shaking their heads, and a few muttering annoyed profanities at the thought that now lunch is going to be displaced by taking calls from eager reporters, but no one from the Holy Father on down will have felt particularly stunned or rocked.

Think of the Obama administration’s relaxed reaction when Joseph Biden has said something silly, or a mother’s response when the tired, hungry child suffers his predictable breakdown at the end of a long afternoon. A dissenter talks to the press. Life goes on.

Aitken insists that Cardinal Martini, a “towering figure in the College of Cardinals” and a man whose “intellectual influence was immense,” was “the best modern pope we never had.” More to the point, he offered the (needed, we are meant to assume) “counterweight to papal conservatism.”

Aitken praises the cardinal for proposing accommodations to the modern world that would give the Church’s approval to the modern world’s desires and beliefs. “The dying cardinal,” he says, approvingly, “wanted transformation that included an overhaul on the Church’s line on birth control, clergy celibacy, divorce, remarried couples, and gay relationships.”

His arguments were ably taken apart by Carl Olson in Catholic World Report (link below). More interesting, more interesting to me anyway, is what this endorsement of a dissenting Catholic says about the relation of conservative Protestants like Aitken to the Catholic Church.

For Aitken is not a secular reporter but a believing Christian, an Anglican who has written biographies of Charles Colson and John Newton, writing in one of the major conservative magazines. He is not a writer, nor the American Spectator a magazine, that one would expect to praise Cardinal Martini. The article prompted an intellectual double-take. Neither writer nor magazine are so indulgent to Martini’s political equivalents.

As far as one can tell from the essay, the conservative Anglican Aitken favors the revision of the Church’s teaching on contraception, celibacy, marriage, and homosexuality. He is not eccentric in thinking this. With some exceptions (I think of some biblically exacting Southern Baptist friends), the more conservative of our conservative Protestant friends reject the first three but accept the last, but even an increasing number of them are beginning to reject the last as well. Aitken thinks the Catholic Church wrong about all four.

The difference in morality isn’t like the disagreements over the nature of the pope’s authority, or the relation of Scripture to the Church, or any of the traditional differences. It is a deep disagreement over visions of man and his happiness, visions that are essentially theological.

The first type of disagreement, as serious as it is, can be lived with until hearts and minds are changed on one side or the other. The Catholic and Protestant may disagree about whether the pope is the vicar of Christ, but they both try to see and to serve Christ, and that they can to a great extent do together. In a fallen world, with Christians so divided, even some fundamental issues can be bracketed that good works may be done together. Those of us who have been involved in ecumenical work know how fruitful this can be.

The second, however, cannot easily be lived with or set aside. The rubber too obviously hits the road. How people exercise their sexuality changes their lives in the most practical and intimate way possible, and requires everyone to choose between the Catholic and the alternative morality, the one Aitken promotes as modern and flexible and necessary for the Church to speak effectively to the world.

The definition of liberal Catholic these days is pretty much someone who favors the revision of the Church’s teaching on contraception, celibacy, marriage, and homosexuality. Aitken’s unexpected praise of Cardinal Martini, and particularly the proposals for which he praised him, suggests that he like so many of his peers among conservative Protestants are in theology or at least morality closest aligned with liberal Catholics, indeed in a sense are liberal Catholics at one remove.

We should not be surprised to find someone we would have thought to be an ally and a friend”he wrote an admiring biography of Chuck Colson, after all”publicly cheering on Cardinal Martini, and implying that the Catholic Church would be better off had he been the pope and not John Paul II and Benedict XVI. As people have often said, sex can really mess up a friendship.

David Mills is the executive editor of First Things and a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

RESOURCES

Carl Olson’s Shaking, Not Stirring

Russell Shaw’s What Cardinal Martini Said, and What He Didn’t Say

David Mills’s No Mere Christianity

The Second Vatican Council’s Unitatis Redintegratio

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