US Catholic Faith in Real Life

"Rare liberal" Cardinal Martini issues "scathing attack" before death: Um, not exactly

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

If the poor, late, would-be pope Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini could read his obits, I wonder if he'd recognize himself. You'd think he was some left-wing firebrand rather than the Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan--a job you don't get by living on the theological edge.

To describe Martini as a "rare liberal," as the Associated Press did in its obit, says more about how the goalposts have moved in the last 25 years than it does about Martini. His "liberal views"--about admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion and the use of condoms in HIV prevention--are likely shared by a great many Catholics, probably even some bishops. What made him different was his willingness to actually say what he thought, which, it turns out is the bigger problem in a church where bishops must seem to be in agreement about everything.

Martini last interview wasn't a "scathing attack" (UK Daily Mail), but a statement of fact: The grand churches of Europe are, as he pointed out, more or less empty; 30 million Roman Catholics in the United States have gone missing; the churches of Latin America continue to hemorrhage members to Pentecostal churches. Meanwhile in Rome, it's business as usual.

Martini may have erred when he said the church is "200 years out of date"; it is more accurate to say that there is a 200-year difference in the mindsets of many in the church. Most of the baptized have no choice but to live in a world of staggering inequality, violence, and uncertainty; a rare few live in more sheltered surroundings at great distance from life on the ground.

Whatever Martini's intentions, I wish he might have spoken even more boldly in life--and that others might take this opportunity to do so. His diagnosis of the church's malaise is accurate, but we need living physicians to find the cure.