What Cardinal Martini Said, and What He Didn’t Say

The late cardinal’s controversial interview was less interesting than what some progressive Catholics have tried to make of it.

Let’s face it—there are times when matters that exercise Catholics in their intra-Church dogfights look rather small in comparison to the great themes of faith. As I was reading some of the whooping by progressive Catholics that greeted the posthumous publication of an interview by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, I thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s description of what he found at Union Theological Seminary in the early 1930s:

In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, life and death.

The Tablet of London, which along with the Corriere della Serra of Milan was one of the first periodicals to receive and publish the Martini interview, probably wasn’t thinking of that when it welcomed this short document as “a sweeping indictment of the last two papacies.” Yet the late Cardinal’s remarks are in reality rather small beer, while the “indictment,” such as it is, is one Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI could have adopted, at least partly, as their own.

At the start, let us recognize that Cardinal Martini, who died August 31 at the age of 85 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, was a man of stature and, by all accounts, a conscientious pastor of his huge archdiocese. A Jesuit and a Scripture scholar, he’d served as rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and, briefly, of the Gregorian University before Pope John Paul tapped him for Milan in 1979. This appointment did honor to appointee and appointer alike since it illustrated John Paul’s self-confident willingness to provide prominent platforms for talented churchmen whose views he by no means always shared. And predictably, long before retiring in 2002, the cardinal had become the leader of the loyal opposition in the College of Cardinals.

His newly published interview was given shortly before his death to an Austrian Jesuit colleague and a woman friend. Its most-quoted passage is this:

The Church is tired in affluent Europe and in America. Our culture has grown old, our churches are big, our religious houses are empty, the bureaucracy of our churches is growing out of proportion, our liturgies and our vestments are pompous.

To which the cardinal added a little later: “The Church is 200 years behind the times.”

Reading this, many moderately conservative Catholics are likely to think that, allowing for a couple of exceptions and qualifications, Cardinal Martini got it right. The main exception would concern the idea that the Church is outdated. Not that the externals aren’t out of date in areas like those he mentions. But the kind of updating desired by his most vocal admirers, though perhaps not by the cardinal himself, would very likely end in a Catholic Church that looked a lot like the battered Anglican Communion. And who needs another ecclesiastical whatchamacallit like that? (More about this later.)

To a great extent, however, what Cardinal Martini said was a good deal less interesting than what The Tablet, an influential voice of progressive Catholicism in the English-speaking world, chose to make of it.

A gee-whiz editorial in the magazine’s issue of September 8 begins by recalling Cardinal Martini’s role as the progressives’ favorite candidate for pope for nearly two decades. Considered that way, the writer claims, his remarks constitute both “an agenda for a papacy that never was” and also “a manifesto for the next conclave.” And who will be the progressives’ standard-bearer then? The Tablet bestows its anointing on Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a gesture the archbishop of Vienna may not altogether welcome.

The magazine brushes lightly over Cardinal Martini’s specific criticisms of Church teaching and practice. (In fact, the only one mentioned in the interview is the familiar progressive claim that divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been declared null should nevertheless be allowed to receive Communion.) On this occasion, it seems, The Tablet’s real interest lies somewhere else.

“At the heart of Cardinal Martini’s protest,” The Tablet says, is the complaint that “the grand vision of the Second Vatican Council represented by the concept of collegiality has been systematically frustrated.” Explaining the council’s thinking about collegiality, the editorial helpfully adds: “The theory was that the government of the Church belonged essentially to the college of bishops, under the leadership of the bishop of Rome.”

But that wasn’t the theory. The controlling Vatican II document—the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium—says something notably different: “The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, namely, and as pastor of the universal Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered….Together with the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, [the bishops] have supreme and full authority over the universal Church, but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff” (Lumen Gentium, 22).

The conciliar text also says much else, and much it says really does assign very high responsibility for teaching and governing to the bishops, individually and collectively. In doing this, however, the constitution on the Church makes it perfectly clear that while the bishop of Rome can teach and govern the universal Church alone, on his own authority, the valid exercise of authority by the bishops absolutely requires the agreement of the pope, which sets the bar significantly higher than “under the leadership of the bishop of Rome.” Read Lumen Gentium and see.

Cardinal Martini certainly knew this was the “theory” underlying Vatican II’s thinking on collegiality. Whether The Tablet knows it is not so clear, but the magazine should. The moderately conservative Catholics mentioned above know it for sure. And while agreeing that improvements can and should be made in the machinery of collegiality, they can hardly agree that implementing Vatican II’s teaching on a matter of such importance should begin by misstating it.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that when some progressive Catholics speak of collegiality, they envisage a re-distribution of power from which they would benefit, either by receiving power themselves or having it invested in pastoral leaders whom they could pressure or persuade along lines congenial to them. Here perhaps is where the Anglican Communion offers a troubling instance of decentralization and dispersal of power within a loose and sometimes chaotic ecclesial structure.

But let me put that in concrete terms.

Several years ago, I was chatting with a man who not long before had become a Roman Catholic after being for decades a loyal, though increasingly dismayed, member of the Episcopal Church. Having described the process of his conversion, he said this of his former coreligionists: “The trouble with those people is that they’re sentimental.” As the unraveling of Anglicanism has continued since then, I’ve become more and more convinced he was right.

Is it possible that sentimentality also afflicts progressive Catholics who see nothing wrong with using the prestige of a distinguished, recently deceased cardinal to serve their purposes?  Whatever else might be said of that, it has very little to do with Bonhoeffer’s “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, life and death.”

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About Russell Shaw 275 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).