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Listen to the Pope who never was

14 September 2012

Cardinal Martini exposed the frantic orthodoxy of the RC hierarchy, says Paul Vallely

I did not read the deathbed interview given by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini two weeks before he died, until after I had seen the gloss that some conservative Roman Catholics tried to put upon it (News, 7 September). Do not believe media accounts, the reactionaries said - in what proved to be a dextrous display of revisionist mental gymnastics: the Cardinal was calling for a religious revival, not for the abolition of unpopular church teachings.

But go to the text, and you see something very much as you might have expected from the man who was the guardian of a more open kind of orthodoxy for the past 30 years - and who was distinguished by his ability to communicate the message of the gospel to doubters and those who were far from faith. Unlike much of the hierarchy, he was a man who was not afraid of dialogue.

What was a surprise was how candid, and indeed withering, was his last spiritual testament. "The Church is 200 years behind the times," he said. It was old, tired, and bureaucratic, with pompous liturgies and vestments. Its wealth was as heavy a burden as was that of the rich young man who went sadly away. It needed a "radical transformation beginning with the Pope and his bishops". The paedophilia scandals obliged it to undertake a path of conversion. It needed to see the sacraments not as "an instrument to discipline people, but to help them on their journey of life and during their weaker moments". Unless the Church "adopts a more generous attitude towards divorced persons, it will lose the allegiance of future generations", he said.

No wonder that The Tablet called his comments "a sweeping indictment of the last two papacies", and saw the interview as "an agenda for a papacy that never was, but might have been". It was "a manifesto for the next conclave" from beyond the grave. No wonder, too, that the Vatican media ignored the interview; the in-house newspaper L'Osservatore Romano did not even mention it. The degree of official concern in Rome was clear from the fact that neither Pope Benedict nor his number two, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, attended the Cardinal's funeral. The Pope didn't even dare mention the late Cardinal during his Sunday Angelus prayer in St Peter's Square.

Equally revealing was the language that the Pope used in an address the day before Cardinal Martini's death, in which he suggested that those who disagreed with Catholic teachings should leave the Church. "Judas", he said, "could have left, as many of the disciples did; indeed, he would have left if he were honest. Instead, he remained with Jesus. He did not remain because of faith, or because of love, but with the secret intention of taking vengeance on the Master."

Note not just the extremity of branding those who dare to demand dialogue on church teaching as Judases, but also how he chose to refer to Jesus as "the Master". This is the language of power and control. In contrast, a close friend of Cardinal Martini described his testamentary interview as "an act of love towards the Church". The 200,000 people who filed past the Cardinal's body would appear to agree.

Among Cardinal Martini's final recommenda­tions was that the Pope and the bishops should find "12 unconventional people to take on leadership roles". They should be "those who are close to the poor", or "who can galvanise young people by being willing to try new approaches". Those who are ratcheting the Church further and further to the Right are unlikely to embrace that notion. "Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith, but in doubt," Reinhold Niebuhr said. A young Martini in the Church today would not be made a bishop, let alone a cardinal.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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