Balancing Right and Left: Cardinal Martini (1927-2012) and the Dynamics of Present-day Catholicism

VATICAN CITY - MAY 27:  (L-R) Pope Benedict XVI meets with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini at his private studio May 27, 2005 in Vatican City.  (Photo by L'Osservatore Romano-Pool/Getty Images)

The recent death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (1927-2012) provides an opportunity to reflect on wider Roman Catholic trends. He has been one of the most attractive and yet polarizing figures of the last thirty years. Jesuit, scholar, archbishop, popular writer, sought-after opinion leader, he has unwittingly created tensions between his numerous fans both inside and outside of religious circles and his vocal critics in the more conservatives sectors of the Roman Catholic Church. Even his death has seen the two parties commenting on it very differently. Martini’s biography in itself is a trajectory which epitomizes some of the key features of post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, e.g. the Biblical renewal, the openness to the modern world, and the alleged inner conflicts within high-ranking Roman Catholic hierarchy.

The Biblical Scholar

Born in Turin in 1927, he entered the Jesuit order in 1944 and was ordained priest in 1952. Martini’s career started in the academy as a New Testament scholar. Professor of textual criticism (1962-1969) and then Rector (1969-1978) of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome (1969-1978), he was eventually appointed Rector of the famous Jesuit Gregorian University (1978). He was able to lecture in Latin, Italian, English and French. Apart from mastering these languages, he also spoke German, Portuguese, Spanish and modern Greek. He could professionally read ancient Greek, Hebrew, Coptic, Aramaic, Syrian, and Arab. He successfully combined intellectual brightness and hieratic attitudes.

What gives him international reputation is his work in the Committee of the United Bible Societies that lead to the third critical edition of the New Testament text (UBS3) in 1975, though he also participated at the Committee for the second edition. His name together with Aland, Black, Metzger and Wikgren is on the frontispiece of the dark read cover edition of the UBS text that many theological students and practitioners both fear and enjoy opening. His scholarly work is not extensive but gives rise in his later career to dozens of books of Biblical meditations which sell great. He seems to embody the contents of Dei Verbum, one of the major texts of Vatican II calling the Roman Catholic Church to the Word of God.

The Archbishop of Milan

In 1979, Pope John Paul II called him to become the Archbishop of Milan, the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the world and one of the “natural” sees for future popes. He had never had direct pastoral experience before, but his reputation opened the way for him. He centered his ministry on some innovative and controversial initiatives, e.g. the “School of the Word” where he invited all kinds of people to preach and lecture on the Bible and the “Chair of the Non-believers” where he invited atheists and agnostics to debate right there in Milan’s cathedral.

He soon became the “hero” of the left-wing, progressive party of the Roman Catholic Church, though he never officially endorsed such a role. Those who are uncomfortable with the rigidity of Catholic ethics and discipline, be they Catholic or secular, be they intellectuals or celebrities, are attracted by his winsome erudition. Some of his positions appear to be different from those of John Paul II and the then Cardinal Ratzinger: for example, Martini desired the softening of the Catholic stance on non-married couples, even same-sex unions, on abortion, on the banning of divorced people from the Eucharist, on end-of-life ethics, on divorce, etc. He went as far as publicly invoking a new Council that would deal with these issues. His views never abruptly questioned the mainstream position, but were well articulated and argued for with intellectual subtlety. They are still appealing to many wandering people, and they are appalling to those with right-wing, conservative views.

A Runner for Papacy

A curious relationship between John Paul II (together with Ratzinger) and Martini developed over the years. For some time he was counted among the possible candidates to become Pope. Sectors of the Roman Catholic Church rallied either around him or against him. Officially, though, Martini was always appreciative of the reigning Pope and John Paul II, and never gave signs of criticism. The nickname he earned, the “Anti-Pope” (i.e. against the Pope), was a caricature and should instead be changed to “Ante-Pope” (i.e. one going before the Pope, opening ways for him). According to some observers, Martini’s positions, which today are quite controversial, will in the near future become the standard Roman Catholic view.

Wojtyła’s papacy lasted too long and Martini lost his chance to become Pope. When John Paul II died in 2005, Martini was frail in his health. Parkinson’s already had a grip on him. On the first ballot he received a few votes, but he told his supporters not to continue voting for him. Out of that conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger, the strong theologian of John Paul II, became Pope. Martini’s party, it seems, has been defeated for the time being, though Roman Catholic cycles are not easily predictable in the long run. He then retired to Jerusalem, but until his death remained a sought-after ecclesiastical spokesperson who urged the Church to be “human”, “modest” and “compassionate”. Will these terms become the main vocabulary of the future Roman Catholic Church?

The Dialectics of Catholicity

According to public opinion Martini represents a view that is polar opposite than that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the Roman Catholic world. The former has been called “liberal”, “progressive”, “democratic”, “left-wing”, while the latter have been labeled as “conservative”, “traditional”, “authoritarian”, “right-wing”. With these conventional categories, one could map the entire Roman Catholic spectrum.

As a matter of fact, the public opinion needs to find polarizations, needs to put one figure against another and needs to find conflicts within a given social body. Many times these polarizations reflect reality, others simply project oppositions that are not there. In the case of Martini, both observations are true. They are true because Roman Catholicism is based on multiple on-going tensions that sway one way or another but are meant to be kept in balance. In other words, John Paul II needed Martini and Martini needed John Paul II. The first maintained balance, while the second explored new fields. Martini spoke to the center-left, while Wojtyła spoke to the center-right, so that the whole spectrum was covered. Roman Catholicism as a whole needs both the defender of the already given balance and the explorer of new settlements.

In the Roman Catholic system, the Pope is supposed to fight against “anti-popes”, but is likely to encourage “ante-popes” that would stretch the Roman Catholic synthesis further, so that what is now felt as disturbing avant-garde will be center-stage tomorrow. In this sense, the “ante-pope” Martini who arrived too late to become Pope will perhaps serve as a model for future Popes.

Leonardo De Chirico

Rome, 3rd September 2012

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