BY DAVID TIMBS
Carlo Martini SJ was one of the very few high-profile Catholic leaders who did not indulge in the rhetoric of rupture and discontinuity which has become central to Catholic apologetic discourse since Benedict XVI was elected.
The former Archbishop of Milan, who died earlier this month at the age of 85, refused to entertain the idea that the faith should become the servant of ideology or be wielded as a blunt instrument in some sort of a “Culture Wars” game.
Martini was a man of radical hopefulness and enduring trust in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
One of his doctoral theses was on the Resurrection. His life was also marked by an intense passion for the biblical story, for the memory embedded in the Judeo-Christian narrative and the hard-won wisdom which emerged in lives of ordinary believers.
As a disciple and leader, he was deeply convinced that the Word provided an essential road map for the Pilgrim People. He believed also that the Word could not be contained by any hermeneutic that was not grounded in Jesus Christ and his history.
Commentators have remarked on the fundamental importance Martini ascribed to reading, interpreting and applying the Word with the perspective of its human realisation. He saw the word for what it was, made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and intrinsically bound to the incarnation in all its dimensions.
Carlo Martini was convinced that the biblical story does not stand outside of – or did not exempt itself – from human history. He knew well the crucial importance for the Church to know its time, place and cultural context.
The primitive Jesus Community and its Gospel engaged with and creatively responded to a real, not a virtual world. This reality is clearly reflected in Martini’s thought and pastoral practice. It was a founded on a vision of the Church articulated by Paul VI soon after he became Pope.
As Giovanni Battista Montini, Paul VI had been Archbishop of Milan during the difficult years of post war reconstruction and massive social dislocation.
He was keenly aware of the Church’s need to connect with the world around it and to make its Gospel message clear, credible and compassionate. The Church could not afford to exempt itself from external influence. Paul VI issued a strong challenge about this in 1964, the third year of Vatican II:
We must bear in mind the actual situation in which society today finds itself. Our task is to serve society.
- Ecclesiam Suam, # 5.
Archbishop Martini made this a top priority. His capacity and willingness to engage in a genuine conversation with his own people and with anyone else became legendary.
He established an organisation which provided a forum for dialogue with atheists. Perhaps he was mindful of a fellow Jesuit, Karl Rahner, who was convinced that unless faith is confronted with unbelief it is not faith at all but a mere convenience. Martini’s motto was, Pro veritate, adversa deligere (“For the sake of truth, choose adverse situations”). Like Jesus, he preached it and lived it.
His pastoral care as a bishop was entirely congruent with his firm commitment to transparency and honesty. He never shied away from the truth and never fabricated answers to questions that had not been asked. “Spin” was not a word found in his personal lexicon. Martini knew that candour and straight talk were the only way to influence people of all persuasions. He practised these virtues most assiduously on a popular level in his conversation pieces published regularly in Corriere della Sera.
Martini’s attitude to episcopal responsibility at the local level, and its relationship with the Pope, was not based on habits of passive compliance.
He was bishop of Milan. He was its shepherd, no one else. For him, the authentic model of Church life and governance was for the bishop to gather his community closely around him. In that sense, he would have been mightily inspired and encouraged by the words of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (107), in his letter to the Christians at Smyrna, where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Martini made sure that Jesus Christ was central to the lives of his sisters and brothers.
It would be presumptuous to claim that some of the views expressed by the dying Cardinal have shocked the Vatican or the wider Church. There is nothing he said in his final interview that could be construed as either dissenting or surprising. What really rocked the Church happened decades before. It was shocking then and continues so to this day.
John XXIII called the first genuine ecumenical Council to address the issue of a Church grown weary and complacent and which needed to engage with modernity in a spirit of Aggiornamento. Martini’s final challenge was for the entire Church to re-examine itself on the extent to which it has actually received and embraced the call of the Holy Spirit through Vatican II.
There are many bishops, Church historians and experts in the development of doctrine, as well as the millions of ordinary Catholics who believe the Church is once again in some sort of backward looking mode. It is on the record that there is a growing body of Catholics who are convinced that the Church over the past 30-40 years has regressed profoundly and systemically from the directions initiated at Vatican II.
Martini’s observations about Humanae Vitae are neither new nor shocking but his moral authority may not be easily ignored. His last interview reflects the fact that a large majority of adult Catholics since 1968 has come to believe, in good conscience, that the Encyclical was not morally binding and certainly not infallible in its doctrinal status. Contrary to recent apologias, it’s not that Catholics did not receive adequate catechesis on Humanae Vitae. They rejected it. This non-reception has generated an enormous and enduring problem for the authority and credibility of the Magisterium.
It is a pity in a way that Martini was not asked to comment on this ecclesial crisis in reference to John Henry Cardinal Newman’s 1859, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” Chances are, he would have suggested that the Sensus Fidelium would have saved the People of God and their leaders a great deal of grief.
David Timbs blogs from Albion, Victoria.
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