Cardinal Martini’s comments

Carlo Cardinal Martini, SJ, died in August; de mortuis nihil nisi bonum, but his eminence left us with a posthumous interview (original Italian here) in which he makes some statements about the state of the Church. A decent time having elapsed, it demands attention. Before moving on, n.b. Father Ray Blake’s post here.

Martini evokes “the image of the embers hidden under ashes,” and laments that he “see[s] in the Church today … so much ash over the coals that often a sense of helplessness comes over me. Can you remove the ash from the fire so as to revive the flame of love? For first we have to look for this fire.” Put another way, if one analogizes the Church to a tree, Martini is saying that the tree is all-but dead; that there is so much dead wood and bark hanging off the trunk that one must wonder whether the tree with survive. What does Martini see, do you suppose, as the deadwood? What does he see as the cause of the problem?

The Church, Martini says, “must recognize her mistakes and must follow a path of radical change, starting with the Pope and the bishops.” Radical—that means “from the root.” You may see now why I shifted the analogy to a tree! Martini says that there is so much dead wood engulfing the Church that one can barely recognize a living tree at its core, and that the solution is to dig up the roots. I am not an arborist, but one wonders: Is the standard practice for reviving distressed trees, do you suppose, to take a chainsaw to its roots?

The Church, Martini says, has been left behind—she is two centuries behind the times (“la Chiesa è rimasta indietro di 200 anni”)! One might hope that she is significantly further behind the times than that; one might hope that in doctrine, she is in many ways nearly two thousand years behind the times, no? After all, the Church announces nothing new; she may apply old doctrine to new circumstances, but the answers should be the same today as they would have been had the same circumstances arisen two centuries ago. In The Catholic Proposition, I quoted the Wilhelm & Scannell manual: It “is the Church’s office to hold and to transmit the entire Deposit [of Faith], written and oral, in its integrity, and to deal with it as the Apostles themselves would if they were still living.” 1 Joseph Wilhelm & Thomas Scannell, A Manual of Catholic Theology 49 § 15(I)(2) (1909).

Perhaps Martini simply means that the inessentials of the Church are backward—the structures of governance, perhaps. I myself have suggested a need for reform, see MP: Reform and the episcopate (Aug. 27, 2012). But there is a difference, I think. In Martini’s phrasing, I see a scornful contempt, so characteristic of rationalism, of that which is old simply because it is old, and the conceit that we have arrived at the pinnacle of civilization and that today’s solutions are the best. (Coincidentally, compare Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s remarks here on keeping up with the times.) Whereas I suggest that the curia needs reform to the extent that it is not efficiently discharging its purpose, Cardinal Martini seems to suggest that it needs reform merely insofar as it is old.

Charitably, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith has put a determinedly-positive spin on all this. Martini, he says, “lament[s] the fact that churches and religious houses are empty. Well, we are all agreed on that–no one agrees more than Benedict XVI. This is not a good state of affairs.” Well and good. But as for Martini’s suggestion that “we need to reform our sexual teaching,” Fr. Lucie-Smith suggests that while this “may seem radical, … there is general agreement on this too,” at lesat insofar as “[t]he sexual teaching of the Church is not getting across to the faithful, let alone to the population at large. It needs reform; but please let us remember that reform is not to be confused with abolition. Reform means a return to the roots, a reformulation of the eternal verities in a new and compelling way.” Perhaps we could all agree on that, but I find that quite a strained interpretation; it seems entirely more likely that Martini meant what he said. After all, earlier in the interview, immediately after the above-quoted line about the Church needing “radical change,” he says: “We must ask ourselves if people still listen to the advice of the Church on sexual matters. Is  the Church still an authority in this field of reference or only a caricature in the media?” Does it sound to you as if Martini means simply that the formulation or presentation of teaching must be changed?

One purpose of the maxim about speaking ill of the dead is to show respect, but I don’t know how much respect it shows to interpret Martini’s remarks in a sense that it is highly unlikely that he meant simply because we would have to disagree with him if we take him at his word.