It is not all the time the death of a Cardinal at the Vatican is talked about, most especially in high or controversial tones, except perhaps, such Cardinal was highly revered or was once a Pope. However, the death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini on Friday, 31st of August has continued to generate much debate, most importantly at a time when the Italian media more than ever before churns out latest versions about what they call the “Vatileaks” crisis and which of course has been headline news. It is in fact more than this, as the Catholic Church in the last couple of years has been faced with series of challenges, threatening its very core and doctrinal foundation. The fact that American cardinals and bishops declared war on President Obama over questions of religious freedom and the right to life has not guaranteed the belief of many that inside the Vatican, the cardinals are not always at war with each other.
Many would wonder what the connection is between Cardinal Martini and the vicissitudes in the Catholic Church. Martini, who was once tipped as a future pope was a popular individual with liberal views on many issues. He was highly respected by both Pope John Paul II and current Pope, Benedict XVI. As the head of Europe’s largest Catholic diocese, he was known to be quite outspoken and was regularly critical in his writings and comments on Church teaching. At 85, he understood his death was coming near, hence his last interview to a fellow Jesuit priest and a journalist early in August.
However, an Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published Martini’s last interview, recorded in August, where he was quoted to have described the Catholic Church as being “200 years behind” the time. Martini was unequivocal when he urged the Church to recognise its errors and embark on a radical path of change, which surprisingly was to begin with the Pope. It is quite unusual, many who are in the know about the church would argue, to see one of the leading lights in its hierarchy to openly challenge Church teaching or to put it succinctly, criticise the way in which the church often expressed its teaching with negatives and prohibitions rather than encouragement to believers.
In the interview, Martini was quoted to have said: “Our culture has grown old, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our religious rites and the vestments we wear are pompous.” He also went further to challenge the issue of divorce which the Church felt strongly about and lamented that: “Unless the Church adopted a more generous attitude towards divorced persons, it will lose the allegiance of future generations.” Martini quickly proffered a solution on this when he claimed that: “The question is not whether divorced couples can receive Holy Communion, but how the Church can help complex family situations.”
Having said this, it is a known fact that the Church has been enmeshed in series of scandals, most especially the child sex scandal or what is known as ‘priestly sexual abuse’. From the payment of multi-million dollars to victims in America, judicial inquiries in Ireland, police investigations on almost every continent and forced resignation of cardinals and bishops down to prison sentences faced by priests, the Church seems to be facing a dilemma from all angles by the very people entrusted with its historical foundations. A typical example was the case in Arizona of Father Michael Teta who in 1997, after a long trial, was found guilty of abusing boys in their late teens and young men. Father Teta’s appeal surprisingly took a further seven and half years to resolve which eventually ended with his dismissal from the priesthood in 2004. Teta was among a number of priests whose behaviour led the local church to pay out millions of dollars in settlement to victims.
With this, coupled with the reproduction of a book which exposes the private correspondence of Pope Benedict XVI and which forms part of a series of leaks revealing allegations of corruption and internal conflicts, many are of the belief that Cardinal Martini’s opinions, criticisms and warnings couldn’t have come at a better time. Martini, most of the time was highly critical on issues the Church sometimes viewed taboo, like the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS, the role of women in the church and prohibition of birth control whose stance he believed had likely driven many adherents away.
Cardinal Martini might have left for heavenly glory, however, his criticism of Church teaching has once again opened the debate on whether those who hold its affairs would conform to modern day realities or stick to old necessities. If Martin Luther in 1517, had challenged the doctrine of the church (and not the Church itself as many are wont to argue), which led to a major journey of doctrinal transformation, those who hold the Church today must as a matter of fact do all in their capacity to transform (or reform) ‘in the light of present realities’. To conquer the tiredness of the Church, a “radical transformation, beginning with the Pope and his bishops” must be re-engineered. Was Martini wrong with his assertions? Time would someday tell.
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