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Don’t believe what you’ve read about Cardinal Martini’s last interview

The cardinal was calling for a religious revival, not for the abolition of unpopular Church teachings

By on Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Cardinal Martini after celebrating his final Mass as Archbishop of Milan in 2002 (AP)

Cardinal Martini after celebrating his final Mass as Archbishop of Milan in 2002 (AP)

I have just been reading the Cardinal Martini interview in the original Italian. You can find it here. There are various English reports on the web about the substance of the interview, but all of them seem to focus on the headline-grabbing nature of the cardinal’s words, particularly his assertion that the Church is 200 years behind the times. But they miss what to me is the nub of what the cardinal has to say.

The cardinal starts off by lamenting 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. The cardinal then goes on to suggest three things that need to be done, and here too there is nothing particularly exceptional in what he has to say: we need to reform our sexual teaching, return to the Bible and return to the sacraments. The first of these may seem radical, but there is general agreement on this too. The 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.

The cardinal mentions the plight of the divorced and remarried. Again, this is a problem that all recognise. But I would say, from my own perspective, that the problem is far deeper than that. Many of the children I encounter pastorally are children not of divorced and remarried parents, but of parents who have never been married. And that is a rather different thing. It is not people getting divorced that is the fundamental problem. Rather, it is people not wanting to get married in the first place.

But here is what the cardinal says, which we all need to hear:

Dove sono le singole persone piene di generosità come il buon samaritano? Che hanno fede come il centurione romano? Che sono entusiaste come Giovanni Battista? Che osano il nuovo come Paolo? Che sono fedeli come Maria di Magdala? Io consiglio al Papa e ai vescovi di cercare dodici persone fuori dalle righe per i posti direzionali. Uomini che siano vicini ai più poveri e che siano circondati da giovani e che sperimentino cose nuove. Abbiamo bisogno del confronto con uomini che ardono in modo che lo spirito possa diffondersi ovunque.

(“Where are the individuals full of generosity like the Good Samaritan? That have faith like the Roman centurion? That are enthusiastic like John the Baptist? That dare something new like Paul? That are faithful like Mary of Magdala? I advise the Pope and bishops to look for twelve persons out of the usual run of people for management posts. Men that might be close to the very poorest and that might be surrounded by young people and who might try something new. We need comparison with men who are ardent in such a way so that the Spirit can be poured out everywhere.”)

But what does this mean? I think it is a call to a radical religious revival, and it reminds me of the key scene in Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, where St Francis arrives at the papal court in the Lateran Basilica to ask recognition for his order. A cardinal leans over to the Pope, whose magnificence contrasts so strongly with the humility and poverty of Francis, and says something along the lines of: “This is the man who will lead the common people back to God.”

To say that we need a new St Francis, or a new Don Bosco, or a new Francis de Sales, is to get to the heart of the problem. But – and it is a huge but – we do have such people in the Church already, people who have led us back to basics and who have initiated strong currents of renewal.

As for the great ones of yesteryear, they are still with us, too. We need to rediscover our roots. The era of St Francis was a pretty dire one for the Church, but let us remember Pope Innocent III’s dream: he saw the Lateran Basilica, his cathedral, and the mother church of all churches in the world, tottering, and a little friar holding it up (as painted by Giotto). My guess is that this was Cardinal Martini’s dream as well, as well as that of Benedict XVI, and indeed of all of us who long for the renewal of the Church.

  • John Lagrue

    We might – we almost certainly do – have such people in the Church already. But none of them are cardinals and it is highly unlikely that any of them are bishops either; and a fair percentage are bound to be women. And none of them are being noticed in Rome

  • Jason Clifford

    There are many people who are doing exactly what you report Cardinal Martini wanted throughout the Church. In many places people are learning what the Church really teaches and, more importantly, tasting the reality that we truly can trust in what God has given to us in the Church.

    Those who misreport this do so because they simply do not have any clue what the Church really is let alone what she teaches.

  • Lazarus

    Although I’m perfectly happy to read Cardinal Martini’s interview charitably (indeed, I’m determined to!) the idea that going back to our roots will solve the problems of the Church is at least incomplete. Of course, we need personal holiness and of course we need a concentration on essentials and so on. But to leave it at that suggests that what’s happened in the 2000 years since our roots is inessential or even wrong -and that’s hugely dangerous. We have to take seriously the idea of development, not just roots. 

    So yes to apostolic poverty and simplicity. But yes also to the intellectual complexity of Aquinas and yes to the the reforms of Trent and yes to the glories of the Sistine Chapel etc.

    Imagining some sort of concrete, historical utopia to which we can return is the cynosure of many reforms (including of course the Reformation). It usually ends badly.

  • paulpriest

    Father you’re misrepresenting the positions of Cardinal Martini by benignly interpreting them and basing them solely on his final interview from a personalist perspective…

    It’s frankly ludicrous to imply the Cardinal of blessed memory did not hold or vociferously promulgate the positions he held. I dare say most of us know better and it’s only on a ‘de mortuis nil nisi bonum’
    basis that most of us haven’t said as much….

    Reform is not to be confused with abolition?
    Sounds like it to me!
    That’s the way it’s usually gone…

  • Lisa Duffy

    Thank you for this article and your clarification. When I saw the “200 years behind” headline on a popular website this morning, I knew there was another side to the story.

    However, I vehemently disagree with your statement:

    ” It is not people getting divorced that is the fundamental problem. Rather, it is people not wanting to get married in the first place.”
    Divorce and cohabitation, are side-by-side problems in that they both contribute to the decay of our society, but I would the impact of divorce on children is far worse than children of an intact family with unmarried parents. I have been through one myself, and have worked with divorced men and women for many years.

  • Maymay

    To be honest, I see no point in reforming sexual policies of the Church. What is this reform supposed to be, anyway, other than relaxing of the rules, allowing contraceptives, Communion for the divorced and even re-marriage? Our dear Church of England and other Western Protestant churches have been through it all, with the result of even emptier churches! What we need is more zealousy, more Evangelical spirit , emphasising the gains from living in Christ. I think we should look at the successful examples of Latin American Pentacostal churches and connections they establish with the faithful, without their emphasis on the material side of life, of course :).

  • Gail Finke

    I don’t think that’s what he meant at all, nice try but no go (as we blunt Americans say). 

  • Piofabio

    Absolute NONSENSE !! lets call a tree a tree and a goat a goat ….He was a LIBERAL …and i hope he spent his last days in Jerusalem contemplating the truth .RIP

  • Cestius

    Completely agree, our local CofE church (definitely in the liberal tradition) is dying on its feet, congregation very small and getting smaller. Meanwhile, the free evangelical church nearby is full. I might not care too much for some of their theology but they definitely have fervor and must be doing something right. Our local Catholic church isn’t doing too badly, and we have a very traditionalist ex-Anglican priest. I think it was the rise of wishy-washy liberalism after Vatican II and especially poor teaching and preparation of young people that did a lot to empty many Catholic churches.

  • Windel Pastoriza

     At times American put to much sugar on words! (:.
    However Card. Martini here in Italy is considered as ante Pope not anti. The interview in Italian should be understood fully in Italian context. Infact here, there was no such clamour when the interview was published, unlike what happened when BBC and NYTimes published it.

  • Robert

    Praise too from the Grand Orient Masonic Lodge,-addio-a-un-uomo-di-dialogo,-grande-espressione-della-chiesa-parola.aspx 
    Which raving-spittle-flecked-crazy said they wanted to dismantle the Catholic Church?

  • firstparepidemos

    You seem to equate the terms reform and abolition; I suggest you check a dictionary.

  • JabbaPapa

    I very much agree with this article, having said something along the same lines in the other thread.

  • JabbaPapa

    Yes — and Italian is actually quite hard to translate faithfully into English, besides.

    The translations generally circulating are complete distortions of what he said.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    “he first of these may seem radical, but there is general agreement on this too. The 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.”

    Tell us honestly Father: when was the last time that you preached on the grave sinfulness of masturbation or the use of contraceptives?

    Or do you “leave it to the (totally unformed) conscience” of the laity?

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    “Reform” and “abolition” are synonyms in the post-Vatican II Catholic Church.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    It’s an utterly false view of the value of mere historicity and it means in practice the ecclesial equivalent of the annual re-run of the Battle of Borodino. 

    All this guff about “returning to the times of the early Christians” is exactly the same as the local battle re-enactment association and is as false.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Yes, Lazarus, it’s an utterly false view of the value of mere historicity and it means in practice the ecclesial equivalent of the annual re-run of the Battle of Borodino. 

    All this guff about “returning to the times of the early Christians” is exactly the same as the local battle re-enactment association and is as false.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    More than anything, we need to put the glorious and the transcendent back at the heart of the Church: doctrinally and liturgically. 

    Let the people come to Church, and like the Russian Orthodox, see beauty and the mystical and taste and smell and hear Heaven about them.

    We had all this, but like mad dogs threw it all away. 

    Heaven like this: or like this:

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    They said it. Many quotes can be supplied. 

  • Peadar Ban

     I don’t know were you are, but not too far from me, in Philadelphia, PA, USA, there’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, who is, oddly enough, a Franciscan.  He is noticed in Rome, and certainly over here.  I could name a few others, and some of them are women.  None of them, however, are members of something called the LCWR, Deo Gratias for that!

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Which, Peadar, should be suppressed immediately.

  • taad

    The very root one might say, is Our Lady, the Blessed Mother. When we follow her as children, we will have the renewal, and the Springtime of Faith. She has told us so, and so has the church, from the very start. Start with, Mary, just as Jesus did.

  • katrina.mcleod

    CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT WAS SO GREAT ABOUT THE CHURCH IN 1812???Why was it more up to the mark then than in 1750 or 1900? Does 200 years have some metaphorical meaning which I don’t get?

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Oh, it’s the same Katrina as using the word “medieval” as a pejorative, an insult; implying that “Modern Man” is somehow different from all human beings that lived before ourselves. It is part of the insufferable arrogance of the Modernist liberal. 

  • katrina.mcleod

    I’m in Italy, too and you cannot blame this nonsense on he foreign press!! If you want to see any interesting reply to all the nonsense I suggest Giuliano Ferrara’s pieces in Saturday’s and today’s Foglio. For the article whch elicited the 2nd Ferrara article see Archbishop Bruno Forte’s lamentable interview in Corriere della Sera.

  • katrina.mcleod

    Reverendo padre, I’ve read you article again and I think you are doing damage control. We all know that you know that we know that to put the matter bluntly Martini was tops in Ma Peppinster’s list of Papabili and for good reason. We also all know that you know that we know about the deep and dreadful waters in which the Society of Jesus has been floundering for lo these many years. Cardinal Scola gave a good sermon at the funeral; it was good because he spoke of Christ and his resurrection which is our only hope.   

  • Charles

    Clarity is what the church needs; clarity in defining its teaching, rules, procedures, and basic beliefs.
    As a translator from Portuguese to English I know how things can get lost in translation. The church needs people who are competent communicators and translators. In addition, we need to be stricter on certain rules: Priests actually dressing like priests would be helpful. Communion in the mouth while kneeling would be helpful, and beautiful liturgy in churches that actually look like churches would be helpful.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Excellent post. Yes, the article is all about damage control.

  • katrina.mcleod

    I forgot to mention that during the sermon Cardinal Scola gave a bop on the nose in St Augustine’s style to Adorno (he of the Frankfurt school) on death. A daring blow to the a-Catholic intelligentsia in the Duomo di Milano. 

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Father, surprised that you haven’t been asked yet what concretely (in your opinion) needs to be “reformed” about Catholic moral teaching? 

    Please be specific in your answer. I for one appreciate the opportunity to ask a priest to nail his colours to the mast.

  • Paolo

    Today’s Italian catholic newspaper “Avvenire”, said that cardinal Martini had been obviously chosen by the Blessed GP2, but only after being advised by cardinal Ratzinger. Cardinal Martini had always been loved and approved by both of them. He was completely agreed by them. Italian context is different from other ones.

  • JTLiuzza

     I agree, Charles.  In one word, what the Church needs is orthodoxy.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    The link above gives a translation into English of Martini’s full interview. As I said on another thread, he is basically calling for the overthrow of the Church and of the Moral Law. 

    As “Rorate Caeli” blog says:

    “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. A good rule, certainly, a hallmark of civilization, and one we have always observed.

    When the dead person himself chooses to cause uproar in a “posthumous” interview timed to be released immediately following his death and published in order to criticize the Church that gave him everything he had and that made him everything he was, then, our prayers having been said, we can only affirm, without referring to any specific person: the Militant Church is better off without those who think and act against the whole purpose of the hierarchy – handing down unaltered that which they received. Without those who did all they could and still do all they can to infuse the hierarchy with pure evil and relativistic rot. “They are a wicked and perverse generation,” nothing good has come or will come from them. We can “shake off the dust” from our feet, and move on: let us move on from the obsessions of the 1960s, even if some just cannot let go, even from “beyond” the grave…”

  • JTLiuzza

     Aelfrid I thought, “what does ‘reform our sexual teaching’ mean?”

    I’m very tired of the ambiguous and sloppy way in which language is handled. 

    The “sexual teaching” of the Church is fine as is because it is truth.  The trouble is almost nobody is teaching it since the council.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    100% right. None of them have the guts. 

    Hence my question to the good Father. Let’s see how he answers. 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The answer is everything and nothing.
    Nothing of the conclusions of moral theology needs changing.
    Everything re the way we arrive at those conclusions needs changing.
    Instead of taking an essentialist approach we need to take a narrative-based and existentialist approach.
    It is all in my book!

  • Nwa Mary

    Taad, I agree with what you said, most people of this generation want to start from where Christ walked on water, on multiplication of two loafs of bread to thousands, on curing of sick, on raising the dead with first tracing the very first step of Christ ( Christ absolute submission to His Mother) lack of humility for the people of this generation, where there is no humility there is pride and where pride is there is the dwelling place of the devil and demons

  • Chrysostom

    The same problem as the ‘comments’ of Archbishop Muller, which appear to doubt the Perpetual Virginity and Eucharist, but which appear to have simply been mistranslated to sound outright heterodox.

  • JabbaPapa

    The link above gives a translation into English of Martini’s full interview

    … and a very bad translation it is …

  • Chrysostom

    Of course, 200 years ago, the Church was accused of being outdated then. Really, the Church never fits the values of any era.

  • JabbaPapa

    Sounds like a bit of opportunistic jumping on the bandwagon .. but I’ll look them up, anyway.

  • JabbaPapa

    “Archbishop Bruno Forte’s lamentable interview in Corriere della Sera”

    ermmmmmm … hrm hrm

    «Sì, ma questo è un principio generale della decisione morale: sta sempre tra l’indicazione oggettiva della legge di Dio e la situazione concreta dell’uomo. Ciò che va evitato sempre è un doppio rischio: da un parte il relativismo morale, che è quanto di più lontano ci sia dalla fede in Dio; e dall’altro una sorta di automatismo, di meccanicismo della morale». E qui il tono del teologo Bruno Forte suona indignato: «C’è chi ha voluto attribuire un relativismo morale a Martini, con un’interpretazione distorta dell’”indifferenza” di sant’Ignazio di Loyola: che invece è l’esatto opposto del relativismo, perché l’indifferenza ignaziana significa proprio essere indifferenti ai nostri gusti per essere obbedienti alla volontà di Dio!».

    So, in other words, the Archbishop is defending both orthodoxy in general, and Cardinal Martini’s own orthodoxy — and denouncing moral relativism in both their names, and I’ll add, later on in the names of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI

    ….. and this is “lamentable” in your opinion ???? !!!!!

  • Nwa Mary

    John Lagrue, who told you that women are not notice in rome? Mother Church from day one recognize woman on what they have done in life of the Church and in what they continue to do in the Church today, that is why she has incorporated women into her liturgical worship. In the Church we Nuns, Reverend sisters etc or are you one of them seek women ordaination in the Church?

  • JabbaPapa

    Apart from some petty squabbling both provoked by Giuliano Ferrara (why on EARTH did he feel the need to accuse Cardinal Martini as well as the entire Society of Jesus of “relativism” — is he unaware that this is a heresy ???), and aimed back at him in a perfectly understandable fashion, his point of view is interesting and somewhat thought-provoking, but is also fairly replete with a superfluity of Italian-style ambiguity.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    If the Church had been like it is now – in favour of rather than totally opposed to: religious liberty, ecumenism, vernacular liturgy, role for the laity, social justice etc – in 1812 it would have been in a great position to meet the challenges of the last two hundred years. The reforms of the last fifty years have come very late in the day.

  • scary goat

    Reform Church teaching on sexuality, divorce and re-marriage? That doesn’t sound very healthy to me. I don’t know exactly what sort of reforms, but the mind boggles.  The last thing we need is a church that follows society, that’s a recipe for disaster. I can see a few areas that could be “tweeked”, for example recognising the plight of an innocent victim of divorce, through abandonment or abuse. Maybe  some special consideration through Church courts on an individual basis. Certainly not any major reforms, it would be totally counter-productive.  What we need is better education as to why the Church teaches what it teaches, not reform.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Let’s see yours, Jabba.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian


    Could you sum it up in a couple of paragraphs?

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Oh, I see.

    A policy of “We should have surrendered to the world earlier rather than later”.