Leading article: A final warning that the Pope ignores at his peril

 

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If Pope Benedict does attend the funeral in Milan of Cardinal Martini, whose body, robed and mitred, crosier at his side, was laid out for the veneration of the faithful at the weekend, it will surely be with mixed feelings.

The danger of not attending the last obsequies of such a high-ranking prince of the Church is that it might appear cowardly, tantamount to a public admission that a rift had grown up between them. But to attend will take real nerves, and humility, for Carlo Maria Martini's parting shot was a devastating and – coming from a cardinal – an almost unprecedented attack on the Catholic Church's leadership, in effect on the Pope himself, in the form of a final interview with an Italian newspaper.

The Cardinal pulled no punches in his indictment of the contemporary Church, describing it as moribund and out of touch. It was 200 years behind the times on numerous social issues, he said, which was why churches built to hold great congregations now served huddles. By failing to accommodate itself to new kinds of patterns of family life, he added, the Church risked throwing away contact with the next generation. "Why don't we rouse ourselves?" he concluded. "Are we afraid?"

The answer to that question from beyond the grave, is, alas, yes. The rest of the Catholic hierarchy is afraid of its authoritarian leader, and seems unwilling even to question, let alone oppose, his hard-line views on contraception, homosexual relationships, the remarriage of divorced people in church, the admission of women to the priesthood, the abolition of clerical celibacy and a lot of other issues.

This culture of silence is not surprising. A policy of replacing liberal bishops and cardinals with conservatives of the same stamp as the Pope, which has been in place since the late 1970s, when Benedict's predecessor and hero, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II, has cleansed the Church's inner sanctum of questioning minds. Martini's promotion to Archbishop of Milan in 1979 came just before the clampdown got going. In other words, we may have heard the last of the more open-minded Catholic leaders, and we may be wrong if we imagine that the Cardinal's call for modernisation will restart a debate inside the Church on topics that the Pope regards as off-limits.

To the Pope's conservative allies, this can only be good: the less discussion the better. They tend to see all or most of the changes that took place in the Church since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s as regrettable, and prize obedience as a virtue. Their allies, in a sense, are those militant atheists who draw satisfaction from the sight of the Catholic Church, and all the other churches, rendering itself ridiculous in the eyes of the modern world by tying itself up in the moth-eaten brocade of worn-out dogmas.

Most of the rest of us will feel regretful that the doors of the papal apartments remain so tightly closed to voices like that of the Cardinal – if only because what he said in his interview ought to have been blindingly obvious.

As Archbishop of Milan, the city from which the Emperor Constantine in 317 issued the historic edict proclaiming toleration for the Christian religion, Martini was keenly aware of the importance of maintaining the Church's association with the broad currents of social and intellectual life in Europe – a partnership that lasted the best part of two millennia but which is dwindling to nothing. His message was about the need to re-engage before it's too late. Perhaps it already is too late, and the Church and Europe are destined to go their entirely separate ways, inhabiting the same space but not involved in any kind of conversation, in which case both sides will be impoverished – the Church, perhaps, more than the world around it, as the Cardinal appeared to recognise.

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