Scholar with a foot in the real world

Life for 970 million Catholics will be very different if Cardinal Mario Martini becomes Pope, says Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
They had come to see the next Pope. On Wednesday evening, some 1,300 people crowded into Westminster Cathedral to witness a rare public appearance in this country by Cardinal Carlo Mario Martini, the Archbishop of Milan, and the man burdened with the popular assumption that he is the obvious candidate to succeed John Paul II to the chair of St Peter.

Cardinal Martini politely turns aside such suggestions when they are put to him and concentrates on the task in hand. Teaching, in a foreign language, to a cathedral full of English Catholicism's most distinguished figures is a comparatively easy task. The formidable Bible scholar, who speaks 11 languages and has written more than 40 scriptural and devotional best-sellers, fills Milan's cathedral every Saturday morning for similar classes. He is a charismatic figure. In addition to his pedagogic skills he commands respect for his championing of the homeless, unemployed and immigrants in what is the largest diocese in the world. He was also one of the early leaders of the movement to purge Italian politics of its systemic corruption.

His text was from the Gospel of Matthew. But the Jesuit cardinal is too subtle a man not to know that his listeners were watching for more than biblical exegesis. There was a wider issue: how would life change for the world's 970 million Catholics if he were to become the next pontiff?

The passage he had been asked to address offered some intriguing points of comparison with the present Pope. It was the story of the rich young man who tells Jesus that he has led a virtuous life, keeping all the Commandments, and asks what else he must do: Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. It was the same passage that Pope John Paul II used as the starting point for the most hardline of his recent enyclicals, Veritatis Splendor, a ringing denunciation of the modern world and its moral relativism.

"For the Pope, it's all a question of authority," says Peter Harvey of Newman College, Birmingham, an authority on the passage - which the Pope uses to stress the primacy of the need to keep the Commandments. "For the Pope, the law is at the heart of morality."

But where John Paul II trained as a philosopher, Carlo Martini's background is as a scripture scholar. Where the Pope rendered an entirely spiritualised account, Cardinal Martini's exposition touched on the ambiguities of the market economy, on the legacy of the fight against Nazism, on European monetary union and the need for a spiritual correlative on the issues facing this week's Copenhagen summit. It was an exposition which, while stemming clearly from a deep spirituality, was rooted in the reality of contemporary life.

"Martini makes a much more positive interpretation of the world we live in," says Peter Harvey. "There's a sense in which Christianity is a materialistic religion - Martini seems to be recognising that and calling into question this rhetoric against materialism which the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are hot on. He seems to be more hopeful and he's obviously more in touch with the reality of people's lives.

"The Pope is an absolutist. He seems to inhabit a stratospheric dimension on all these questions - so that he can say to a group of raped Muslim women in Bosnia that they should bring their pregnancies to term. Philosophically, that is an arguable position. But to say it in that context shows a lack of touch with reality: in some of these situations you just have to be silent."

To the outsider the distinctions may seem too subtle, but such is the language of contradiction within the higher reaches of the Church. On the issue of contraception, Cardinal Martini has suggested that Rome's position is perhaps "not well expressed". On the Pope's recent ruling that women could never be priests, the cardinal swiftly pointed out that the question of women deacons (the first step to priesthood) had been left open. In such ways he has quietly stood out against papal attempts to crush debate and silence dissent.

Consider this quotation from an interview to be broadcast tomorrow on Radio 4's Sunday programme. He was asked about celibacy and whether priests would ever be allowed to marry. He replied: "It is an area which is not bound by doctrine. It is just an historical decision which could be changed. But I don't think it will be wise to change the decision but to adapt to the situation of different people. This has to be studied and has been proposed many times and there is openness for this understanding of the different cultural situation in the different continents."

It is pure Martini: it may not entirely make sense, but it sends out all the right signals - the reference to tradition, the acknowledgement of alternative dimensions, the genuflection towards the existing position, the insistence on the need to consult others and the possibility that the solution may not be an absolute. "He's going to represent, if he is ever made Pope, a very sophisticated approach and much more truly political than John Paul II, who tends to fire from the hip," says one member of the Roman Curia.

"The great difference is that this man is a pluralist," says John Wilkins, editor of the leading Catholic journal the Tablet. "The Pope, by contrast, is a centralist who has reined in the bishops' conference." Senior bishops are now prone to complain "we're treated as altar boys in Rome these days". Many would welcome a change of style that would enable them to be more than mere minions to "an Atlas holding up the world on his own".

Some liberal Catholics are more wary. "Be cautious about the level of substantial change that would take place," said one. "He might turn out to be the Tony Blair of the Vatican - with all the genius being presentational.

"There might be a very modulated and sophisticated presentation of positions that are somewhat unpalatable to the modern mind, to make them more acceptable. He will do as Cardinal Hume has done on homosexuality - restating the traditional church position but in such clever language that it sounds more liberal, so that even Peter Tatchell jumps up and says how good it is. Martini is that with nobs on."

It is far from a foregone conclusion that Carlo Martini will get the job. Aged 68, he is only six years younger than the present Pope, who has appointed 103 of the 120 cardinals eligible to vote - most of them in his own conservative mould. He has enemies: he has had open battles with Comunione e Liberazione, a right-wing Italian Catholic revival movement; and Opus Dei, the present Pope's favoured sect within the church, dislikes him. Yet the Piedmontese cardinal has a wide base of support. He is a former rector of both the Gregorian University and the Biblical Institute in Rome, which have between them trained close to half the bishops in the world.

All such may, however, prove academic. The Polish Pope has been telling his staff that he has every intention of seeing in the new millennium. Carlo Martini has the good grace not to mind.