By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
tFor the better part of 25 years, Joseph Ratzinger and Carlo Maria Martini incarnated two different options in Roman Catholicism, at least in the court of public opinion. Ratzinger was seen as the classic liberal pentito, as the Italians say – a former progressive repulsed by the excesses of the 1968 generation, who embraced a steadily more conservative course. Martini, on the other hand, was the icon of the church’s liberal wing, who seemed the great carrier of the “spirit of Vatican II.”
Ratzinger became the Vatican’s top doctrinal czar in 1981, while Martini took over as archbishop of perhaps the church’s premier see, Milan, in 1980. Because of their deep learning, their impeccable theological credentials, and their facility with languages, both men became critically important points of reference in global Catholic debate.
In truth, Martini has always been more traditional, and Ratzinger more modern, than the stereotypes might suggest. That they have differences on some important questions, however, is not in dispute.
tEven in retirement, Martini continues in some ways to play the role of “loyal opposition”. Recently, Italy has been engulfed by a right-to-die debate that became the country’s equivalent of the Terry Schiavo case in the United States, when an advanced muscular dystrophy patient named Piergiorgio Welby asked to be removed from his respirator, and eventually died. Officially, the Catholic church was critical of the decision, and the pope’s Vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, denied permission for a church funeral. Martini, however, took a more permissive line, saying publicly that terminally ill patients should be given the right to refuse treatments and that the doctors who assist them should be protected by law.
tThe election of Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005 seemed to many a repudiation of Martini’s more liberal option in Catholicism, so much so that some Italian journalists couldn’t resist manufacturing a storyline to the effect that the conclave had been a showdown between Ratzinger and Martini, and that Martini had renounced election. (In fact, Martini, who suffers from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, was never a serious candidate.)
tThose expecting a dramatic schism between “Ratzinger-ites” and “Martini-ites” under Benedict XVI, however, so far have been grossly disappointed.
tTo date, the mega-story of Benedict’s pontificate instead has been his apparent desire to govern from the center rather than from any ideological fringe. That’s been characteristic in terms of both substance and symbolism; not by accident, for example, did Benedict make a reunion with his old friend Hans Küng one of the first public acts of his papacy. It was, in effect, his way of telling the Catholic left that he wanted to be their pope too.
tAnother reminder of the point came on Saturday, when Benedict XVI held a meeting with seminarians at the Roman Seminary for the Feast of Our Lady of Confidence.
tThe pope was asked six questions by the seminarians, which had been submitted in advance and released to the press. They ranged from asking the pope to reflect on his own priestly formation, to his thoughts about how to avoid careerism in the priesthood. The fact that the questions were pre-arranged means that Benedict had plenty of time to craft his answers.
tIn the course of responding, the pope cited a number of sages, most prominently St. Augustine, who loomed so large in his own intellectual and spiritual formation, St. Ignatius, and St. Bakhita, the former Sudanese slave canonized by John Paul II in 2000.
The only living figure cited by the pope, however, was Martini.
t“I don’t think I’m being indiscrete if I say that today I received a beautiful letter from Cardinal Martini,” Benedict said. “I had expressed best wishes for his 80th birthday – we’re the same age – and in thanking me, he wrote: ‘I’m grateful above all to the Lord for the gift of perseverance. Today,’ he writes, ‘even the good is done for the most part ad tempus, ad experimentum. Good, according to its essence, can only be done definitively; but in order to do it definitively, we need the grace of perseverance. I pray every day,’ he concludes, ‘so that the Lord will give me this grace.’”
tThe pope then quoted another line from Martini: “So far, the Lord has given me this grace of perseverance, and I hope that he will give it to me also for this last phase of my journey upon this earth.”
tTo be sure, Benedict was making a spiritual point, not grinding any ideological or political axe. Equally, the citation was an expression of affection between two men with a great deal of history, and a great deal of mutual respect, both of whom find themselves facing their own mortality.
tYet a pope doesn’t have the luxury of making entirely casual comments, especially when he knows that the full text of his remarks will later be issued by the Vatican Press Office and scrutinized around the world. His decision to cite Martini so warmly, and about something so fundamental to the Christian life, therefore can be read on another level. Especially coming hard on the heels of the Welby case, it seems another way of reaching out to those constituencies in the church that think of Martini as a hero, of gently suggesting that what unites Catholics ought to be more fundamental than what divides them.
tOver the long term, the jury is still out as to whether Benedict’s centrist, pastoral approach will win over those Catholics who still lament that it’s not “Papa Martini” warmly citing his old friend, emeritus Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, instead of the other way around. The very fact that Benedict has embraced such a style, however, offers an intriguing clue about the future prospects for Catholic liberalism at a moment when the church is in the grip of a powerful Catholic identity movement.