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out with a whimper

By Diogenes (articles ) | Nov 05, 2008


The retired Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, has recently issued a book in which he is interviewed by a German journalist on matters of topical and religious concern.  Sandro Magister, in reviewing the work, rehearses Martini's cagey dissent from Church teaching on women's ordination, priestly celibacy, and homosexuality.  Martini's heterodoxies are usually coyly deniable (in 1993, for example, asked when women would be ordained, he answered, "Not in this millennium"); Magister terms his tactical evasions "chiaroscuro." 

All the more striking, then, is Martini's uncharacteristically naked contempt for Humanae vitae, which, while scarcely surprising in itself, was surprisingly permitted to remain in the published interview.  Here I quote Magister at length: 

In one chapter of the book, the explicit target is Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae," on marriage and procreation. Martini accuses it of causing "serious damage" by prohibiting artificial contraception: "many people have withdrawn from the Church, and the Church from people."

Martini accuses Paul VI of deliberately concealing the truth, leaving it to theologians and pastors to fix things by adapting precepts to practice:

"I knew Paul VI well. With the encyclical, he wanted to express consideration for human life. He explained his intention to some of his friends by using a comparison: although one must not lie, sometimes it is not possible to do otherwise; it may be necessary to conceal the truth, or it may be unavoidable to tell a lie. It is up to the moralists to explain where sin begins, especially in the cases in which there is a higher duty than the transmission of life." 

The exact mendacity that the Cardinal imputes to Pope Paul is far from clear.  What truth, after all, was the Pope in a position to conceal?  The laity knew the biology of reproduction at least as well as he, and the same goes for the history of the Church's moral teaching. The only thing Pope Paul might have hidden was his personal conviction on the matter.  

Perhaps Martini is insinuating that Paul VI signed off on Humanae vitae in bad faith.  If so, that casts an instructive light on the good faith of Martini himself in his second-to-last book, Paolo VI: uomo spirituale. And paradoxically, were Martini's insinuation true, it would bolster orthodox conviction in the divine guardianship of the Faith, whence the Holy Spirit can wring a signature on a prophetic encyclical out of an emphatically unprophetic pontiff.   

What Magister retails of the Martini interview is in keeping with the petulance that marked his career and the gracelessness that has marked his retirement. Sulky, captious, grudging in praise of his fellows, he seems to take morose delectation in random acts of oafish doctrinal naughtiness (think of his enthusiasms for sub-Saharan prophylactics and the Gospel According to Judas).  Pope Benedict's exceedingly gracious tribute on the occasion of Martini's 80th birthday met with no corresponding courtesy on the archbishop's part. Yet he remains a personality to be reckoned with: Martini's truly extraordinary composure and personal gravitas have earned him liberty from censure enjoyed by few ecclesiastics anywhere. 

It's fitting, too, that contraception should be the issue on which that poise shipwrecks. Martini is a Jesuit, of course, and hardly unaware of the staggering infecundity visited on his order by progressivist ideology. The silent nurseries of Christian Europe find their ecclesiastical counterpart in empty Jesuit noviceships.  Small wonder that gay rights, onanism, and state-directed sterility should loom even larger in the imagination of the dwindling remnant and provoke occasional fits of ill-temper.  For a once-flourishing congregation, a sad and lonely spinsterhood.

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