Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Cardinal Martini Problem for The Church

by R.M. Pilon, S.T.D.


This article discusses the dissent of Carlo Cardinal Martini, retired archbishop of Milan, as he calls for a revision of the Church's teaching on contraception.

Larger Work

The Wanderer



Publisher & Date

Wanderer Printing Co., St. Paul, MN, January 22, 2009

The Church now has a new problem of age-old dissent, and it comes right from the heart of the Church's hierarchy. Carlo Cardinal Martini, retired archbishop of Milan, has produced a book-length interview in which he makes a none-too-subtle evisceration of the moral norm of the Church regarding contraception. Cardinal Martini focuses his attention on the encyclical Humanae Vitae as if it were the decisive document in relation to the age-old teaching of the Church condemning contraception. Anyone who is ignorant of the history of the Church's teaching on this moral question might be led to conclude that the critical condemnation of contraception only took place in that document, or at least that the question was not settled until then. At any rate, the retired cardinal charges that Humanae Vitae has cut the Church off from many of the people who, he contends, most need the Church's "advice" about human sexuality.

The report in Catholic News Service makes it quite clear that Cardinal Martini considers the encyclical itself to be the guilty cause of the distancing of many Catholics from the Church, and this is true above all, in the cardinal's view, because Pope Paul VI acted unwisely in ignoring the advice of the commission of experts and wrongly made a "highly personal" decision on the matter of contraception. He refers critically to the "solitary nature of this decision" and it's quite clear throughout the critique that he considers the teaching of the encyclical on the moral norm regarding contraception as erroneous, though he never has the integrity to say so directly. He simply asserts its error indirectly when he says "knowing how to admit one's errors and the limitations of one's previous viewpoints is a sign of greatness of soul and confidence."

Of course, it would never occur to dissenters like Cardinal Martini to apply this advice to themselves, admitting their own error and showing this greatness of soul by doing so. No, it is advice for the erring Church to admit the "mistake" in its age-old teaching that is reiterated in this encyclical. He is suggestively calling upon the Pope to have this "greatness of soul" by admitting the error of the encyclical, and proposes that he should view the issue from "the broader horizon in which to confront the questions of sexuality" today. It's the Pope who should adopt "a new vision" and "a better way" to handle the issue than is found in Humanae Vitae.

However, he expresses doubt that Pope Benedict will withdraw Humanae Vitae, which would be a direct admission of its erroneous teaching, perhaps something Cardinal Martini would prefer but does not think it is realistic to hope for; rather, he brazenly suggests that the Pope might just write a follow-up encyclical, an encyclical which would " be its continuation," by changing the teaching. Apparently, it would be up to the Pope to figure how a reversal is a continuation of the teaching.

The source and justification for this change of moral teaching would simply be a deferral to popular opinion, which, in the end, seems to be the true purpose of this confrontation; that is, the substitution of the will of the people, some people, for the Magisterium of the Church, at least for this one area of sexuality. Two examples:

"The Church should always treat questions of sexuality in the family in such a way that a leading and decisive role is up to the responsibility of the person who loves."

"Whatever the Church affirms, it should be supported by many people, by responsible Christians who want to be conscientious in love."

In other words, the decisive leadership on this teaching should be that of married couples today, and, moreover, the Church should leave the decisive role in the moral decision to their private consciences. The second quotation makes it clear again that the decision, the decisive role, is to belong to the laity, to "many people" who are "responsible Christians." Just who will play the role of these "responsible Christians" and how they will be chosen from the billion Catholics is not even hinted at, but of course we can be sure they will be Cardinal Martini's kind of laity. But we know already the result, regardless. If Humanae Vitae is truly erroneous, then the decision which will be made by the many "responsible Christians" will obviously be the opposite, and the real question is why go through the formality.

It's very much like the scene in a Man for all Seasons when Cromwell tells the packed jury that there shouldn't be any reason for them to deliberate since the guilt of Thomas More is already manifest.

An Extremely Liberal Scholar

Of course, Cardinal Martini is very careful not to state his own dissent directly nor quote the encyclical and tell us just exactly what it is that's an error, for that might bring a real reaction from the Holy See. So he just states that the encyclical needs to be revised to bring it up to date and give it a "new vision," but everyone who reads him knows exactly what he considers to be the error, and that is the norm of the Church condemning artificial contraception, but he won't say it.

He was "prudent" enough to wait until he passed the age for voting for a new Pope, perhaps because he certainly didn't want to miss the possibility of voting for a new Pope who would agree with his thinking and change the teaching of the Church on contraception. But once he turned 80, he obviously couldn't wait any longer to make a direct appeal over the head of the Pope to the future elector cardinals.

Cardinal Martini did not become a "loyal" dissenter on the day he turned 80, but he was not about to lose every opportunity of changing the Church from within, by using whatever power of office he might possess. More likely, Cardinal Martini became a dissenter not when he was 81, but closer to when he was 31, or even younger, at the time of the Second Vatican Council. He always had the reputation of being an extremely liberal scholar, and it was surprising to many of us when John Paul II named him the archbishop of Milan, which placed him in a position to become a true member of the "papabili," and he was just that. How close we came to having a dissenting bishop elected as the Pope is now there for all to see, and we can at least thank Cardinal Martini for that revelation through his interview.

The dissenters from Church teaching on contraception did not all convert before they rose to higher positions. For instance, Detroit's Cardinal Dearden never once gave any evidence, before or after Humanae Vitae, that his internal conviction that the Church was in error on contraception had ever changed — he had voted with the majority on the Birth Control Commission for the Church to abandon its teaching on contraception, which effectively affirmed that the Church has been in error for 2,000 years on this critical moral norm. He would simply hedge the issue by admitting it was "official" teaching while undercutting the binding character of this teaching by suggesting members of his flock should follow their private consciences on this issue.

The contrast with Cardinal Shehan of Baltimore was dramatic, since this cardinal, who also voted with the majority, made it clear after Humanae Vitae that he had changed his position, that he did internally accept the norm of decision of Humanae Vitae which reaffirmed the age-old norm condemning contraception, and he did this by publicly preaching the norm as binding on conscience. Cardinal Dearden clearly followed the path of lip service to the norm and encouraging the primacy of private conscience. He obviously saw no conflict between his own apparent internal dissent (which one must assume persisted since he never publicly retracted his public dissent on the commission) and his public office as a bishop.

Likewise, one can see in cases like Cardinal Martini that some who were unconverted dissenters, but did not yet hold high office, simply kept a studious silence to ensure their possibility of ascending to higher positions in the Church. It was simply the modernist tactic all over again. The very least that can be said about what might be seen as a kind of fifth column in the Church is that these closet dissenters lacked something in their personal integrity since they inevitably had to dissimulate in order to secure their episcopal advancement. That is, they had to testify falsely (which may account for the oath of fidelity now required even for Catholic theologians teaching in seminaries) that they internally accepted all the Church's moral and doctrinal teachings.

But such dissimulating ("lying" is such a harsh word) has never much bothered the dissenter, and especially not those today who, like Cardinal Dearden or Cardinal Martini, support the decisive primacy of the private conscience, at least in this one moral area; so why not in the area of lying for the good of the Church? Indeed, the Priscillianist bishops 1,600 years ago supported the proposition that lying for a holy cause is justifiable, which led to a moral treatise (De Mendacio) by St. Augustine correcting this false notion. One perhaps wonders how many bishops today follow that old Priscillianist norm when it comes to their own advancement, which is surely, in their thinking, a holy end.

A Question Of Credibility

Cardinal Martini's whole approach to this moral issue is quite astounding given his reputation as a scholar. But then Luther was a scholar, as was Calvin, as were most of the great figures of the Reformation and the modernist movement. Perhaps his most astounding suggestion is that many, who need the Church's moral "advice," would be drawn back to the Church, if only Benedict or some future Pope would just change the teaching on contraception.

But "why" is the obvious question. Perhaps his full interview will tell us what he thinks, but I simply cannot see for the life of me why people who have rejected this teaching, and who obviously believe, like the cardinal, that the Church is in error, would turn to the Church for "advice" on moral issues in the sexual sphere if only she would at last admit that her moral teaching on this vital issue has been erroneous for 2,000 years and has misinformed the consciences of all her children for all that time! Precisely what credibility would the Church have left that would make them seek her advice, on anything?

The Anglicans and other Protestant churches did this very reversal 75 years ago, and what credibility do they have today even among their own members? How many Anglicans seriously seek the advice of their church on anything in the moral sphere today?

But of course the return of lapsed Catholics to the Church to seek her moral guidance is not really what Cardinal Martini has set as his primary agenda in this matter. What he is quite obviously aiming at is the transformation of the Church herself in the area of her Magisterium. This was the aim of not a few bishops and theologians at Vatican II who tried to redefine the magisterial office to include the whole Church, clergy and laity (carefully chosen of course), in a kind of democratic process.

In short, what they wanted, and what the cardinal seems to envision, is a new kind of magisterium that is no longer an exclusively episcopal office, that is, a model of the magisterium that mirrors the kind already found in the Anglican church and other mainline Protestant churches. This model effectively strips the episcopal college and the Pope of any final magisterial authority, at least in moral matters, and explains the curious language of Cardinal Martini regarding the laity seeking the "advice" of the hierarchy on matters other than sexual questions; on those matters he clearly thinks the bishops were best just to keep quiet!

Indeed he explicitly states that he thinks the hierarchical Magisterium should just keep silent "at times" and especially on such sexual issues. "In the past, the Church has said perhaps even too much about the Sixth Commandment. Sometimes it would have been better to remain silent." But again the question is why just on sexual matters and not in all areas of morality? Or do the bishops have a greater expertise on the social questions of morality than the laity, say in areas like such as nuclear disarmament, penal justice, immigration, just war, just economic structures, and all kinds of other things? Once the authority of the bishops on sexual matters is quashed, why should there remain authority in any moral matter?

And what exactly has been the promising experience one might gather from the Anglican Church's experience in the moral arena once it abandoned its hierarchical decision making and changed its teaching on contraception, which, by the way, it justified at the time only in very difficult marriage cases? Has the former archbishop of Milan been paying any attention to the fate of the Anglican communion over the past 50 or 60 years? Has he even noticed the total disintegration of its teaching on human sexuality over that span, and the gradual disintegration of the moral authority of their church, let alone its hierarchy?

Or does the cardinal, like some of his Protestant brother bishops, perhaps himself go beyond contraception in his dissent, perhaps even questioning the Church's age-old teachings on homosexuality, homosexual marriages, and whatever else is on the plate today? Who knows, and I am fairly certain the cardinal is not going to say anything one way or another.

As for another blind spot in his "new vision," has the archbishop been so far removed from daily life during his tenure as the spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Milan, that he also failed to notice the incredible, almost meteoric decline of births in Europe, and above all in Italy, and above all in the very area where he was spiritual leader for two decades? Has he not noticed that Italian babies are hard to find today in places like Genoa and Milan — or does he think this has nothing at all to do with the adoption of a contraceptive mentality, warned about by Pope Paul in the encyclical the cardinal rejects? Or, worse yet, does he think that the Catholic Church has actually caused that contraceptive mentality itself, and caused the decline of births, by teaching that contraception is always wrong?

It's amazing, that the death spiral, caused by the drastic decline in birthrates, which threatens the very existence of European civilization, and his beloved Italian civilization, does not seem to be connected, in this scholar's thinking, with the nearly universal rejection of the Church's teaching on contraception in Europe. It would be like blaming the Church's teaching condemning total war and the targeting of civilians in war for the firebombing of German and Japanese cities and the dropping of the atom bomb.

Of course, Cardinal Martini, like many other European bishops, if not most, certainly followed his own advice about keeping silent on matters of the Sixth Commandment, and especially on contraception, even while the most drastic results were widespread abortion, the devastating decline of birthrates in Europe, which John Paul II described as a demographic winter, and the decline of marriage and the family in general. But far be it from Cardinal Martini to have that "greatness of soul," which he recommends to the Church, by admitting his own errors and blindness, or to admit that his silence was perhaps a contributing factor to the decline of his diocese and nation, or that his dissent on Humanae Vitae, which one can hardly imagine he did not pass on to confessors in his diocese, was a major error with serious consequences.

In other words, even when the most drastic results of contraception are manifest, clerics like Cardinal Martini refused to reexamine their own conscience while encouraging the Pope and other bishops to reexamine theirs. Did not the Lord have a word for that kind of blindness?

But once again, perhaps this blindness on the moral question is really due to the fact that Cardinal Martini is simply using the moral question to advance another more serious agenda. As said earlier, the real goal of Cardinal Martini's interview seems not simply to undo the Church's teaching on contraception, but to undo the present structure of the Church's Magisterium and to open the Church to a broader consensus type of teaching authority.

Rome Has Spoken

Nonetheless, just as Bernard Häring suffered no visible or public disciplinary action under Pope John Paul II, even when Häring continued his dissent after being removed from his teaching position by his own order late in life, so too it's not likely the Cardinal Martini will suffer any public correction or discipline today. That seems to be the unwritten policy of the Church since Vatican II, a policy that has pretty much rejected any public disciplinary actions, at least when it comes to members of the episcopacy, and above all the College of Cardinals.

The very idea of using public censures was downgraded at the time of the council and afterward, and it is most rare when any public action is taken against a member of the episcopacy. After Vatican II, the Church would take a new tack, and replace public discipline with encouragement and perhaps pressure behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the faithful will be left to ponder whether Cardinal Martini and his dissent actually have some traction.

How different things were prior to the Second Vatican Council. When Fr. Leonard Feeney published his dissent from Church teaching, Pius XII was not willing to ignore this teaching in the public arena. Fr. Feeney was publicly rebuked, and then publicly excommunicated by the cardinal archbishop of Boston. In the letter of the Boston archbishop accompanying the decree from Rome, he said this:

"Therefore, let them who in grave peril are ranged against the Church seriously bear in mind that after 'Rome has spoken' they cannot be excused even by reasons of good faith. Certainly, their bond and duty of obedience toward the Church is much graver than that of those who as yet are related to the Church 'only by an unconscious desire'."

The cardinal was speaking specifically in the context of Feeney's denial of the possibility of a Baptism by desire based upon a less than explicit desire for union with the Roman Catholic Church. Still, the principle that "after Rome has spoken" the dissenter cannot be excused "by reasons of good faith" obviously would seem to apply wherever "Rome has spoken" on a doctrinal or moral issue. And surely the "bond and duty of obedience to the Church" is surely even more serious for a bishop, or cardinal, than for the ordinary faithful or a priest. And if the faithful, as the letter states, "cannot be excused from culpable ignorance" which is the case when the Church has so spoken, as the letter also states, surely this too applies even more to a bishop and cardinal.

Fr. Feeney, of course, eventually retracted his teaching and was reconciled to the Church. I think Pius XII had great charity and compassion toward Fr. Feeney when he excommunicated him to bring him to his senses, as did John Paul II with Archbishop Lefebvre, who excommunicated himself by ordaining bishops, and who unfortunately refused to be reconciled right to the end. I trust Pope Benedict will somehow correct Cardinal Martini, certainly an act of pastoral caritas, but I will not be surprised if we never hear about it till they both are dead.

© The Wanderer

This item 8751 digitally provided courtesy of