Cardinal Carlo Martini, retired Archbishop of Milan, passed away last week. The late Cardinal had recently made the news with his statement about the Church being "200 years out of date." Father Steve Grunow examines Cardinal Martini's comparison between the Church of 200 years ago and the current Church on today's blog post.
Cardinal Carlo Martini died this past weekend. The former Archbishop of Milan was much eulogized in the press. This obituary in the London Telegraph surveys the Cardinal's long and distinguished career. Martini had served as not only the archbishop of one of most important sees in Italy, but also a rector of the Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He was the author of dozens of books. The late Cardinal was also a member of the Society of Jesus.
Overshadowing Cardinal Martini's accomplishments are his words from an interview that occurred shortly before his death. In this interview, the late Eminence remarked that the Church's "culture has grown old, our churches big and empty. The Church bureaucracy rises up." Further, "our religious rites and the vestments we wear are pompous." The jeremiad continued and added that the Church is "200 years out of date" and requires a "radical transformation" beginning with the pope and bishops. He also expressed that the sexual abuse scandal and the alienation experienced by those Catholics who had divorced and remarried as stumbling blocks that the current state of ecclesiastical affairs seemed ill equipped to overcome.
Cardinal Martini was lauded by Catholic liberals and progressives as a hero and excoriated by some Catholic conservatives as dangerous. There have been quite a few commentaries since Cardinal Martini's death that have mused as to what the Church would have been like today had Martini been elected pope. These were written by fans and are expressive of the kind of utopianism that characterizes true believers. I imagine his detractors would speculate that the end result of a Pope Martini would have been more dystopian. Whatever one would like say about such things seems just a lot of wasted wind and ink to me. Providence had other designs for Carlo Martini and I think that he would be the first to remind speculators on the left and right that it is in Christ's will, not our own, that we find peace.
What stayed in my mind in terms of the reports concerning the late Cardinal's last interview was his reference to the Church as being "200 years out of date" which I found interesting to think about because one can take it to mean that in terms of the Church's beliefs, practices and culture that we are still living in the year 1812- and that was quite a year.
It was a year in which the earth shook both geo-politically and literally.
One of the worst earthquakes in the history of the continental United States wreaked havoc in the Illinois and Missouri territory, its epicenter being the town of New Madrid. Luckily that region was mostly uninhabited, but the threat of yet another major quake like the one in 1812 still haunts the Midwestern United States. The United States was not the only place where terra firma was not so firm. A far more destructive earthquake leveled the city of Caracas in Venezuala and claimed the lives of 20,000 of the city's inhabitants. These literal earthquakes were overshadowed by the shaking of sabers and the booming of artillery as the Napoleonic Wars raged in Europe. The United States also declared war on Britain. In the lighter side of the news, the author Charles Dickens was born, who was later to write the line that best describes all ages as being "the best of times and the worst of times." 1812 had its share of both, but much more of the worst.
Since Cardinal Martini perceived that the Church is stuck in 200 years in the past, it is interesting to consider who was pope and the state of the Church during that momentous year. The pope was Pius VII, a Benedictine monk, who spent 1812 imprisoned by Napoleon in Fountainbleau. A thoughtful man, he had concluded early on that the Church need not by necessity be in antagonism with the democratic regimes that were emerging at the time. However, he would discover that those regimes believed themselves to be by necessity in antagonism with the Church. Napoleon was paradigmatic in this regard. I suppose the style of Pope Pius' vestments would be seen by some of us as pompous, but his papal tiara was made of papier mache, as the wealth of the Church had been appropriated by Napoleon for the purpose of providing the necessary capital for conquest.
Napoleon's army had carted off much the content of the Vatican, including its extensive archive and library to Paris. The art went to decorate the city and the papers were recycled as fishwrap. Who needs a historical record when you consider yourself to be history in the making?
The Church had rejected a plan of cultural accommodation and assimilation that had been imposed upon it in France by the revolutionary regime, of which Napoleon was the successor. It had been pilloried as being a servant of the "ancien regime"—the claim being that it was representative of an old way that blocked an enlightened future. This enlightenment meme has stuck to the Church, even to this day. However, those bearing the light of this new age had to be careful where they cast their glow, lest the body count be exposed to public scrutiny. As a result of the Church's opposition to the culture, it lost much of its historical patrimony. Its big churches were appropriated by the state and the masses persuaded to attend political rallies rather than the Mass. Napoleon was a pragmatist who was willing to let the Church be as long as it let him be. When that didn't happen, well, that's why poor Pope Pius was imprisoned in Fountainbleau.
Perhaps what Cardinal Martini meant when he remarked that the Church was "200 years out of date" was that it continues to fail to fully accept the kind of world that was birthed during that particular age of European history. He might have had in mind the best of what modernity has to offer- the promises of rights for those who formally had little or none. Maybe in his estimation, the revolutionary fervor and sense of liberty that gave rise to the nation state has not been as of yet fully appreciated and appropriated by the Church. He believed that the Church should do more to represent within its own structures the kind of world of which 1812 was an overture. As the romantic symphony of modernity has given way to the discordant notes of the post-modern, it seems to me, contrary to the late Cardinal's perception, that the culture and the Church benefits more from a certain measure of resistance to the modern, rather than our assimilation into it.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries
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