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The man who wouldn't be pope

August 31, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in a 2001 photo
Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in a 2001 photo (AFP/Getty Images )

The day after conservative Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York closed the Republican National Convention with a benediction, another prominent Catholic prelate, Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, died. 

In a parallel universe often dreamed of by liberal Catholics, it was Martini, a Jesuit scripture scholar, who was elected pope in 2005 instead of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his conservative colleague. If Martini had been elected -- and  reports of how many votes he received in the secret conclave varied wildly --  Dolan might  have remained in Milwaukee.

Secular journalists tend to exaggerate the differences between liberal and conservative Catholic bishops. If Martini had been elected pope, there wouldn’t have been a relaxation of the church’s teaching against abortion or the ordination of women as priests. (If  Rome were to ordain women, it would drive Eastern-rite Catholics into the hands of the Orthodox churches, which would then have bragging rights as the only tradition that preserved the all-male clergy supposedly ordained by Jesus.)

Martini wasn’t a raving liberal.  But he was a less cloistered and less (in Catholic jargon) “triumphalist” figure than Ratzinger. Had he been elected pope, bishops in the U.S. church today might resemble the moderately liberal prelates appointed during the reign of Pope Paul VI more than the conservatives advanced by John Paul II and Benedict  XVI. And while Benedict has brought back the Tridentine Latin Mass, Martini reportedly refused to celebrate the old rite in Milan, believing that the post-Vatican II vernacular liturgy was more nourishing of faith. 

Martini also was an effective apologist for Christianity. He engaged in an erudite but accessible exchange of letters with the philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco that was published in a book called “Belief or Nonbelief.” (Eco famously said: “When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.” )

A Martini papacy was not to be, less perhaps because of his liberalism than because he was a member of the much-distrusted Jesuits (whose leader, oddly, is known as the “black pope”). 

As for Cardinal Dolan, even if Martini had been elected pope, Dolan might still have made it to Tampa. He's an old friend of Paul Ryan's.

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