National Catholic Reporter ®

September 14, 2001                                                                                                  Vol. 1, No. 3

Ratzinger and Martini, shapers of the debate,
about to leave center stage of this papacy

Ratzinger and Martini may or may not have written the last chapters in their extraordinary careers. There are camps in the church that would like to see both men as the next pope, and given that John XXIII was just shy of 77 when he was elected in 1958, there is still time.

One unmistakable sign that a papacy is winding down comes when the figures that symbolize its most lacerating debates leave the stage. The next few months are likely to witness the exits of two such prelates: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Both are 74, one year short of the retirement age for bishops. Both were named to their offices by John Paul II near the beginning of his reign. Martini arrived in Milan in 1980. Ratzinger took over at the former Holy Office in 1981. 

Both are now clearly ready to move on. Ratzinger, who incarnates the vigilant, restorationist theology that has dominated John Paul’s pontificate, will finish his fourth five-year term in November. Theoretically prefects of curial agencies are limited to two terms, but the pope has twice asked Ratzinger to stay. 

In recent months Ratzinger, who seems increasingly fatigued, has distanced himself from day-to-day operations. He planned to allow his lieutenants to handle a meeting with Jesuit theologian Fr. Jacques Dupuis in September 2000, for example, and had to be persuaded that he could not delegate such a sensitive responsibility.

Similarly, during the Milingo affair this summer, it was Italian Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger’s No. 2, who called the shots and who was quoted in the press. It felt at times like a handing of the baton.

Most observers expect Ratzinger to retire to Bavaria as soon after November as a successor is named.

Martini, meanwhile, has often expressed his desire to go to Jerusalem when he reaches 75 in February 2002. The latest confirmation came Sept. 8, when he presented his pastoral letter for 2001/2002 to the press.

“I have never made a mystery to the pope of my desire to retire to Jerusalem to dedicate myself to prayer and to the study of codexes and manuscripts,” said Martini, a noted Biblical scholar. 

A Jesuit, Martini embodies the reformist spirit of Catholic progressives. He has for two decades been the “great white hope” of that constituency, the man most of them would elect to the papacy if they had the chance.

Martini’s new pastoral letter reads like a farewell. 

The Italian press was captivated by his apology for not doing more to combat corruption in Milan in the early 1990s, when revelations about one leading figure after another led cynics to dub the city tangentopoli — “Bribe City.” The turmoil brought down not just the government, but the entire political system that had dominated the country since World War II.

Although Martini was never sullied by the scandals, he wrote: “As much as I wanted to pronounce the Word … denouncing corruption and the egoistic logic that sometimes dominated collective or group behavior, I ask myself if I couldn’t have done more.” 

For an Italy that seems to want to “forgive and forget” — its current government is led by a man whose financial and political origins remain obscure — Martini’s words are a salutary reminder about work yet undone.

To non-Italian readers, I suspect two other points from the letter will be most striking. 

Martini apologizes to the so-called “new movements” if they sometimes felt “little appreciated and sustained” by him. Though he does not identify any movements by name, well-known examples include Focolare, the Legionaries of Christ, and the Neocatechumenate.

Martini, like many diocesan bishops, has been lukewarm about the movements despite heavy promotion from John Paul II, worrying that they can be elitist and do little to build mainstream parish life.

“I have always rejoiced at authentic testimony to the gospel, wherever it is found,” Martini wrote. “But I have also had difficulty understanding some modes of thinking that seem to me particularistic and self-referential.” Martini says he still feels a pastoral preference for the diocese and the parishes. 

“Yet the honesty of my intention is certainly not enough to satisfy those who feel little cared for or loved,” Martini wrote. He said he dreams that the movements and the parishes may unite their gifts, but “the path still appears a long one.”

It is a generous nod across one of the larger divides that have opened in the Catholic world under this pope.

In another characteristic flourish, Martini thanks God for his encounters with non-believers.

“I have learned so much,” he wrote, “including honesty, generosity, openness. For the paths of dialogue and friendship, for reciprocal enrichment and for growth in light and in truth, for fruits that grew on arid land, I give praise to my Lord.”

This is no idle statement. No Catholic leader of his generation has done more to dialogue with the non-believing world. Martini and famed Italian novelist (and atheist) Umberto Eco once published an exchange of letters in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, now a book translated into several languages. It is a beautiful example of two men with different philosophical points of departure who meet on the terrain of mutual respect and deep concern for humanity.

Martini’s bottom line is unbridled optimism. “For a believer there is no time for nostalgia, much less for regret,” he writes. “It is always the hour for hope, for trust, for love.”

Ratzinger and Martini may or may not have written the last chapters in their extraordinary careers. There are camps in the church that would like to see both men as the next pope, and given that John XXIII was just shy of 77 when he was elected in 1958, there is still time.

Whatever happens, the differing currents these two ecclesiastical titans represent will certainly be in tension when the next conclave happens. Ratzinger’s last major public document, Dominus Iesus, offers a summary of his outlook. Despite the very different genre, Martini’s pastoral letter now forms a fascinating term of comparison.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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