The last interview

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who died Friday, was an eminent biblical scholar and former archbishop of Milan. As portrayed in the media, he was also the hierarchy’s most prominent liberal on a number of questions, including the church’s teaching on human sexuality. That reputation was reinforced over the weekend when the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera published the cardinal’s last interview, making headlines around the world (including here and here).

In the interview, granted less than a month before his death, the cardinal lamented that the church was “200 years behind” the times, with an “aged” culture enervated by its material wealth in Europe and America, and attached to “pompous” rites and externals, while suffering a lack of vocations and of “heroes” such as the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador.

Asked what the church could do to overcome these problems, Cardinal Martini recommended that Pope Benedict make unconventional appointments — “men close to the poorest people and surrounded by young people and who experience new things” — to key leadership posts in the Vatican.

The cardinal also said that the clerical sex abuse scandal should lead the pope and the hierarchy to take up a “radical path of change,” including rethinking unspecified elements of the church’s teaching on sexual morality, which the cardinal suggested now falls largely on deaf ears. He stressed the importance of ordinary Catholics knowing the Bible. And he argued for relaxing strictures against divorced and remarried persons receiving the Eucharist.

Catholics will differ over whether Cardinal Martini’s thinking on such matters was ahead of its time or representative of an era that has passed. But as attested by the tributes of the last few days — from Pope Benedict and other dignitaries, as well the ordinary mourners who filed past the cardinal’s body at the rate of 6,000 an hour — Cardinal Martini was a figure who commanded love and respect that transcended disagreements over even the most contentious issues.