A Pope who never was: and why the world needs another Vatican Council

By William Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 24/04/06):

CARDINAL Carlo Maria Martini is the liberal pope who was never elected. For at least the last decade of the reign of John Paul II he was seen as the liberal candidate for the papacy when it became vacant. He was the leading liberal candidate at the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. By then he had retired as the Archbishop of Milan, the largest see in Italy, and was in poor health; he now lives in retirement in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, there are still strong pressures for change in the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict XVI was an old Pope when elected; the election of his successor can be only a decade or two away. Ten years is a short time in the Vatican. Benedict XVI is a conservative theologian, but he does not seem to have a radical conservative agenda; he is certainly not proving to be a reactionary.

Last Friday L’Espresso published a discussion between Cardinal Martini and a leading Catholic surgeon, Ignazio Marino. Naturally the discussion focused on medical issues. These included contraception, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, the use of frozen embryos and adoption.

That includes many, if not most of the issues that strongly divide liberals and conservatives. Cardinal Martini’s answers give some ideas of the changes he might have made if he had been elected Pope. Perhaps they are also an indication of the changes that might be made if a liberal Pope were to be elected on the next occasion.

The three most divisive issues are contraception, abortion and euthanasia. Benedict XVI has remained loyal to the doctrines of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical published on contraception by Pope Paul VI. The encyclical was published before the Aids virus had first been identified. Benedict XVI has argued that this should not change the doctrine. “The Church advises chastity as the only safe way to fight Aids.” He has also said that the use of condoms is “morally inadmissible”.

Cardinal Martini takes the opposite view. He said that the use of condoms could be regarded as “the lesser evil”, and firmly stated that: “A spouse infected with Aids is obliged to protect the other partner.” In such circumstances, presumably, he would see condoms as not only morally admissible, but actually as a moral duty.

On this issue, lay Roman Catholic opinion seems generally to be on the side of the cardinal rather than the Pope. Humanae Vitae is presumably not an infallible document, in that it was not promulgated as an ex cathedra decree. It has never won the general acceptance of the laity. I remember that good man, the late Duke of Norfolk, who was then the leading Roman Catholic layman, dismissing Humanae Vitae with cheerful soldierly references to “rubber johnnies”.

To most lay Catholics it seems obvious, as it does to Cardinal Martini, that an HIV-positive man who sleeps with his wife, or with anyone else, without wearing a condom is behaving outrageously. In the slums of Soweto he is not, in practice, likely to prefer chastity. On this issue, therefore, I believe that the mass of observant Catholics would have supported a liberal Pope. Even the teaching of the Church is subject of sustainability; the Humanae Vitae doctrine on contraception is not sustainable because it has never been accepted by the majority of the faithful. With Aids still spreading around the world it is not likely to be accepted now.

The opposite seems to me to be true of Cardinal Martini’s attitude to abortion. There the view of the Church is that abortion involves taking innocent human lives, and that is absolutely wrong. As far as I have been able to observe, this doctrine is accepted by most Roman Catholics, clerical or lay. Cardinal Martini said in the course of the discussion that the legalisation of abortion, which has happened throughout Europe, had been a “positive development” on the ground that it helped to reduce illegal abortions. He also argued that, in extreme cases, it was a matter for the individual conscience.

The third issue of controversy is euthanasia. Cardinal Martini, with a slight qualification, is opposed to euthanasia, as is the Pope. In the cases of both abortion and euthanasia, the underlying question is one of the sanctity of human life. The Church teaches, and most Catholics believe, that human life is sacred.

We are not entitled to take the life of the unborn child; we are not entitled to take the life of the sick or elderly, even if they wish it; we are not entitled to take the life even of the most seriously handicapped; we are not entitled to take the life of convicted and perhaps atrocious murderers. We are not entitled to commit suicide. Perhaps the only exceptions are self-defence and the “just war”, itself defined in terms of self-defence. That is the teaching of Cardinal Martini; it is the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI; it is the teaching of the Church.

Unfortunately, Cardinal Martini does not fully apply it to abortion.

The majority of the Catholic laity nowadays are educated people, living in democracies, with access to global communication systems. They are, in a sense, a standing lay council of the Church. If a doctrine does not come near to convincing them, it needs careful re-examination. When one examines the controversial doctrines of opposition to contraception; to abortion; and to euthanasia, the last two have very widespread global support, but the first does not. Equally one can say that the liberal attitude to abortion breaks the Judaeo-Christian commandment “thou shalt not kill”.

There was a gap of 90 years between the First and Second Vatican Councils. I doubt whether the Church ought to wait another nine years before the Third Vatican Council is called. The culture of the modern world changes rapidly and violently. As Pope John Paul II well understood, the Church has to distinguish between the rock of truth and the waves of contemporary passion. Liberalism is always needed, but so is conservatism.