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200 years behind what?

Eighteenth-century British Jacobites wistfully toasted “the king over the water,” referring to exiled King James II, his successors, and the Jacobite hope for a Stuart restoration to the throne of the United Kingdom. Throughout the pontificate of John Paul II, the cardinal archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., was a kind of “king over the water” for Catholics of the portside persuasion—the pope who should-have-been and might-yet-be. That never happened (although the progressives at the conclave of 2005 implausibly ran Cardinal Martini, then ill with Parkinson’s disease, in a failed attempt to block the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger). But longing for the lost cause continued.

Thus the day after his death this past September, Italy’s leading newspaper, Milan’s Corriere della Sera, published an interview with Cardinal Martini, conducted a few weeks before his death; evidently, the archbishop-emeritus put an embargo on the interview, such that it could only be published after he died.

In the interview (immediately dubbed his “spiritual testament” by his admirers), Cardinal Martini described the Church in Europe and America as “tired,” and asked “Where among us are the heroes from whom we can draw inspiration?” The burning “coals” of the Church, Martini continued, were hidden under piles of ashes; indeed, there is “so much ash on top of the coals that I am often assailed by a sense of powerlessness. How can the coals be freed from the ashes so as to reinvigorate the flame of love?” The cardinal went on to propose, quite rightly, that true reform in the Church is always reform inspired by Word and Sacrament. But then, at the end of the interview, came the money-quote: “The Church is 200 years behind. Why in the world does it not rouse itself? Are we afraid? Fear instead of courage?”

To which one wants to reply, with all respect, “Two hundred years behind what?” A western culture that has lost its grasp on the deep truths of the human condition? A culture that celebrates the imperial autonomous Self? A culture that detaches sex from love and responsibility? A culture that breeds a politics of immediate gratification and inter-generational irresponsibility, of the sort that has paralyzed public policy in Italy and elsewhere? “Why in the world,” to repeat the late cardinal’s question, would the Church want to catch up with that?

As for the question, “Where are the heroes?” Cardinal Martini seemed unaware of, or puzzled by, or perhaps even unhappy with, the heroic witness of the man who created him cardinal after naming him successor to St. Ambrose in Italy’s most prestigious see: John Paul II, whose faith and courage continue to inspire the liveliest parts of the Catholic world in Europe and America. (John Paul, for his part, gave Martini’s commentary on the First Letter of Peter to the cardinals gathered for the pope’s silver jubilee in 2003, as an appendix to a replica of the Bodmer Papyrus copy of the “first encyclical.”) Nor was John Paul alone as an exemplar of Christian heroism during the Martini years in Milan: years in which, to take but two examples, Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko became the martyr-priest of Solidarity and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta completed her singular witness to the “flame of love” the cardinal thought buried under ashes.

For all his brilliance, Cardinal Martini, like many on the Catholic left, never seemed to grasp that the secular culture with which Vatican II hoped to open a dialogue was not the secular culture that emerged in Europe in the aftermath of the upheavals of 1968. The new secularism was not open to the possibility of transcendent truth, as the secularism of, say, Albert Camus had been. The new secularism was embittered, aggressive and narrow-minded. It was not so much interested in dialogue as in cultural hegemony. And it is now firmly committed to driving the Catholic Church out of public life throughout the western world.

There is no need to lament being “behind” that. The Catholic challenge is to get ahead of that soul-withering ideology, and convert those in thrall to it by example and persuasive argument.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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