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Peter Popham: A final warning that Pope Benedict ignores at his peril

If Pope Benedict XVI does attend the funeral in Milan of Cardinal Martini, whose body, robed and mitred, crosier at his side, was laid out for the veneration of the faithful at the weekend, it will surely be with mixed feelings. The danger of not attending the last obsequies of such a high-ranking prince of the church is that it might appear cowardly, tantamount to a public admission that a rift had grown up between them. But to attend will take real nerves, and humility, for Carlo Maria Martini's parting shot was a devastating and -- coming from a cardinal -- an almost unprecedented attack on the Catholic Church's leadership, in effect on the Pope himself, in the form of a final interview with an Italian newspaper.

The last testament of one of the towering figures in the Roman Catholic Church could not have been clearer: in an interview with 'Corriere della Sera' before he died, Cardinal Martini spelled out the dangers the Church faces: the empty churches, the burgeoning power of the bureaucracy, the increasing irrelevance of its teachings, the face of indifference and intolerance it often shows to those most in need of grace.

To take a single example: "The question of whether divorcees can receive communion should be turned upside down," he said. The correct question is, "how can the church find a way to help, with the power of the sacraments, those who find themselves in complicated family situations?"

It was a bold, trenchant restatement of the liberal Catholic position by a man who would have stood an excellent chance of being elected Pope on the death of John Paul II in 2005, had he not had Parkinson's disease.

The cardinal pulled no punches in his indictment of the contemporary church, describing it as moribund and out of touch. It was 200 years behind the times on numerous social issues, he said, which was why churches built to hold great congregations now served huddles.

By failing to accommodate itself to new kinds of patterns of family life, he added, the church risked throwing away contact with the next generation. "Why don't we rouse ourselves?" he concluded. "Are we afraid?"

The answer to that question from beyond the grave, is, alas, yes. The rest of the Catholic hierarchy is afraid of its authoritarian leader, and seems unwilling even to question, let alone oppose, his hard-line views on contraception, homosexual relationships, the remarriage of divorced people in church, the admission of women to the priesthood, the abolition of clerical celibacy and a lot of other issues.

A policy of replacing liberal bishops and cardinals with conservatives of the same stamp as the Pope, which has been in place since the late 1970s, when Benedict's predecessor and hero, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II, has cleansed the church's inner sanctum of questioning minds. Dr Martini's promotion to Archbishop of Milan in 1979 came just before the clampdown got going. Thus, we may have heard the last of the more open-minded Catholic leaders, and we may be wrong if we imagine that his call for modernisation will restart a debate inside the church on topics that the Pope regards as off limits.

Most of the rest of us will feel regretful that the doors of the papal apartments remain tightly closed to voices like that of the cardinal -- if only because what he said in his interview ought to have been blindingly obvious.

As Archbishop of Milan, the city from which the Emperor Constantine in 317 issued the historic edict proclaiming toleration for the Christian religion, Cardinal Martini was keenly aware of the importance of maintaining the church's association with the broad currents of social and intellectual life in Europe -- a partnership that lasted the best part of two millennia but which is dwindling to nothing.

His message was about the need to re-engage before it's too late. Perhaps it already is too late, and the church and Europe are destined to go their entirely separate ways, inhabiting the same space but not involved in any kind of conversation, in which case both will be impoverished -- the church, perhaps, more than the world around it.

Irish Independent