Cardinal Martini’s call for radical change – December 2012


Author Joe Fitzpatrick traces the influence of philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan on the late Cardinal Martini’s thinking on culture and what he saw as the church’s need to work out imaginative and novel solutions to the problems facing it today.

There are some men and women who are so revered in their lifetime that they seem to tower over the rest of their contemporaries. Cardinal Carlo Martini was such a man. When he died in August 2012 he was described on all sides as ‘a giant of the Catholic Church’. A great biblical scholar who not only had a profound understanding of both old and new testaments, he was also someone with a deep love of the bible. But at the same time he was alive, hugely alive, to the needs and desires of people in the twentieth and the twenty-first century and felt that the church was not doing enough to reach out to certain groups and classes of people in modern society. He earnestly wished for the church to be the ‘yeast in the dough’, a unique reference point for people wrestling with the problems – medical, moral and cultural – that they encountered in their daily lives. Like Pope John XXIII he was an Italian Cardinal who seemed determined to put behind him the world-condemning and world-rejecting attitudes of previous Italian Popes such as Gregory XVI, Pius IX and Pius X. The church was there to serve the world, not reject and condemn it.

Famously, in his final interview, published as his ‘last will and testament’ in Corriera della Sera shortly after his death, the Cardinal said that the church was ‘200 years out of date’, going on to say, ‘Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy grows. The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation.’

What on earth was the Cardinal getting at, what were the factors that led him to such bold prounouncements? Here I would like to suggest, if ever so tentatively, one influence that might have lain behind the Cardinal’s words. Cardinal Martini made no secret of his admiration for the work of his fellow Jesuit, the Canadian philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan. Martini would have known Lonergan personally through his close association with the Gregorian University in Rome, where Lonergan taught for many years. And Lonergan made no secret of the fact that he thought that the church often lagged behind the times. Even in his philosophical work, Insight, he speaks at one point of the church arriving on the scene ‘a little breathless and a little late.’ Then in his later work, Method in Theology, he draws attention to a distinction he considers to be highly important, namely the difference between what he terms the ‘classicist’ understanding of culture and the ‘empirical’ understanding of culture. It is this distinction, I suggest, that stands behind the Cardinal’s references to the fact that Catholic culture has aged and, in consequence, the church is 200 years out of date.

To understand what Lonergan is saying it it important, first of all, to understand that by ‘culture’ he means a set of meanings and values informing a common way of life.1 Now, within what he refers to as the classicist outlook culture is conceived normatively. It is the notion of culture that grew out of the Greco-Roman civilisation that flourished in the area of the Mediterranean two thousand years ago and which dominated the European understanding of culture until well into the eighteenth century. It is the notion of culture as universally valid for all of mankind at all times; it is that into which outsiders, such as the barbarians or the young, have to be inducted if they are to pass as civilised beings. Behind this notion of culture stands the Aristotelian notion of science as true, certain knowledge of things through their causes. By this definition, what is discovered in science is true, invariant, permanent, and closed to revision.

Lonergan believes that this notion of culture is now out of date and has been replaced by an empirical understanding of culture, according to which there are as many cultures as there are sets of meanings and values. Where the classicist considers there to have been but one changeless culture of mankind, scholars today find that cultures have changed and developed over time. ‘For human concepts and human courses of action are products and expressions of acts of understanding, human understanding develops over time, such development is cumulative, and each cumulative development responds to the human and environmental conditions of its place and time.’2 Behind the empirical notion of culture stands the modern notion of science as provisional knowledge based on a dynamic, open-ended method of inquiry that yields cumulative and progressive results. Change is not a bad thing in modern science but something that is applauded and celebrated as the engine of progress, provided it is based on sufficient relevant evidence. Modern historical consciousness, which came to the fore in the nineteenth century, redefined what we mean by science and this redefinition of science has contributed in turn to a reconception of culture.

Lonergan was working on this modern understanding of culture and the difference between it and the more traditional understanding at the time of the Second Vatican Council and it helped to influence the thinking of Bishop Christopher Butler, probably the most eminent of all the British bishops who attended the Council, who mentions Lonergan’s distinction in the diaries he kept at the time. So what light does Lonergan’s distinction throw on the remarks made by Cardinal Carlo Martini shortly before he died?

Well, Lonergan was also fond of saying that the crisis gripping the church today is not a crisis of faith but a crisis of culture. And there remain many in the church today, and perhaps especially in Rome, who hold onto a classicist notion of culture, believing that what the church did or said in the past must be normative for what the church can do and say in the future; that any change or reform of the church’s way of doing things is a sign of weakness, a capitulation to the forces of secularism. Lonergan would agree with this if what is being discussed are those church doctrines known as dogmas – although even here he would insist that while dogmas are true and that what is true is permanently true this is not to say that dogmas cannot be changed or developed. Throughout Method in Theology he insists on the distinction between permanence and immobilism. But those who adhere to a normative conception of culture do not usually confine their remarks to church doctrines or dogmas but insist that a whole range of issues that pertain not to doctrine but to the cultural practices of the church are incapable of being changed or developed in new ways. For example, the fact that the church has for many centuries refused to allow women to play a significant role in religious services means that this practice must continue indefinitely into the future. That is the way the classicist mind works. But if we hold to a modern empirical notion of culture we would ask, Why not? Why can women not be assigned a more active role not only in church services, such as the Mass, but also in the church’s decision-making processes? And it is not only in relation to the role of women that the church can change and adapt to the needs of the times; there is an increasing number of issues in relation to which change is not only possible but desirable. That is why the distinction made by Lonergan is important. It might appear to be more than a trifle exotic or remote but it is, in fact, liberating since it makes it possible for us to realize that change – change! – is possible and, if the church is to survive, inevitable.

This is the point to grasp, I believe, when we ponder what Cardinal Carlo Martini was getting at in his various controversial pronouncements – he knew and accepted that the church needed to change and that it should do so with courage and faith, two virtues he felt to be lacking in the church of today which has grown tired and unsure of itself. He called for the church to work out imaginative and novel solutions to the problems pressing on it today – such as the shortage of priests, the role of women, contraception, marriage and divorce. And he spoke with a confidence that is lacking among cardinals and bishops today who give the impression of being afraid to open their mouths on such issues in case they fall foul of the Vatican censors. Martini spoke out fearlessly and with the immense authority of a prophet who believed in his heart that these were the things that the Jesus we encounter in the gospels would be calling in question, were he alive today. The church needs more of such prophets.

1 Bernard Lonergan SJ, Method in Theology (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972), p. 301.
2 Ibid., p. 302

Joe Fitzpatrick is the author of Philosophical Encounters: Lonergan and the Analytic Tradition. University of Toronto Press, 2005

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.