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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?

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