John Paul and Benedict led the Church for 35 years. Decade after decade, they opposed the currents in modern life that they felt progressive Catholics were falsely identifying with the "spirit of Vatican II": movements in favor of women’s rights, gay rights, and heterodox family arrangements, and against religious freedom and robust religion in public life. They appointed the cardinals who would elect their successors. All their striving seemed to work: By the time Benedict became pope, progressive Catholics were cowering. The truths of orthodoxy and the findings of sociology had converged; the religious bodies that espoused the firmest doctrines and made the strictest demands on their adherents were those that gained the most followers.
Carlo Maria Martini saw things differently. A Jesuit priest and a biblical scholar, Martini was an outlier, even after John Paul appointed him as the archbishop of Milan. When in Rome, he worked with the poor and celebrated Mass on the city's outskirts. He published a dialogue with Umberto Eco (identified as an “urbane ex‑Catholic”). He sought ways to address such matters as premarital sex and divorce. At the 2005 conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as pope, Martini got nine votes on the first ballot, or scrutiny, behind Ratzinger (who got 47) and the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio (10). In the second scrutiny, after a night of politicking at the Casa Santa Marta, Martini's votes all passed to Bergoglio.
Like John Paul, Martini suffered from Parkinson's disease. Shortly before he died, in 2012, at the age of 85, he gave an interview to a fellow Jesuit. "The Church is tired, worn out in bourgeois Europe and America," he said. "Our culture has aged, our churches and monasteries are big and empty, the Church bureaucracy is bloated, our rites and vestments are pompous … Prosperity drags us down." He called for "the pope and the bishops to seek out 12 people from outside the system for administrative positions, people … who will try new things." He called on the Church to open itself to nontraditional families and poor people. He took the long view. "The Church," he said, "is 200 years behind the times."
At the conclave of 2013, Bergoglio was elected pope—and if his pontificate has an agenda, it is the one Martini spelled out from his deathbed.
If his pontificate has an agenda, it is the one Martini spelled out from his deathbed: that is, the leaders of the church must engage the bloated bureaucracy in which prosperity itself (akin to the prosperity of the 1% in the secular world) is causing the rot that leads to the bloating at the top of the church. The church has become tired, with huge, empty institutions and pompous rites and vestments. It is 200 years out of date.
And this analysis — with the suggestion that Pope Francis has aligned himself with it — is what makes the day of the four popes so perplexing to many Catholics, I'd propose. In what way did the empty show we witnessed this past Sunday communicate to the world that Francis is following Martini's vision of the church, which was a critique of John Paul II's — when John Paul II was one of the two saints being canonized?
Canonized by his successor, Benedict XVI, whom Martini was also very directly critiquing with these observations . . . ? And who stood beside Francis at the canonization show . . . .
The serious danger of Sunday's empty show: it will (rightly or wrongly) make many thinking Catholics conclude that Francis himself and the reforms he's said to represent are nothing more than empty show, sleight of hand, window dressing that signifies nothing.