At first sight, the intervention of Cardinal Martini weighing in on the wrong side of some of the most important moral discussions of this age would seem irrelevant. It is true that he was the President (Rettore) of the most prestigious Pontifical University, the Gregoriana; and archbishop of the largest Italian diocese, Milan - from which the world received Popes Ratti and Montini in the 20th century - for more than 20 years. But he has been retired since 2002, and, according to most rumors, he was in an extremely weak position in the last conclave.
Therefore, to understand the relevance of the interview Martini gave to the most important Italian newsweekly, L'Espresso, one needs to consider the current political and religious circumstances in Italy.
First, though formatted to look like a "discussion" between a "man of science" (Doctor Ignazio Marino) and a "man of faith" (Cardinal Martini), it is actually an interview: Marino presents his philosophy and questions Martini, who virtually always agrees with him. It is all about Martini's answers, not about Marino's "parallel ideas".
Second, Ignazio Marino is not just any physician: he is a member of the Democratici di Sinistra-DS (the "Leftist Democrats"), the post-Cold War name of the largest Communist Party in the West, the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). The Communists are the main leftist components of the "center-left" coalition, the Unione, led by Romano Prodi which has recently won the Italian parliamentary elections. Marino has just been elected to one of the Communist seats in the Senate for the Latium region (Lazio).
So this interview by Marino, who presents himself as a "Catholic" (in the style of the Dossettian "Bologna School" of "Progressive Catholicism"), has the following meaning: the left asks the Church for its opinion, and Martini is chosen as the official spokesman by the Italian "progressive elite", represented by L'Espresso magazine and by the Unione.
It is clear that if Marino were to interview Cardinal Ruini, the Cardinal Vicar of Rome and President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, or Pope Benedict, he would not receive the answers he wants. So the progressive manipulation technique involves picking a specific person who will provide the desired answers; the second step is to wait for an official response by the Church, which will probably not come. Then, the preposterous answers provided by the favored churchman become, if not official opinions, at least acceptable positions in the "rainbow of opinions" which shape the Church.
Now, why is this "semi-official Church position" by a man like Martini so important at this moment? It is far from a coincidence that this interview has been released right after the official results of the elections were announced. Despite the great deterioration in its position in the post-Conciliar age, the Church is still an important player in Italian politics.
A center-left coalition which has barely won its majority in Parliament will force its leader, Romano Prodi, willingly or not, to give in to the most extremist forces inside his coalition if he wishes to remain in power. Ironically, Marino's DS (the "former" Communists) are among the most moderate forces in the Prodi coalition. However, among Italian leftwing politicians, the rage against the Church, against public funds given to the Church, against crucifixes in classrooms and courtrooms, against the Church's opposition to abortion, embryonic manipulation, "fast-track divorce" laws, homosexual civil unions is considerable -- especially as an angry response to a wrong perception of the Church (embodied in its most visible face in Italian politics, Ruini) as the "conservative anchor" of the leaving prime-minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
As prime-minister Rodríguez Zapatero in Spain, Prodi (though in many ways a much more moderate man than the Spaniard) will probably have to feed anti-clericalism to the extremists of his coalition. And this is where Martini's opinions are relevant, and it is why this ecclesiastical has-been is in the cover of this week's L'Espresso.
If the Italian public opinion may be persuaded, by Martini's words and by the official silence from the Vatican and from Ruini regarding those words, that opposition to the Magisterium is an acceptable position for Catholics, then the probable extreme measures which the center-left governing coalition will defend in moral matters will become more palatable to the population at large. And this is why this apparently unimportant intervention may mark a turning point in the Ratzinger pontificate.
See the first post on the supernatural aspects of the "Martini intervention" here.
-Monday: S. Magister has published a translation of the full intervention here; readers will notice that the "prophylactic" discussion was not the main topic of Martini's remarks, which were an attack on the edifice of Catholic Moral Doctrine on issues of life and death; and, as Magister notes, and as we had noticed in this analysis, they are "the first great act of opposition to this pontificate from the upper levels of the Church".