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Cardinal Martini, figure of hope for Church reform, dies

Image: Photo By Osservatore Romano Arturo Mari/AFP/File

Italian cardinal Carlo Maria Martini died at the age of 85.

Italian cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a progressive who pushed for a rethink on modern issues and was once tipped as a possible pope, died on Friday aged 85, the Archbishop of Milan said.

Martini, himself a former archbishop of Milan who advocated reform on issues such as contraception and the role of women in the Church, had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for years and his condition had degenerated this week.

"He was a great man, a great scholar, he taught us a lot," a priest who did not want to be named told journalists as he left Martini's bedside.

The elderly prelate, who served as archbishop of Milan from 1980 to 2002, was revered by reform-seekers in the Church, in particular for his dream of holding a third Vatican Council to modernise key aspects of Catholic dogma.

He died in a Jesuit retreat house near Milan, where he had been living for the past few years, which had special facilities for sick prelates. Relatives and friends had gathered to be with Martini in his final hours, reports said.

Tipped as a possible pope in the run up to a conclave to elect a new pontiff in 2005, Martini was a popular figure who commanded great respect from both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

But his progressive stance on highly sensitive issues, which ruffled feathers in some quarters of Church despite Martini's diplomatic and measured approach, meant his chances of being elected to Saint Peter's Chair were slim.

The intellectual, who wrote dozens of theological tomes in his life, also revealed in 2002 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and his health issues may also have persuaded voters to favour other candidates.

Martini was a realist who warned the Church it would have to become more flexible with regard to its traditional mores, or risk alienating Catholics.

He was considered a constructive critic, who was always careful not to offend traditionalists but spoke out clearly against several hardline issues.

In 2008 he criticised the Church's prohibition of birth control, saying that the stance had likely driven many faithful away, and publicly stated in 2006 that condoms could "in some situations, be a lesser evil."

In terms of priest celibacy -- a hot topic particularly in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandal -- Martini felt an "evolution" was inevitable, though he did not believe the Church should give up the practice entirely.

Though he was friends with John Paul II, the pair differed in opinion on some topics, particularly on whether the Church had done enough to modernise.

In 1999, Martini said he "had a dream" for a Third Vatican Council, which would take up where Vatican II left off in 1965 and further revise dogma.

The third council would address the decline in priest numbers, women in the Church, sexuality, and the institution of marriage, among other things.

Martini, who went to a Jesuit-run school before being ordained as a priest, had a successful academic career and was reputed to speak 11 languages.

He retired from the post of Archbishop at the mandatory age of 75 and fulfilled a dream to study in Jerusalem, before returning to Italy in 2008 and moving into the Jesuit house near Milan where he spent his final years.

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