Cardinal Martini shakes, but doesn't stir

This month marked the 10th anniversary of the Sir Sigmund Sternberg Prizes for Interfaith Understanding, awarded at Hebrew University.

martini 88 (photo credit: )
martini 88
(photo credit: )
This month marked the 10th anniversary of the Sir Sigmund Sternberg Prizes for Interfaith Understanding, awarded at Hebrew University. Presenting the annual lecture to accompany the award ceremony, at which four students were honored for their work in comparative religion, was Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who retired from the archdiocese of Milan at the mandatory age of 75 and came to reside in Jerusalem nearly four years ago. He is known for his scholarship and liberalism and recognized for his work in interfaith dialogue. "People express themselves in apparently different ways, but often there is substantial similarity in what they say," he told the assembled audience, in a lecture entitled Philosophy and Dialogue . He himself was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University a day earlier. Not that Martini needs another doctorate. He earned one in theological studies from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1958 and another in Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He went on to become dean of the Faculty of Scripture at the Biblical Institute, then became its rector in 1969, and in 1978 became chancellor of the Pontifical Gregorian University. He holds an honorary doctorate from the Russian Academy of Sciences. In addition to a history of scholarship, Martini has a track record of liberalism - in particular, of supporting changes that would make the church more democratic. He has also voiced support for strengthening the comparatively weak power and influence of women within the Catholic Church. Martini's record of liberalism earned him so much support from liberal Catholics that he was for a long time considered the first choice among liberals to succeed John Paul II in the papacy. In consonance with his liberal values, Martini is also known for his work on interfaith dialogue. He has encouraged Christians to learn more about Judaism, the religion of Jesus, both in order to build branches to the Jewish community and also to better understand their own faith. In a message delivered to a 2004 symposium on the Holy Land and inter-religious dialogue, he encouraged Christians to reserve judgement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prof. Steven Kaplan, dean of the Faculty of Humanities, was on hand to offer greetings and initial remarks at the award ceremony. He is the son of a Conservative rabbi from Pittsburgh who was deeply involved in interfaith dialogue. He fondly recalled that his father was, in fact, named "man of the year for Catholic education in Pittsburgh." When he told the audience that the ceremony for the award was scheduled for a Jewish holiday, so unfortunately, the rabbi was unable to attend, the room erupted into gales of laughter. The mood once again became sober and dignified as Cardinal Martini took the podium. The aged and revered cardinal sat and read a greeting in Hebrew and then delivered the lecture in English - neither language is his native tongue. Martini's subject was different kinds of language, and whether they can be bridged. He compared everyday language, religious language and scientific language. The essential question is whether people who speak one of these three languages can successfully communicate with those who speak one of the other two. Martini believes it is possible. For example, the scientific method is critical in studying religious manuscripts, to discern religious meaning of the ancients. One must be fluent in both to successfully extract the kinds of truths that both kinds of writings contain. Scientific truth has an obvious scope, but "religious thought has it's own truth, dignity, and purpose." Martini also took time to commend Vatican II, and the Church's examination of its relationship to non-Christian religions.