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Liberal papal contender, Cardinal Carlo Martini, dies at 85

VATICAN CITY -- Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a rare liberal within the highly conservative Catholic Church hierarchy who was nevertheless considered a papal contender in the last conclave, died Friday. He was 85.

Martini, a Jesuit and former archbishop of the important archdiocese of Milan, had been battling Parkinson's disease for several years. His death at a Jesuit institute in Gallarate, near Varese, was announced by the Milan archdiocese, which said his condition had worsened Thursday evening.

Martini frequently voiced openness to discuss divisive issues for the church, such as priestly celibacy, homosexuality and using condoms to fight HIV transmission. While not at odds with church teaching, his views nevertheless showed his progressive bent. He was an intellectual and a noted biblical scholar, yet he had a warm and personable style and seemed to connect with his flock like few high-ranking prelates.

And, despite his liberal views in a College of Cardinals that grew increasingly conservative under Pope John Paul II, he was considered “papabile,” or having the qualities of a pope, going into the 2005 conclave that brought the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to the papacy.

Benedict was told Thursday that Martini's death was near, and on Friday issued a heartfelt letter of condolence, praising his “dear brother” for serving the church generously and faithfully for so long. He cited Martini's tenure as rector of the Jesuit's Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and of the Pontifical Biblical Institute as well as his “diligent and sage” leadership of Milan's Catholic faithful.

Martini was well known and well-liked by Italians, many of whom got to know him by his frequent contributions to leading daily Corriere della Sera, which for three years ran a popular column “Letters to Cardinal Martini,” in which Martini would respond directly to questions submitted by readers.

The topics covered everything from the clerical sex abuse scandal to whether it was morally acceptable for a Catholic to be cremated (“it's possible and allowed,” he wrote). His responses were filled with Biblical citations and references to church teachings, but were accessible as well, written as if he were chatting with his readers.

Martini also wasn't afraid to discuss issues that, while important to many lay Catholics, are usually considered off-limits by his colleagues.

In 2006, he raised eyebrows at the Vatican when he told the Italian weekly L'Espresso that condoms could be considered a “lesser evil” in combating AIDS, particularly for a married couple. While somewhat revolutionary at the time, his views seem to have struck a chord: Four years later, Benedict himself came close to echoing Martini's sentiment when he said a male prostitute who intends to use a condom might be taking a step toward a more responsible sexuality because he was looking out for the welfare of his partner.

Martini retired as Milan archbishop in 2002 and moved to Jerusalem to devote himself to prayer and study. He had long established relations with the Jewish community, writing books and articles on the relations between Christianity and Judaism.

In a statement Friday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi paid tribute to his fellow Jesuit, saying his style as a pastor set him apart. He quoted Martini as writing in his book “The Bishop” that a bishop can't guide his flock with decrees and prohibitions alone.

“Instead point to the interior formation, on the love and fascination with the Sacred Scripture, present the positive reasons for what we do according to the Gospel,” Martini wrote. “You will obtain much more than with rigid calls to observe norms.”

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