Cardinal Martino Tranquil About Synod on the Family

Says Church Can Do None Other Than Reaffirm What She Has Always Taught About Marriage and the Family

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«At the Synod there will certainly be expressions and interventions that do not correspond with the doctrine of the Church, but in the end, it will not be able but to reaffirm what the Church has always said about the family.»

This is according to Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, honorary president of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. In this interview published Sept. 16 in La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, the Holy See’s former permanent representative to the United Nations in New York said he is tranquil about the outcome of the Extraordinary Synod, which will begin on 5 October, because the Church “cannot change what it has always proclaimed.”

Here below we publish an English translation of the interview kindly provided by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute.


Cardinal Martino, 82, was recently named Proto-deacon – the one who announces the new pope – after a life spent spreading and defending the social doctrine of the Church. Indeed, he was apostolic nuncio to the United Nations for 16 years, from 1986 to 2002, leading the Vatican’s mission through all the international conferences at the UN in the 90s, and then served as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He travelled all over the world in this role («I have visited 195 of the existing 205 countries, there is no cardinal who has done more») also receiving 34 awards and 14 honorary degrees («14 – like the number of surgical operations I had to face»he says laughing). In past years at the United Nations he had to champion the defence of the family and the right to life, the subject of an unprecedented attack, [whose defence] he also continues to this day. And surely the biggest battle, the most terrible conflict, was the one [he saw] at Cairo at the International Conference on Population and Development, which closed on these very days, twenty years ago. Then the dominant theme was overpopulation, and therefore the United States and the European Union were pushing to impose whichever means of birth control, above all demanding the right to abortion.

Cardinal Martino, the Holy See’s decisive opposition gave rise to a raging conflict, which for days occupied the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Only I, aided by African and Latin American delegates, suggested that abortion were not to be taken into consideration as a method of family planning. Thanks to this intervention, in the Programme of Action that came out of Cairo, one reads in paragraph 8.25: «In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.» It was a resounding victory, that the Europeans, who are pro-abortion, never digested. Importantly, this formulation has never been revoked in any United Nations document, despite continued attempts. The first attempt to delete this prohibition was at Beijing just a few months later, in 1995, at the Conference dedicated to women. All the countries that were defeated in Cairo joined together at Beijing and tried everything to remove this affirmation, but instead they could not succeed.

The United States – it was the Clinton Administration at the time – was particularly determined to obtain the right to abortion. It was a no holds barred battle, you were treated harshly by the head of the American delegation, the then Under-secretary at the Department of State, Timothy Wirth. What happened? 

I was summoned by Wirth, who asked me bluntly, «Why did you do this?». I told him that we defend the dignity of man, of every man. Then he replied: «You are only an Observer, you cannot do this,» referring to the fact that around the Holy See a coalition of African and Latin American countries had also coalesced. I then reminded him that at the United Nations, it is true that the Holy See is an Observer, but when these conferences are convened the Holy See participates at the same level as everyone else, and therefore it can intervene as it sees fit. The conversation ended there.

At Cairo an attempt to redefine the concept of the family was also rejected, [a concept] which was to be replaced with ‘families’, opening itself to gender identity. In the end, it remained in the singular.

Another important victory – also on this point we fought [together] with this great coalition of African and Latin American countries.

Why did these countries follow you?

Because they were the intended victims of the policies of contraceptive imperialism – but also because it corresponded to those policies then in force in all of these countries.

You definitely obtained some important success in the formulations, but one cannot deny that after the Cairo Conference funds available for birth control policies in poor countries have more than multiplied. 

Ah yes, this is sadly true, because rich countries have not ceased to intervene and to propagate these policies.

Before the Cairo Conference, John Paul II intervened many times, precisely to avoid certain anti-family and anti-life positions from passing. He also wrote to all heads of government, but above all, for weeks at the Angelus he gave a real and proper catechises on the family, life and natural law. A natural law that seems forgotten, even in the Church.

John Paul II was very well-informed about everything that happened at the UN. Every time I came to Rome he invited me to lunch at the Vatican and during the whole time we were together he was informing himself precisely about everything that was discussed at the UN and the preparatory works of the various international conferences. There was a great harmony between what he was saying and what I was doing in New York. That’s why in 1992 he opposed my transfer from the UN.

What happened?

The Secretary of State had proposed me for the Nunziature in Brazil, but John Paul II blocked everything. He said: «Martino stays at the United Nations.» There still remained another ten years! He was up to date on everything. In 1992 the preparations for the Cairo Conference were already underway. I was working on this, and that declaration on abortion was in progress, and so the Pope said, «No. He stays.» In 2002, he called on me again and said «Enough at the UN, come to Rome to be the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.» And so it was. And then he made me a cardinal in 2003.

At Justice and Peace, you were creator of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. 

Pope John Paul II had already received from the Latin American bishops back in 1998 a request for a document on social teaching. When I went in 2002 to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Pope urged me to bring to a conclusion this Compendium. At that moment there was a draft, but it was not finished; on the environment, for example there was only one little paragraph – I made it into a whole chapter, the tenth. It took me two years, and then in October 2004 the Compendium was published. Immediately after the press conference at the Holy See’s Press Office, I went to lunch with John Paul II with the book in hand. The pope said a
single word: «Finally!» Then during lunch did nothing but scroll through the index and then go to the reference section. The butler every so often took the book away from his hand in order to place the plate before him. He ate something, then moved the plate and took back the book. At the end of lunch this other beautiful sentence: «It truly is a good book!» These are the things with which I remain impressed.

John Paul II insisted very much on family and life: his conscience was very clear that on these points the future of humanity was in play. For this reason, he explained them [with reference to] the natural law. Today it seems that this page is forgotten…

Perhaps we don’t discuss it in the same way, but these remain the fundamental principles that the Church follows.

In different ways and with other arguments, the attack on the family continues. How can the Church respond? There are not international conferences… 

I believe that the Synod will be an opportunity to throw down the challenge – the Church’s traditional teaching on the family will be made clear. The discussion will ensure that there will even be expressions and interventions that do not correspond with the doctrine of the Church, but in the end, [the Synod] will not be able but to reaffirm what the Church has always said about the family.

There are those who argue openly that the doctrine is one thing but the pastoral is another. 

The pastoral must take into account all the specific situations that are found in different countries and in diverse environments, but the Church will not be able to change what it has always proclaimed.

You also know Pope Francis well. 

I’ve known him since he was archbishop in Argentina, I met him in Buenos Aires during my travels, and then also in Rome after his election as Pope.

Do you find any similarities with John Paul II?

Every [papacy], in itself, has its own characteristics. But beyond outward appearances, I believe that Francis is a lot like John Paul II, in faithfulness to the Church’s teaching. For Francis, the family is fundamental too. Moreover, a Pope cannot do new things, never before heard of. It is only the style that changes, but the doctrine is what it is and the pope must proclaim it.

Riccardo Cascioli, La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana

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