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Carlo Maria Martini dies at 85; liberal Italian cardinal

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Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a rare and often outspoken liberal within the highly conservative Catholic Church hierarchy who was nevertheless often mentioned as a candidate for pope, died Friday. He was 85.

Martini, a Jesuit and former archbishop of the important archdiocese of Milan, had Parkinson's disease. The archdiocese announced his death.

For years, Martini had been Europe's most prominent liberal cardinal, frequently voicing openness on such divisive church issues as priestly celibacy, homosexuality and the use of condoms to fight AIDS.

He raised eyebrows at the Vatican in 2006 when he told an Italian weekly that condoms could be considered a "lesser evil" in combating AIDS.

At a 1999 synod of European bishops, Martini urged more "collegiality" — code for democracy — within the church, to help resolve contentious questions about marriage, sexuality and the role of women in Catholic life.

A decade later Martini insisted he was misquoted by a German publication that reported he had called for a reevaluation of priestly celibacy as a means to combat pedophilia among priests.

But he returned to the topic of priestly celibacy — and a host of other thorny issues such as embryo donation and euthanasia — earlier this year in his last book, "Believe and Know," a conversation with a left-leaning Italian politician and doctor.

An intellectual with a personable style, Martini wrote more than 40 books, a number of them best-sellers, and could speak in more than half a dozen languages.

In a College of Cardinals that grew increasingly conservative under Pope John Paul II, Martini was considered a possible contender in the 2005 conclave that brought former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to the papacy.

As early as 1993, Martini had told The Times that becoming pope "was a nonexistent prospect for me." When he retired, he planned to return to Jerusalem and to the New Testament research to which he had "fondly invested a great part of my life."

After retiring as Milan archbishop in 2002, he did move to Jerusalem but returned to Italy a few years ago as his Parkinson's worsened.

Known for reaching out to non-believers and lapsed Catholics, Martini wrote the popular column "Letters to Cardinal Martini" for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. He employed a conversational style to answer reader questions on such topics as the clerical child sex abuse scandal and whether it was morally acceptable for a Catholic to be cremated ("it's possible and allowed," he wrote).

Born on Feb. 15, 1927, in Turin, Martini began studying for the priesthood at 17 and was ordained in 1952.

He spent nine years as rector of Gregorian University in Rome and was named archbishop of Milan in 1979 and a cardinal in 1983. He also was president of the European Bishops' Conference from 1986 to 1993.

As a cardinal, he often eschewed the scarlet robes and pectoral cross of his rank to greet visitors in the plain black suit and Roman collar of a parish priest.

news.obits@latimes.com

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