Carlo Maria Martini, an Italian cardinal who was a rare liberal within the highly conservative Catholic Church hierarchy and who was considered a contender for the papacy in 2005, died Aug. 31. He was 85 and had Parkinson’s disease. His death was announced by the Milan Archdiocese, where he had served as archbishop.

Cardinal Martini, a Jesuit, frequently voiced openness to divisive issues for the church, such as using condoms to fight HIV/AIDS, priestly celibacy and homosexuality. Despite his liberal views in a college of cardinals that grew increasingly conservative under Pope John Paul II, he was considered a possible contender in the 2005 conclave that brought German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to the papacy.

Italians became familiar with the cardinal through a popular column, “Letters to Cardinal Martini,” in the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

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.

In 2006, Cardinal Martini raised eyebrows at the Vatican when he told L’Espresso, an Italian weekly magazine, that condoms could be considered a “lesser evil” in combating AIDS, particularly for a married couple.

Three years later, he insisted that he was misquoted by a German publication as calling for a reevaluation of priestly celibacy as a means to combat pedophilia among priests. But he returned to the topic of priestly celibacy and other thorny issues this year in his book “Believe and Know.”

As a result of his openness to discuss issues many cardinals would rather leave undisturbed, liberal Catholics pinned their hopes on Cardinal Martini going into the 2005 conclave. Some reports in the Italian media said he received significant votes in the initial rounds of balloting. But according to the most detailed account of the conclave to emerge — a purported diary kept by an unnamed cardinal — Cardinal Martini was never really in the running. Instead, Ratzinger’s main challenger was another conservative, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio.

Cardinal Martini retired as Milan archbishop in 2002 and moved to Jerusalem, where he hoped 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.

“Without a sincere feeling for the Jewish world, and a direct experience of it, one cannot fully understand Christianity,” he wrote in the book “Christianity and Judaism: A Historical and Theological Overview.”

Cardinal Martini was born Feb. 15, 1927, in Turin and was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus in 1952. He was named archbishop of Milan in 1979.

Despite his desire to spend his final years in Jerusalem, he returned to Italy a few years ago as his Parkinson’s disease worsened.

— Associated Press