ROME (Reuters) - Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan and a favorite of Vatican progressives to succeed Pope John Paul II in 2005, died on Friday aged 85, the Milan diocese said on its website.
In a letter marking Martini's death, Pope Benedict remembered him as a "skilful teacher and preeminent biblical scholar," and recalled his dedication to Christian works.
Martini retired because of his age in 2002 after 22 years as head of the diocese, revealing at the same time that he was suffering from a form of Parkinson's disease, which hurt his chances of becoming pope three years later.
A Jesuit intellectual, Martini was reported to speak 11 languages. But his liberal opinions sometimes raised the hackles of Church conservatives.
He once told an interviewer that even issues as controversial as birth control and women priests could be seen in a different light in the future.
"Certainly the use of condoms in particular situations can constitute a lesser evil," Martini said in an interview with the Italian magazine l'Espresso in 2006.
"There is the particular situation of married couples in which one of the spouses is affected by AIDS. This person has an obligation to protect the other partner and the other partner also has to protect him or herself."
The Catholic Church, which runs many hospitals and institutions to help AIDS victims, opposes the use of condoms and teaches that fidelity within heterosexual marriage, chastity and abstinence are the best way to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
It says promoting condoms to fight the spread of AIDS fosters what it sees as immoral and hedonistic lifestyles and behavior that will only contribute to its spread.
Martini remained a prominent voice in the Church, and in May spoke out about the leaks scandal that led to the arrest of Pope Benedict's butler.
Martini appealed to Church leaders to "urgently win back the trust of the faithful" after the scandal.
After he retired from the Milan post, he spent about six years in Jerusalem, returning to his first love - Biblical studies.
After he lost the ability to swallow around two weeks ago, Martini refused to be fed artificially, his neurologist Gianni Pezzoli said.
"We saw the inexorable consequences of his affliction, which progressively robbed him of speech, reducing it to a whisper that was barely audible, and of his movement," said an article published on the Milan diocese's website.
(Reporting Steve Scherer, James Mackenzie and Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Michael Roddy)