Papal Household Theologian Talks About His Work

Interview With Cardinal Georges Cottier

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 24, 2003 ( One of the “surprise” new cardinals elevated at the last consistory was Father Georges Cottier, the Papal Household theologian.

The elevation was John Paul II’s acknowledgment of the service to theology rendered by the Swiss Dominican. At 81, Cardinal Cottier cannot participate in a conclave to elect a new pope.

In the following interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Cottier describes the work he does in his service to the Pope.

Q: In 1990 you were appointed Papal Household theologian, which in practical terms means that you are the Holy Father’s theologian. It is a task carried out somewhat in the shadow of the Vatican. In what way does this work differ from that of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who must also be a good theologian?

Cardinal Cottier: The task of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is altogether different from mine. As head of this dicastery, he must intervene if there are theological problems creating difficulties; for example, when a book comes out with erroneous theological ideas and the laity and bishops appeal to him, then he intervenes.

Instead, my work consists in reading and giving my “nihil obstat” to all the texts that are pronounced by the Holy Father and which are not written by me. The majority of texts come from the Holy Father’s collaborators, from various offices, then they are all sent to the Secretariat of State.

I must read all the texts among which are those regarding relations with the diplomatic corps and Vatican diplomacy. There are two sections in the Secretariat of State; there is a section that is concerned with relations with diplomats.

All the documents that deal with these issues of Vatican diplomacy do not come to me, but the rest that regard doctrine, pastoral care, encyclicals, audiences, the catecheses of the Wednesday general audience, and the Holy Father’s addresses for “ad limina” visits are brought to me in my office. But the Pope gives the instructions and follows everything.

Q: Therefore, virtually no text of this nature can leave the Vatican without first passing through your office …

Cardinal Cottier: Practically speaking, yes. But I don’t impede texts from going out. I simply make observations on the clarity of the language, so that there won’t be ambiguities in the text that the Pope must pronounce.

I must also keep in mind the harmony of style between one address and another, given that the sources of texts are multiple.

A certain discretion is also necessary because, for example, one cannot ask the Pope to pronounce himself on a question that is still being debated among theologians.

I also make observations of a prudential nature. It is necessary to be able to assess if it is or is not opportune to say certain things. Then I go to the Secretariat of State where Archbishop [Leonardo] Sandri is, who regroups all the texts. He must also take into account the style and harmony of the addresses; therefore, we collaborate together.

Q: What are the topics that have had the greatest impact on you in all this period, working so close to the Holy Father?

Cardinal Cottier: I must add that before I became cardinal I was also secretary of the International Theological Commission and consultor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Many important topics were touched upon there in these circumstances.

But returning to the Holy Father, I would say that among the most important texts published in these years is certainly the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is a text that is not only complete but presented in a very clear way, with a very beautiful spiritual dimension. Unfortunately, in my opinion it is still not sufficiently known; it is an objective and very rich view of the content of our faith.

Then the Pope has also attached great importance to the great encyclicals; in these cases, I was also involved in the preparatory works and not only at the end of the rereading of the text, especially the encyclicals “Veritatis Splendor” and “Fides et Ratio.” But we must not forget “Ut Unum Sint,” the encyclical on ecumenism which is an important text, and even the encyclicals on the Church’s social doctrine.

Q: You also played an important part in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, although you always remained somewhat hidden.

Cardinal Cottier: Yes, I was appointed president of the Theological-Historical Commission for the preparation of the Great Jubilee 2000.

Together with the International Theological Commission I was personally very interested in the problem of the Church’s request for forgiveness. In fact, on March 12 of the Holy Year there was a celebration of forgiveness. It was a most beautiful and very moving day, not only because of the content but also, above all, because of the gesture of the Pope, who embraced the cross, rich in meaning. There, one could understand the holiness of the Church but also the weakness of so many Christians.

Q: But this gesture of the Holy Father of asking forgiveness for the sins of the Church was very combated. Weren’t some of the theologians opposed to this idea?

Cardinal Cottier: I remember that I spoke to a bishop who was very pastoral. He was afraid that the secular press would abuse this gesture to accuse the Church and scandalize the People of God.

My reply was that there was need to explain well to the people the meaning of this gesture. The Pope did not only say: I ask for forgiveness. But he said: I forgive and I ask for forgiveness, because the Church has also suffered much and there have also been so many calumnies against the Church. Therefore, it is necessary to be attentive to these two aspects.

But when it concerns Christians who have sinned and have left traces in history, then it is good to make an examination of conscience not only because one must think of the victims, knowing that only God can repair the evil done, but I would say the memory of the victims, as the descendants may still suffer from some of the consequences.

Then it is necessary to make the resolution that in the future these errors will no longer be repeated. It must be a lesson for the future.

Q: Concretely, for example, there must no longer be wars of religion?

Cardinal Cottier: Exactly. This is a very interesting issue. Among the greatest disasters of the history of Europe are the wars of religion which are in part responsible for the Enlightenment which stated: The fact that Christians fight among themselves because of differences leads to fanaticism.

This is why they wished to find a plane where an agreement was possible and this was the plane of pure human reason. This line of reasoning has played a great role in the birth of modern rationalism.

Historians make us see that often the religious argument of these wars was a pretext for the temporal power. Princes often used the Church for their interests of power. This has obliged Christians to make a profound examination of conscience.

It seems to me that a phrase of the Second Vatican Council in the declaration on religious freedom is very enlightening: Truth is defended only with the means of truth. We had to wait for centuries to be able to say these things.

Q: Hence, the Church must not be afraid to admit certain errors, because truth triumphs in the end?

Cardinal Cottier: Yes, truth always wins. We know that the Christian mystery is the mystery of the mercy of God that comes to heal the sins of men. Therefore, to acknowledge sins is also a testimony to the primacy of truth and does not weaken Christianity.

I think truth is a force, a message of hope and not of violence. It is necessary also to reread the texts of the prayers of the cardinals which are very rich in content and which make one reflect.

Another very significant moment of the Holy
Year that must be seen together with the day of forgiveness, was the day of the veneration of the martyrs of the 20th century.

When we must ask for forgiveness we do so because he have brought scandal on the Church, and scandal is the negation of witness. The vocation of the Christian entails martyrdom as a perfect higher form of witness. All Christians must give witness. Therefore, these two days are seen together.

Q: The Pope really achieved a masterpiece with this intense Jubilee program …

Cardinal Cottier: Yes, the closing of the Holy Year also had a great impact on me. At first it was thought that the Pope had given so much of himself during the whole of the Holy Year, and that the Jubilee had been a sort of apotheosis of the whole of his pontificate, and that at the end the Pope would remain in contemplative repose.

Instead at the end of the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, which was the day of the closing of the Great Jubilee, the Pope gave the Church a new impulse, he relaunched the Church for the new evangelization.

The texts “Novo Millennio Adveniente” and “Novo Millennio Ineunte” are the two fundamental texts. In the second text, which was published at the end of the Holy Year, the Pope proposes a whole program for a new evangelization and says that the most important requisite for this new evangelization is holiness and prayer. These are the two great pillars.

One can see that after the Holy Year the Pope has continued to outline the future of the Church with a very impressive logic, with his apostolic letter on the holy rosary and the encyclical on “Ecclesia de Eucharistia.”

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