«If everything is grace, then grace is no more»
«The thing that seems most useful to me is the ability to distinguish,proper to the whole Thomist tradition. The refusal to distinguish what is distinct leads to confusion and denies maybe what one wanted to defend in the first place. If everything is grace, then grace is no more». An interview with Cardinal Georges Cottier, the Pope’s theologian
by Gianni Valente
Cardinal Georges Cottier
It seems that once, a bit to provoke, a journalist asked him what it felt like to live and work here, «at the heart of the last surviving absolute monarchy». «I’m republican», Cottier answered flatly. Because helping the successor of Peter to carry out his task is stuff for free men, not for courtiers. The whole life of this eighty-two year old Swiss testifies to it. He has seen from close up many of the events - thrilling or troubling, comforting or painful - that the Church has gone through from the Second World War to today. And for almost fifteen years he has carried on with professional rigor and missionary dedication the delicate work of sui generis “proof-reader” to which he has been called (he is the person who rereads and gives the theologico-doctrinal nihil obstat to almost all the texts signed by the reigning Pontiff. « I write nothing of the Pope’s texts. I only correct», he says of himself).
Forgive the obvious question: what job does “the Pope’s thelogian” do?
GEORGES COTTIER: It’s a role that has existed since the Middle Ages. Except in three or four exceptional cases, in which Fransciscan popes chose Franciscan theologians, the post has always been entrusted to the Dominicans. That’s why I find myself here. In past centuries, when the papal court moved home for long periods, as during the sojourns in Orvieto and in Viterbo, these theologians, known as “Teachers of the Sacred Palace”, probably gave lessons in theology to all the court. Now the work consists in rereading almost all the Holy Father’s texts, except those of diplomatic character, so as to make a theological judgment on them. The Pope gets help from quite a lot of collaborators, and one needs to watch out for quite a lot of things. First, the texts need to be harmonized. If the source is different, one has to give the texts the imprint of the Pope’s style. One has to ensure the clarity of the texts also, because everything the Pope says or writes must be able to be understood by all believers, and not provide a pretext for misunderstanding. In addition, even the Pope must keep to certain criteria in his magisterium. It’s not good, for example, that the Pope pronounce on problems that are still the subject of theological discussion, because if he intervenes on such matters, it means there is no more discussion on that theme. So there’s no lack of work.
What are the most important documents you’ve happened to supervise?
COTTIER: Going back to the early years, the first “big” text I worked on was the social encyclical Centesimus annus. And then the Ut unum sint on ecumenicalism, the moral encyclical Veritatis splendor, and the Fides et ratio… also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is for me one of the finests fruits of this pontificate, and has still not been absorbed in its richness. That is why the abridged edition with questions and answers is now about to be published.
The Reurrection of Jesus, detail, miniature taken from the Ore Torino-Milan, one of the three volumes into which the manuscript Très belles heures of the Duke of Berry, XV century, is divided, Municipal Museum of Ancient Art, Turin
COTTIER: I remember very long work done for the Veritatis splendor, of which I saw at least five versions. The Pope brought us together in long work sessions to reread the drafts that came one after another.
Can you tell us of a case in which you intervened to correct a text by the Pope?
COTTIER: I remember one of the first texts I went over. It was a speech to a charitable organization received by the Pope, that I didn’t know and now can’t even recall. The outline of the Pope’s speech had been a bit prepared by them. In the text the Pope congratulated them on the fact of having proclaimed a Sunday for their foundation. In short, it made the Pope almost a sponsor advertising the affair. That seemed to me something to avoid, not so much out of strict doctrinal reasons, but out of simple prudence.
As for “papal” sponsorship, it seems that somebody even tried to obtain it for the notorious film by Mel Gibson on the Passion of Christ.
COTTIER: I was invited to a showing before the film opened in the cinemas, but I decided not to go. The physical suffering of Christ was terrible, as was that of all those condemned to the cross, a great many at that time. But in him, true God and true man, in his soul, in virtue of his divine person united with the Father, there was the suffering proper to the servant of God, of which the prophet Isaiah speaks. I don’t see how this mystery of the suffering sui generis of Christ can be portrayed in film fiction. In cinematic technique there is an immediacy that I don’t see in painting or in sculpture. Because the painter maintains a certain distance, and in that distance prayer and contemplation can find place. Painting respects and reflects the mystery better. I confess that the immediacy of cinema is a problem for me.
Yet there has been a curious coming together of Catholic bodies and spokesmen.
COTTIER: I know that Cardinal Lustiger has said: I prefer the icon to the film. And I prefer the sacrament to the icon…
Let’s get back to your work. The countless papal interventions have created a process of emulation in the Vatican Palaces. Documents, instructions, vademecum produced in a continual stream.
COTTIER: Some bishops say they don’t even have the time to read everything produced by the Holy See and the Roman departments. I would like to make a distinction about the Pope’s position. The writings of John Paul II occupy the whole of that wardrobe. Those two shelves there are enough for Paul VI [pointing to the neat collections in his study, ed.] If we go back to Pius XI, the official texts are very few. For audiences and public gatherings Pius XI almost never wrote anything official. He spoke extempore. But one can no longer do that. Not least because there is always some recorder in ambush, the newspapers would write what the Pope said according to their interpretation in any case, maybe forcing the Holy See to make a denial when the information is inaccurate. That’s why, even when he receives a small group, there must always be a text, brief maybe, but that is official and authoritative. That goes against spontaneity. If there’s a spontaneous person it’s the current Pontiff, and this mechanism must also be a kind of penance for him. But he can’t get out of it, and us with him. Not least because there is the pressure he has to face up. Until the ’sixties people traveled much less. Now everybody comes to Rome, all the congresses want an audience with the Pope...
But, to be precise, it’s not just the Pope who “produces”…
COTTIER: The Council led to the creation of new Roman departments, while there were very few beforehand. All the departments, for reasons more or less matching, are keen to make documents, sometimes bulky ones. The impression is of an invasion of paper that sometimes ends by hiding contents that are often worthwhile. It’s a question of the rate of digestion, if you’ll allow me the triviality. And it’s a matter that poses questions, and that perhaps needs reconsidering. Is it a normal development? For that matter, the whole world is having new problems with the development of the media, and they have to be faced in the Church as well.
Faced by so many pronouncements the delicate question arises again of the degree of authority possessed by individual declarations and the degree of assent required.
COTTIER: Paragraph 25 of the Lumen gentium should be kept in mind, where it says that according to the subject treated one can recognize in each pronouncement the degree to which the pope himself commits his authority. For example, in the Evangelium vitae, where abortion and euthanasia are spoken of, even if it is not a matter of an infallible definition in the proper sense, the Pope is speaking as authorized representative of the magisterium of the Church. The authority of the Church is committed in these things. It’s a matter of the ordinary magisterium.
There are widespread misapprehensions in the collective imagination on these things. For example on the infallibility of the pope.
COTTIER: I remember a discussion I had in Geneva with a Protestant pastor, who confused infallibility with impeccability. As if the Petrine primacy saved the pope from the consequences of original sin. The pope is a man like other men. Let us suppose that a pope sins grievously: to return into the grace of God the only way is the sacrament of the confession for him, as for all. They’re obvious things, but by now the confusion is such that they sound like extraordinary novelties.
So perhaps it’s better to reiterate them.
COTTIER: The intervention of the charism of infallibility comes about only under precise circumstances. As defined by Vatican Council I, the pope’s task is not to bring out new doctrines, but to safeguard, make known and defend what is contained already, even if in implicit manner, in the apostolic depositum, that is to say the revealed truths that are the object of faith. And revelation was fulfilled with the death of the last apostle. In this faithful exposition of the faith of the apostles, the presence of the Holy Spirit is absolute and guarantees the infallibility of the definitions. It’s not that the pope proclaims his personal ideas or opinions infallible…
From left, monsignor Pierre Mamie, future bishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Freiburg, Cardinal Charles Journet and George Cottier in Rome during the works of Vatican Council II
COTTIER: There are infallible definitions only in matters of faith and morals. If for example the pope makes a diagnosis of a problem linked to culture or politics, infallibility certainly can’t be brought in.
There one moves into the field of prudential decisions …
COTTIER: Speaking of the consequences of the Lateran Treaty, Pius XI, wondered: «What will happen tomorrow?… We don’t know». In the changing flux of historical circumstances, a decision that might appear opportune, some time later may not be so anymore. Some people thereby deduce that the Church is contradicting itself. But most times one is looking at the urge of pastors to make out what La Pira, after Pope John and the Council, called the «signs of the times».
On that your teacher Journet has written some very fine pages, for example in Théologie de l’Église…
COTTIER: There he explained that the divine presence promised to the Church «sometimes limits itself to assuring its physical and empirical existence», sparing «neither ordeals, nor gropings, nor errors of government». So he thought understandable the freedom with which even historians like Ludwig von Pastor, «who did not lack pontificial approval, were able to give a retrospective judgment on the felicitous or disastrous nature of the politics of the popes».
Is it not, in that perspective, perhaps valid and useful to distinguish the primacy of the successor of Peter – as Jesus Christ wanted it and as it has been defined by the Church - from interpretations in terms of worldly hegemony that have been given of the primacy in the course of history, even within the Church?
COTTIER: To look critically at ecclesial affairs does not mean to be destructive. The Church has always taught that to be pope or bishop is a service. But when the authority of the pope over the Church was challenged even by Catholic princes, the need was felt to affirm that ecclesial offices were legitimate powers like other powers. And there are maybe still residues of that confusion in appearances.
To give a concrete example: reading the propositions condemned by the Sillabo, a simple believer could be led to think that denying the temporal power of the popes was the same as denying the Petrine primacy.
COTTIER: And instead at the time of Vatican Council II Cardinal Montini, who was archbishop of Milan, could affirm that the ending of the Papal States had been a liberation for the Church. But maybe Montini himself, if he had found himself in the circumstances of Pius IX, would have experienced the same torments of conscience. Because Pope Mastai, as a person, simply didn’t feel entitled to liquidate the Papal States since he didn’t consider them private property, having inherited them from his predecessors. Sometimes God rids us of burdens in painful manner.
John Paul II and Georges Cottier
COTTIER: One always needs to keep in mind that the magisterium is a service and, as such, an instrument. The purpose of the Church is the salvation of the world. The function of the magisterium in the Church, that starts with the safeguarding of revealed truth and with the daily guidance of the people of God, is justified in the light of the goal. And that determines the criteria and the ways in which auctoritas is exercised in the Church. But let me take advantage of the question to say that the expression “sister Churches” doesn’t convince me. The Church is one. It’s another thing to speak of “local Churches”. That formula can be used correctly. When Paul VI, bishop of Rome, meets Athenagoras, bishop of Costantinople, it is two heads of local Churches who are meeting. John Paul II also often underlines the fact that he is pope because he is bishop of Rome. A little time ago he even spoke in Romanesco [the dialect of Rome]!
Your human and Christian path has hardly been “curial”. Let’s begin from when you were a boy: France occupied, the Catholic magazines censored, and you, with a few friends, fighting your little “resistance”…
COTTIER: Geneva is near France. We are of French culture. The occupation of France was a terrible shock. I was finishing high school. With a very dear friend we read Temps présent, a Catholic magazine first linked with the Dominicans, the editorial board of which had retreated to Lyons after the occupation of Paris. The editor was Stanislas Fumet. We invited him to Geneva. He told us how life was in France, the censorship and all the rest. He spurred us to take some initiative. We began to publish free texts that were forbidden in France. A very handsome collection of them came out, the Cahiers du Rhône. Fumet was devoted to the sanctuary of La Salette. Once, we got permits and were able to organize a pilgrimage to the sanctuary where we met up with him.
Who is more important to your Dominican vocation, Saint Thomas or Saint Dominic?
COTTIER: Perhaps more Saint Thomas. I was at university. I had an aunt who was a Dominican nun, and that counted for a lot. Then Journet himself acquainted me with Maritain’s work. I was in touch also with Father Domenach, a Jewish convert, a great friend of Journet, who was in Freiburg. My vocation ripened within that milieu and in those encounters.
In the brief outline of you edited by Professor Chenaux it says that your generation was marked by the condemnation by Pius XI of Action française, the movement that aimed to renew society on the basis of Christian values.
COTTIER: It was a trauma that particularly marked the generation prior to mine, and there are traces left today. Many Catholics in favor of Petain were former Action française. Maritain was also connected. In her books of memoires his wife Raïssa explains that their spiritual father, Father Clerissac, made it almost a religious duty. It seemed an obvious choice. In certain ways the situation was similar to today. A moment of confusion. People don’t know where we are, there is much moral decadence, and the Christian contents are proposed as factors in an ethical order. A great many supported that view. The Lefebvre group is still today, in certain ways, following in the wake of Action française.
Georges Cottier and Cardinal Jean-Jérome Hamer
COTTIER: Action française was a typically Catholic matter, of Catholic France. Behind some of the theories on the historical mission of the United States the main cultural root is a certain Protestant fundamentalism, with an eschatological tinge, in which a geopolitical vision is cultivated that looks to the end of time, and in which one of the keys to the problem is the role of the State of Israel. A very strong politico-religious ideology that has undoubtedly had its weight. But in Europe also a certain lauding of Christianity as maker of civilization doesn’t convince me. I was struck by the debate on the crucifix that developed in Italy in recent months. When even some Catholics said that the cross is highly important even for those who don’t believe, as cultural symbol. But no! That is the cross of Jesus! That Christianity also has cultural consequences, we’re all agreed. But Catholicism is not a cultural fact. There is a certain conservatism that is creating confusion.
I’m reminded of a notion that you already expressed in 1969, in an article in Nova et Vetera: religion as instrumentum regni is the other side of the coin to religion as opium of the people.
COTTIER: Maurras, one of the founders of Action française, was a positivist. He exalted Catholicism as the “religion of the French”. What interested him was France, not Catholicism, nor the Church. It’s an attitude we also find in the Enlightenment. Voltaire sent his servants to mass. He thought that religion was helpful in keeping people quiet. The conception of a Maurras, and also of a Mussolini, who had read Maurras, is that. But God is already left out. Christ is of no interest. We mustn’t be naive. It’s easy to pick out those who deny God explicitly. But those who use him, offends him grievously. It’s more insidious.
Let’s come to your friendship with Jacques Maritain. How did you meet him?
COTTIER: Between 1946 and 1952 I was in Rome, at the Angelicum, following courses in theology and philosophy. At that time Maritain was ambassador of France to the Holy See. I knew his work. I came in contact with him (introduced by Journet). I remember a lunch at Palazzo Taverna, where among Maritain’s guests there was also Father Garrigou-Lagrange, who had criticized the Thomist philosopher on political matters, causing him much grief.
What do you think is most relevant for today in the philosophical approach of Maritain?
COTTIER: The ability to distinguish, proper to the whole Thomist tradition, that Maritain goes back to. The refusal to distinguish what is distinct leads to confusion and denies what maybe you wanted to defend in the first place. If everything is grace, then grace is no more. One of the dangers, that I note for example in the theology of religions, is that of attributing univocally to the Holy Spirit all that is religious. There are very praiseworthy human religious values, but that doesn’t mean they are salvific. They belong to a different order than the grace of Christ that saves. The distinction between grace and nature has perhaps at times been presented badly, as if there were an overlap of grace upon nature. That is never the thinking of Thomas. Grace operates from within nature. But nature has its own consistence.
This is worth ad extra. But do you note confusion even within Catholic theology?
COTTIER: For example a certain “panchristism” doesn’t seem appropriate to me. A theological system that absorbs all realities into Christ ends by turning Christ into a kind of metaphysical postulate of the affirmation of human values. And it makes us incapable of engaging in serious dialogue, even on the level of human rights. And then, saying that everybody is already of Christ, whether they know it or no, can make the mission futile.
And at the same time can express an urge to intolerance and hegemony. «The idea that we are all Christians without knowing it seems to me religious imperialism», Ratzinger once said.
COTTIER: We are not born Christians. One is born a Jew, one is born a Moslem. One becomes Christian, with baptism and the faith. Hence Christianity is unarmed. It is a divine helplessness. Because Christians are not manufactured, as those belonging to other religions can become so simply by being brought into the world. Every child must take its own step, nobody can do it in its place. Surroundings, catechesis, can help it. But no sociological condition can replace the attraction that is gift of the grace, that makes personal liberty assent.
You have spent a fair part of your life studying Marx. How did you happen to come across the philosopher from Trier?
COTTIER: When I had finished my ecclesiastical studies, my superiors asked me to do a thesis at the University of Geneva, where they had opened one of our Dominican monasteries. Many of my student friends had been gripped by communism. Now it’s not even possible to imagine the fascination of communism from after the war onwards. And then I was interested in grasping the relationship between Marxism and atheism. I centered my studies on that.
And what did you discover?
COTTIER: I saw that the root of Marx’s atheism was all in Hegel. As Karl Lowith has said, the philosophy of Hegel is a massive «Gnostic christology». Precisely when Hegel is lauding to the skies the cultural importance of Christianity for the progress of civilization, he is denying the faith of the apostles in Jesus. Christ is interesting only as idea in his view, as divine model. Of Jesus as historical figure, perceptible, he doesn’t know what to do. Kierkegaard, who for me is one of the greats, understood all this.
Cardinal Cottier during the ceremony of the taking possession of the cardinal-deacon’s church of Saints Dominic and Sixtus, 25 March 2004
COTTIER: Loew was a Dominican at the time. He was close to Magdaleine Delbrel and the Little brothers of Charles de Foucauld at St. Maximin. I knew him there. Then I frequented his mission among the workers. He would question me on my knowledge of Marxism. He was attacked by the authorities of the Order to an exaggerated degree, without sufficient discernment. Some worker-priests had thrown themselves into union activism, they’d taken the party card. Some individual cases had compromised the cause. But he had always distinguished his missionary commitment from political commitment. And the impulse to go into dechristianized milieux, to share in the ordinary life of people, still seems to me a missionary attitude. They lived like the poor. They were real workers.
Your acquaintance with Marxism also explains your active part in the famous “dialogues” organized after the Council by the Secretariat for Non-believers.
COTTIER: I’ve never felt the seductive powers of Marxism. A friend in the French diplomatic corps, who was in Russia at the time of the war, told me of the terrible realities of communism, and that inoculated me against it for ever. But then it looked as if the communist regimes were destined to last. Dialogue with the Marxists became really unblocked when the first signs of internal crisis appeared within communism. There one also saw that the communists were not all the same thing. For example, the Eastern Germans were toughest, the most approachable the Hungarians. By Strasbourg, the Gorbacev era had already begun, they started to open up. It was very interesting, one could see they were asking themselves genuine existential questions.
It was again because of your knowledge of Marxism that you also took an active part in the debate on the theology of liberation.
COTTIER: The theology of liberation was then strongly influenced by Marxist ideas. That threatened to exhaust all Christian hope in political and sociological interpretations. It is interesting to see the evolution of Father Gutierrez, who has now become an original Latin American spiritual writer. While at the beginning they all underwent the influence of European authors.
In 1984 and in 1986 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the two famous instructions on the theology of liberation. Was there not, in those years, an excess of ferocity towards that theological tendency?
COTTIER: So many of them had thrown themselves into Marxism without any critical sense. Correction was needed. But the outcome of that debate has been the preferential option for the poor. Out of the dialectic came that positive synthesis.
A last question. You, as president of the Historico-theological Commission founded for the Two-Thousand Jubilee, co-ordinated the preparatory work for the request for forgiveness of the guilts of the past, decided by the Pope for the Lent of the last Holy Year. How do you now see the issue, which is still causing controversy in the Church?
COTTIER: Some people described it as a novelty. But the Church has always been aware that sin exists. At the beginning of every mass we say the mea culpa for our sins. Not everything that is done in the name of the Church is the Church. That discernment, and the request for forgiveness, are in my view among the most important emphases of the current pontificate.