We are sailing across the ocean of history

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Cardinal Georges Marie Martin Cottier, OP, Theologian emeritus of the Pontifical Household, about the problems of the contemporary Church.

WLODZIMIERZ REDZIOCH: - For 15 years you were the Theologian of the Pontifical Household. What are the duties of the theologian of the pontifical household?

CARDINAL GEORGES MARIE MARTIN COTTIER, OP: - The office of the Theologian of the Pontifical Household has existed since the Middle Ages and since its beginnings the theologians have been the members of the Dominican Order. The tasks of the theologians have changed throughout centuries: in the beginning they conducted courses of theology for the cardinals of the Roman Curia. In the 19th century they granted permission (imprimatur) to publish books in Rome. At present the main task is to read, from the theological perspective, all the texts that are to be spoken or signed by the Pope. It is obvious that the Holy Father is not able to write all his texts and that's why he has a lot of collaborators who help him in this task. The collaborators change depending on the arguments that are to be discussed: in case of ecumenism the collaborators are the workers of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; in case of bishops' visits ad limina Apostolorum, these are the Bishops' Conference, the Secretariat of the State and apostolic nuncio; and as far as the texts for the general audiences on Wednesdays are concerned special commissions are called ad hoc, depending on a given theme of the catechises. This all means that one should pay a special attention to everything in order to avoid any ambiguity of the texts. One should also control them so that they do not become the object of journalists' manipulations (for example when some single sentence is taken out of its context). Another matter is the unification of the language and making sure that there is certain harmony of the texts coming from different sources. The theologian of the Pontifical Household is to care about the fact that the Pope does not mention certain themes, which are still the subjects of theologians' discussions (some arguments are studied by the Theological Commission and require further analysis). A papal speech on a given subject will finish the discussion.

- Your Eminence, for several years you witnessed the life of the Church from a privileged 'point of observation'. What were the biggest theological problems that the Church had to solve in the last years of the second millennium and at the beginning of the third millennium?

- The problems were many. The period of 15 years is a long time in the life of the Church. I remember that at first, which is in the early 1990s, there was the problem of the theology of liberation (Marxism had a great influence on some Catholic environments in Latin America). Another problem was the process of enculturation, which was connected with the demands for certain cultural identity that some Hindu theologians put forward. It was necessary to deal with the issue of women's priesthood: the Pope had to promulgate a document concerning this issue in order to finish all discussions. From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II also dealt with fundamental problems, which he discussed in the encyclical Veritatis splendor (according to me, this is the most important papal document), in his three encyclicals concerning the social teaching of the Church and the documents on ecumenism. The second important document, apart from the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, was the encyclical Fides et Ratio (these are the two basic 'pillars' of the papal teaching). John Paul II, who had studied philosophy in the past, was very sensitive to the problems that this document dealt with.
Whereas towards the late 1990s the Holy Father concentrated on preparing the celebration of the Jubilee Year. Certainly, from the very beginning he realised that he would have to lead the Church into the third millennium (here we should mention the 'prophesy' of Cardinal Wyszynski), and that's why he spared no efforts to fulfil this task well. His apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente concerned the Holy Year and was a very personal document of the Pope. During that time I presided over the Theological Commission, which was working within the framework of the Committee of the Holy Year 2000. The Commission organised two symposia: one on the theme of anti-Judaism and the second on the theme of Inquisition, in order to make people aware of these two important issues. This was a very important moment - the Church asked for forgiveness but at the same time it forgave the harm she had experienced. In spite of the problems with his health John Paul II fulfilled his entire schedule that he had planned for the Holy Year. He managed to visit the Holy Land. The Holy Year was a great event for the Church, which left her in a state of fervent prayer. This prayerful character of the next years of the pontificate was especially stressed by other papal documents: the letter on the rosary (Rosarium Virginis Mariae) and letters on the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia and Mane Nobiscum Domine). It seems that the death of John Paul II should be also seen from the perspective of this great prayer of the Church.

- The last centuries were dangerous periods of anti-human ideologies. Today Benedict XVI pays attention to another threat - relativism. What is the new threat about?

- Relativism means lack, or in extreme cases, negation of reference to the Absolute and Transcendence. It is a reaction against totalitarianism and can be identified with liberalism and individualism in which everyone decides what is good and what is evil, i.e., it is not God that decides but human being himself sets norms for the truth. Good and truth seize to have universal character since everyone has his own 'truth'. We can see what relativism is when we observe the debates in the parliaments in Europe and America, which accepted abortion and now they are discussing new kinds of 'marriage'.
The roots of individualism reach the Enlightenment although actually in the culture of the Enlightenment there was some idea of natural law, which we do not find today. I have asked myself many times if Marxism was not an anti-liberal reaction, i.e., reaction against the errors and excesses of liberalism. Naturally, Marxist ideology was not the right way to remove those errors, so the present situation is even worse since it has been further radicalised.

- What should be the reaction of humanity against the present crisis?

- We should rediscover the sense of being human. John Paul II was fully aware of this matter. The Christian vision of man is personal since every man was created on the image and likeness of God and is valuable in himself, and consequently he is transcendent towards earthy matters. Our destiny is eternity and not the present time. If the present becomes eternity we fall into relativism.

- The rapid development of technology has improved the quality of life of the contemporary man but at the same time it has created new threats. Today humanity is able to annihilate itself by means of nuclear weapon; people have begun to manipulate life, especially in its earliest phase as if they wanted to take the place of the Creator. What is theology to say in such important issues as artificial conception, manipulation of human embryo or production of genetically modified plants?

- The great development of natural sciences caused a spectacular development of technology (technological means depend on progress in science). However, technology is blind in itself and that's why it should be evaluated by ethics. In the period of Nazism we could see what happened when there was no ethical control over technology. In those times Germany was the most technologically advanced country in Europe but the most modern technology served to wage a war, to kill, to make medical experiments on prisoners, etc. Therefore, I repeat that technology has no 'light' of its own, which can control it - it is ethics that fulfils such a role. This is a great challenge for humanity because the temptation is big. The more we know the bigger possibilities to transform the world and manipulate it we possess.

- Allow me to change the subject of our conversation. The influential and ubiquitous homosexual groups accuse the Catholic Church of homophobia. The last evidence was the document of the Congregation for Catholic Education (for Seminaries and Educational Institutions), which was published recently and which concerned the inadmissibility of men, having homosexual inclination, to priesthood. What should we say to this type of accusations?

- The Church teaches that sexuality presupposes the existence of two sexes: male and female. If this is not the case we deal with sexual perversion. Today there are strong tendencies to see sexual intercourse as an ambiguous thing and to accept all forms of intercourse. The Church cannot accept such a stand because it is contrary to the basic plan of the Creator. From the Christian point of view those who have homosexual tendencies are people who also should care for their salvation. And they will certainly receive suitable graces to live in the virtue of chastity. The fact of being a homosexual can create problems in human relationships. It often happens that relationships of such people with people of other sex are difficult. That's why I think that the document of the Congregation for Catholic Education is very balanced. Speaking briefly, we can summarise the document in three points: 1) people with deeply rooted homosexual inclinations cannot be admitted to priesthood because their relationships both with women and men are not free enough; 2) people having surface homosexual inclinations, resulting from bad experiences, can change this state of affairs, and therefore, cannot be categorically refuse to become priests; 3) spiritual father plays a very important role in choosing candidates for priesthood; on the one hand he is obliged to keep the secret and on the other hand, he should do everything to help a young man understand his problems and take a right decision. I would like to emphasise that nobody can 'call himself' to priesthood; vocation always depends on the call of the Church. There is no 'right' to be a priest.

- The attitude of Judaism and Islam towards homosexualism is almost the same as the attitude of the Catholic Church. So we can raise the question: Why is only the Catholic Church the subject of continuous and often vulgar attacks of the international lobby of homosexuals and the left wing as well as the libertarian groups that support the lobby? Is it by accident that in the famous parades of gay pride homosexuals and lesbians march dressed as popes, bishops or nuns in order to mock the Church?

- When a Catholic opens the Bible he or she will find the statement in the beginning of the book that God created man on his image and likeness, he created male and female. So this is a positive vision of sexuality - God's plan presupposes two sexes, whose calling is to pass life as well as care and upbringing of the offspring. This is also a vision of Judaism (it seems to me that a rabbi would say the same about these things as I do) and of Islam that appeared after Judaism and Christianity.

- In his reflections on the Way of the Cross for the Good Friday of 2005 (station nine) Cardinal Ratzinger spoke with bitterness about the filth in the Church, about the treason of the disciples, about sufferings that Christians themselves inflict on Christ. The American Professor Philip Jenkins also claims that currently the Catholic Church has more enemies inside than outside. He calls them 'anti-Catholic Catholics' (numerous facts confirm his bitter statement: such pseudo-Catholic organisations as 'Catholics for a Free Choice' or movements like 'We, the Church' fight against the Church and her teaching, and the theories of some theologians, for example some Spanish Jesuits, are a challenge to the Magisterium of the Church). Could you comment on this stand?

- The Church is holy but it consists of sinners. We all are sinners and we need both conversion and Christ's salvation. In the whole history we can meet moral poverty of Christians. The moral fall of the clergy in the times of the Renaissance was a big scandal. We must continuously fight against scandalous behaviour both today and in the past - the hierarchy of the Church is also responsible for that. Unfortunately, some Catholics do not accept the teaching of the Church and Catholic morality. We cannot hide that some groups of Catholics rebel and act against the Magisterium. Benedict XVI, as the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, knows the situation. Opposition in the Church is to some extent the result of the crisis, which occurred after the Second Vatican Council. I think that a Catholic should have a sense of, I would say, obedience and openness towards the teaching of the Church.

- The problem is that the Catholic circles of opposition enjoy the support, by the way, open support, of the majority of the world media, which effectively direct the public opinion against the Pope, his Magisterium and the hierarchy of the Church...

- We should not be astonished at this. Suffice to read the New Testament and the Revelation. Christ did not promise peace to his Church; on the contrary he foretold blood shed and persecutions. Christ's Church has always been a sign of opposition. Therefore, we should not be surprised at the fact that Christian testimony is always contrary to what St John calls 'the world.' That has been in all epochs.

- What great challenges will the Church face next years?

- It is hard to foresee all challenges that the Church will face. Certainly, such a challenge - the challenge of evangelization - will be openness to the world of Asia. The second challenge will be a difficult confrontation with Islam. Islam has some positive values but it lacks the spirit of the Gospel. The problem of the Islamic world is violence. It seems that Muslims cannot defend themselves against the movements of the extremists and fundamentalists. Another problem concerns the scientific interpretation of the Koran. Muslims do not completely know exegesis, that is the historical-critical interpretation. The problem is also the situation of women in the Islamic society.

- Cardinal Walter Kasper showed another aspect of Islam, which is the desire to be a universal religion, which means that in the Muslim world there is the conviction that Islam will replace Christianity...

- Muslims repeat that their religion appeared after Judaism and Christianity, and consequently, it is a perfect religion. Even the simplest Muslims believe this. Therefore, confrontation with Islam will always be hard.

- These are the 'external' problems. And the 'internal' problems?

- I think that currently the biggest problem of the Church is religious ignorance of the faithful. This is among other things the religious ignorance of Catholics that was the reason for the spread of sects, mainly in Latin America and Africa. The publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its Compendium was a great contribution of John Paul II to the fight against this problem.

- I would like to finish our conversation by asking the disturbing question of Christ: 'But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?' (Luke 18:8).

- This is a dramatic question. Although Jesus also said: 'I am with you always, until the end of the age'. The history of the Church is a chain of attempts and persecutions but also conversions. The problem is the loss of faith in the countries that have old Catholic and Christian tradition whereas we see a growth of faith in the missionary countries.

- Paraphrasing Pascal we can say that we, Catholics, feel like passengers on a ship that sails amidst storms across the ocean of history, but they have the promise of Christ that the boat of the Church will never sink.

"Niedziela" 8/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl