The Year of Mercy and the 2015 Synod on the Family: A conversation with Cardinal Georges Cottier, O.P.

Cardinal Georges Cottier. O.P., speaks in Rome in March 2009 at an international conference marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species."

Georges Cottier’s name is linked to a form of theological reflection that was present throughout the pontificate of St. John Paul II. The pope appointed Cottier as theologian of the papal household in December 1989 and later elevated him to the rank of cardinal at the consistory of October 21, 2003. His formation was complex and extensive. Immediately after graduating in classical literature from the University of Geneva in 1944, he entered the Dominican novitiate. He received his doctorate in theology in 1952 at the Angelicum in Rome, the university of the Order of Preachers. In the preceding year he had been ordained a priest. Back in Geneva in 1959, he worked on his doctorate on the atheism of young Karl Marx. From 1971 to 1990 he taught without interruption in Geneva and Fribourg.

He was general secretary of the International Theological Commission from 1989 to 2003 and was very close to the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, while the latter was president of the commission. It was Benedict XVI who renewed his appointment as “papal theologian,”conferred on him by his predecessor. Cottier held this post up to December 1, 2005. He has written about 20 books, starting from L’athéisme du jeune Marx followed by others, including La mémoire des sources (2014).  

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Cardinal Cottier articulates his thought calmly and clearly. In his writings one perceives a depth of thought that is free of polemical statements but always sensitive to the subtleness of the issues that he raises. He is a man of dialogue, open to history, precisely because he is loyal to church tradition. His thoughtful way of speaking allows him to make eye contact with his interlocutor only after he has managed to articulate his reflections. “Veterum sapientia!” (“the wisdom of the ancients”) said one of his confreres, to whom I had shown a preview of our conversation. At the center of his attention is the mysterium lunae (“the mystery of the moon”), that is, the church. She is responsible for the light of Christ that she is called to reflect, and that light should not be obscured. The church must reverberate that reflection, and never risk tarnishing it. Like the moon at night, the church must spread the light of Christ in the night of the world, which, if left to itself, would remain under the shadow of death. For this reason, Cardinal Cottier feels that the Year of Mercy, established by Pope Francis, is an extraordinary opportunity given to the church to better discover herself and her mission. On this theme I start off our conversation.

Your Eminence, Pope Francis is inviting the church to live a Year of Mercy. You have had the opportunity to know well the theological thought of the Polish pope. Was mercy one of his key issues?

It certainly was. On April 30, 2000, during the canonization ceremony of Sister Faustina Kowalska, St. John Paul II proclaimed the second Sunday of Easter as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” In 1980 he had dedicated his second encyclical to mercy, titled Dives in misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”). In this way, he drew the attention of the people of God to a truth that is at the center of the Christian mystery and constitutes the response of faith to the evil that is present in history. Mercy is a doctrine. It is the heart of Christian doctrine. Only a narrow mentality can defend legalism and perceive mercy and doctrine as two different things. In this sense, the church nowadays has understood that no one, whatever one’s position, should be left alone. We must accompany people, whether righteous or sinners.

This is what really strikes me: the historical and, I would add, somehow, “political” role of mercy in a century, the past century I mean, that has seen two world wars and then an eclipse of the sacred.

This is a burning question for our era. Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, which is an expression of divine mercy, somehow clarifies the irruption of evil. The power of evil seems to overwhelm reason, which is reduced to impotency. But the wisdom of the cross, which certainly does not appear to be a power that imposes itself, is a source of experience and certainty of the victory of good over evil. For whoever has the courage to tear away the veils of illusion, the biggest temptation is to feel defeated in the face of the virulence of evil. I am talking, here, of secularized reason, which is the most relevant component of modern culture and constitutes the main challenge to the mission of the church.

Therefore, mercy has a great deal to do inherently with the mission of the church.

The Holy Spirit, with an insistence that deserves our full attention, has led the church to be always more aware of her primary mission to announce the sovereign force of divine mercy to the world. She has done this in various ways throughout history. We can think of some persons, canonized saints, whose authentic message has been acknowledged by the church, such as Margaret Mary Alacoque and, more recently, Faustina Kowalska, not forgetting Therese of the Child Jesus, so dear to Pope Francis. From this call back to a dimension that characterizes the life of the church in modern times, we need to draw the first conclusion: divine mercy should mark with its seal all the pastoral initiatives of the church. It is necessary that this message reaches truly everybody: God, our Savior, “wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth,” as we read in the First Letter to Timothy.

But isn’t there the risk—some would say—of interpreting mercy in a too human way, that is condescending towards a way of looking at things that is “too human,” too worldly?

The kind of mercy that the church has the mission to help us encounter is the divine mercy that is sealed by the offering of Christ on the cross and is not, therefore, merely some kind of empathy towards human suffering. The church — which is not “of” the world — must exercise her mission in the world, in history. Therefore there is always the risk of interpreting the divine order of things in a human way.

This reference to mercy, therefore, must always be considered in relation to the fulfilment of one’s Christian existence, what we call “vocation to sainthood.”

Yes, we cannot keep the call-back to mercy separate from the teaching of the council on the universal vocation to sainthood. As we read in “Lumen Gentium”: all who believe in Christ are called to the fullness of Christian life. The way of holiness is proposed to every person. St. John Paul II spoke about this in the apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte.” The ways of holiness are many and according to the vocation of each individual. The way of holiness is proposed to every person. This is the reason why the initiatives of “mercy” assumed on behalf of those who live in painful situations, seemingly with no way out, must, with compassion and relief, help the one who suffers to open his heart to trust in the Father of Mercy.

Quoting Joseph Malègue, Pope Francis speaks of the “middle class of holiness,” of a holiness for all and not just for the “heroes.”

It seems to me that this clarification is necessary, because many still think—an idea that has persisted for a very long time—that holiness is reserved for a restricted few, normally those who live in convents and monasteries. The great mass of Christians should tend toward an honest life, in which human virtues would be more important than the theological virtues. We are sinners who have been called to holiness, a free gift of grace that heals us in order to lead us into the holiness of God; this is the paradox of Christianity. This requires us to repent and ask for forgiveness, because we do not of ourselves have the power to cancel the sin that we have committed. Similarly, we must ask ourselves how sin is perceived within a mentality that has been shaped by secularization. Here we touch upon what appears to me to be the heart of the spiritual crisis of our time.

You speak of secularization. What is it? What is its main effect?

Secularization is one of the main features of our society. It can be conscious and deliberate, or it can be accepted passively and unconsciously. On it depends one’s idea of evil and of sin, as well as of freedom and its responsibility. Many of our contemporaries consider freedom as an essential part of the individual “I.” Old Testament revelation, brought to completion by the new law, acknowledges that it is from God, from his wisdom and his will, that we derive the distinction between good and evil. And the first commandment is that of love of God. The second, which is similar to it, concerns love of neighbor. Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, is a person who is loved by him in himself or herself. Human brotherhood discovers its cause and its inspiration in the Father’s love. Now, secularization ignores or eliminates this founding relationship with God. The most recent developments in philosophy have led to radical theories. Any reference to truth is eliminated, since autonomous freedom creates values. And since it is their only cause, its evolution over time can also change them. Values do not have any permanent stability. Everything is relative. This even leads to a paradox: what is absurd is considered as a kind of positive category.

But in reality, what is absurd is the evil that shakes our consciences, and it has indeed shaken them during the century that has shortly ended and which we have left behind us.

For the heirs of the Enlightenment, freed from the prejudices stemming from centuries of obscurantism, the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in the 20th century have been a veritable cataclysm. Civilized man’s self-mastery, with its own morality, found itself disarmed. The spiritual trauma was much deeper since the cause of such crimes, which were so well calculated and systematically executed, could not in any way be attributed to nature. Their cause was found in human freedom itself, which, all of a sudden, proved to be an abyss of irrationality. Confronted with this large-scale comeback of sin, the most obvious temptation was nihilism and despair. Rationalist optimism was dealt a fatal blow. The sense of loss can be perceived at the base of various explanations. Some, driven by resentment, accuse God of not having restrained man’s hand. There are also some theologians who, inspired by the philosopher Hans Jonas, speak of God’s “impotence” in the face of evil. In my opinion, this concept is on a collision course with the message of faith. It risks ignoring the depth of the mystery of redemption and, in fact, falling back into the old Manichean dualism.

But totalitarian ideologies, especially communism, have seduced a number of intellectuals who lived in Western democracies.

A problem today arises concerning the intellectual health of our society. From an ethical and cultural point of view, the fact that the majority of the old members of these parties have not undergone a serious critical examination is not a sign of good health. The ease with which they have adapted themselves to the consumer society leads one to perceive a deliberate obliviousness on their part. Our societies have not really settled their scores with the totalitarian phenomenon that originated in our own Western culture. Without this catharsis, our spiritual unconscious will be troubled by a widespread sense of guilt, and this is not a sign of good health. The more so because the totalitarian spirit can re-emerge under new forms. This is why the announcement of divine mercy is an urgent necessity. This is the only response to the mystery of evil that is true and adequate and that is a response of faith.

From where, in your opinion, can we draw inspiration for pastoral choices?

From the grace of God, from the energy of the Gospel. The relationship between grace and nature, both in their distinction as well as in their symbiosis, is very important. Grace presupposes, permeates and sustains nature. Grace heals nature because the latter is wounded by sin. Pope Francis has spoken time and again of the temptation of Pelagianism, that is, the temptation to attain salvation on our own merit, by virtue of the powers of human nature. This heresy can re-emerge under various forms. It ignores the necessity of grace. The gratia sanans (“healing grace”) defines an essential aspect of the action of grace on our nature, which, without being corrupt, is wounded by sin and needs to be healed and corrected. Where the light and the energy of the Gospel have forged culture, nature has been restored in its righteousness, depending on the intensity of such influence. On the contrary, the logic of secularization leads to their estrangement and divorce. Jacques Maritain, already in 1938, noted the emergence of an “evangelical reversal of values.” Many people of goodwill had long considered that the most important practical issue was that human things should protect divine things. This remains true. Human means contribute, indeed, to the propagation of the Gospel and the expansion of the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless, I am convinced that, especially today, it rests with divine things to protect and vivify human things. Rather than entrenching themselves behind their fortified works, Christians should enter the deepest parts of the world, counting on God’s power, which is the power of love and of truth. Divine things will save human things. The human means for the defense of civilization become ever more inadequate in the face of the gravity of the crisis of culture.

But let us come to the crisis in marriage. This crisis concerns not only the church but also society.

Today, it seems, people no longer feel the need for marriage and the urge for a public life-long commitment. Living as a couple seems to have become a private affair, always open to possible changes. From a Christian standpoint, we need to form a correct idea of the relationship that exists between the natural institution and the sacrament. This refers to the elevation of a natural institution to the dignity of a sacrament. It does not indicate the addition of a supernatural formality to a reality that remains substantially natural. Instead, it means that sacramentality confers on this reality, which presents itself as the material cause, a new form, a new essence, a new identity. One can ask whether some representatives of the ecclesial authority have acted under the influence of the former idea, as if what we should most pay attention to, in the first place, is the support which temporal society’s legislative structures are expected to provide to Christians in their specifically ecclesial fidelity. What worries me most is the fact that on an ecclesial level no truly innovative pastoral initiative has been implemented as regards marriage preparation that responds to the gravity of the crisis, while current practice has become inadequate and often appears more of a formality than an education towards a life-long commitment.

Perhaps here we should say a word about the issue of the so-called “divorced and remarried,” don’t you think?

Yes, you are right. The phrase “divorced and remarried,” which is canonical in nature, is not, in fact, the best choice of words. It is too generic and is applied to fundamentally different situations. It points to the situation in which a person, after entering into a sacramental and indissoluble marriage, has obtained a divorce and has now entered into a civil marriage. This second marriage does not annul or replace the first marriage, which remains the only true marriage, which the church has no power to dissolve. The pastoral judgment cannot ignore the origin of each of these two unions. This is simply a question of equity.

The phrase “divorced and remarried” covers situations that are irreducibly different.

Yes, for example, a woman is abandoned by her spouse and retains custody of their children; her task is very difficult. Later she meets a companion who provides her help and security and enters into a civil marriage with his new companion. Or, take the case of a man who is married and has adolescent children and whose spouse is involved in parish work. The spouse meets a younger and more intelligent person. She gets carried away by passion and abandons her family, divorces her husband and enters into a civil marriage. She forms a new family, and becomes involved in parish life. … The two cases are different. In the latter case there is a “scandal”; in the former, however, one can clearly sense the burden of living in solitude, the difficulty of moving forward, the weakness, the need, even, of a companion. But, as a general rule, justice requires that for each situation one should take into account certain important factors.

Which are?

First of all, duty towards the abandoned spouses, who very often remain faithful to the sacramental commitment. They have rights that must be respected. Typically, the civil judge determines the amount of maintenance payments that must be made. Experience shows that very often this right is not respected at all or not in full. Equally important are the rights of the children born from the first, the legitimate marriage. They are victims of the divorce of their parents; they suffer from this for the rest of their lives. It is strange how little attention was given to this aspect during the 2014 synod, at least from what the media said about it. Apart from the very real wounds from which they suffer, it is not rare that such children have to suffer deprivations that create an economic and educational inequality when compared to their step-brothers and sisters, born out of the new marriage of their father or their mother. In any case, it would be a methodological error to consider these recreated unions – that create a certain stability and new obligations with regard to the children born from the new union – merely as an established fact, without keeping in mind the previous experience, which often involves injustices and shortcomings resulting in a lot of obligations not being honored. There is the danger of confusing the requirements of evangelical justice with a kind of ecclesiastical respectability whose origins are far too human.

We are thus faced with a methodological problem. Generic classifications ignore a considerable number of concrete aspects that are, however, crucial for the formulation of an equitable judgment.

The moral theology of St. Thomas is one based on prudence, which, in an existential way, applies the right judgment to the affective dynamism to which it orients. Every judgment of prudence is unique. This is because, on the one hand, every action is unique and, on the other, because the subject that carries out this action is also unique. I am personally involved in my choices; they are mine. One single action is not a repetition of a similar action that I have carried out at some other moment or that someone else has carried out. The judgment of prudence must bear in mind the circumstances surrounding the act to be carried out. And in this objective consideration there is no trace of relativism or of “situation ethics.” The judgment of prudence involves the person in that person’s uniqueness; it is an objective judgment, in the sense that it refers to objective norms. Emphasizing the subjectivity of the moral act does not at all mean giving in to subjectivism. Thus, during the recent debate on the possible admission to the Eucharist of the “divorced and remarried,” an oversimplified generalization that leaves out the diversity of situations has been an obstacle to wise and well-considered conclusions.

From whom can we expect a judgment of prudence?

I believe that the solution to some of the problems should come from the prudential judgment of the bishop. I say this not without hesitation and doubts, in view of the division among the bishops. My judgment is to be applied, first of all, to certain situations where there is a high probability that the first marriage was null but for which it is difficult to provide evidence that is canonically acceptable.

Going back to conscience: its judgments, we were saying, which have to do with circumstances.

Taken as a whole, the judgments over which conscience presides are not homogeneous, either as to their generality or to their binding force. The church, mater et magistra, receives some of these from God; her mission is to pass them on and interpret them faithfully. Other judgments and directives, on the other hand, are promulgated by the church. Judgments of  the latter type presuppose, on the part of the church, a discernment of the circumstances which change according to time and place. Some directives are addressed to the people of God as a whole, others to particular communities. In this context, uniformity is not always the best solution. By virtue of her pastoral mission, the church must be constantly attentive to historical changes and the evolution of mentalities, certainly not to give in to them but to overcome the obstacles that can hinder the acceptance of her counsels and directives.

The objective is an equitable judgment. I spoke about this with your Dominican confrere Fr. Jean Miguel Garrigues, whom I interviewed for our review.

In his treatise on justice, St. Thomas explains the distinct role of equity, which corresponds to Aristotle’s epieikeia. He explains its raison d’être: the laws enacted by the legislator are, by their very nature, of a general character; they have human acts as their object, acts which are individual and contingent, which cannot possibly cover an infinite number of all possible cases. It is therefore possible that observance of the law finds itself in conflict with justice and the common good, which constitute the purpose of this law. In such a case, the good consists in ignoring the letter of the law in order to obey the requirements of justice. This aspect of moral judgment should not be ignored, since epieikeia is not applicable to divine law but only to human laws.

This, to me, seems very important, as also is gradualness, which refers to the journey of a person who proceeds step-by-step. At times the journey can be fraught with difficulties.

Certainly. If there exist acts that are inherently good or bad, two essential dimensions of moral life must always be taken into consideration. First, the law of “growth.” By virtue of the grace of baptism, everyone is called to holiness. Christian life is founded on an urge that transforms it into a journey, an ascent, towards perfection, in view of which it has to overcome obstacles and temptations and repent of possible falls. To define this progress, the Synod on the Family of 1980 used the expression “law of gradualness.” St. John Paul II picked it up in his apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio.” Of course, one must not confuse the “law of gradualness” with the “graduality of the law.” By “gradualness” here we mean the progress made by the subject towards perfection.

And the second dimension?

It is a dimension that very often is not taken into account: the doctrine about the connection among virtues, whose soul is charity and whose guide is prudence. At the pastoral and spiritual direction levels, one cannot eradicate one particular virtue from this interweaving. One must respect the existential coordinates of the spiritual life of persons. In rigorism there is embedded a brutality that runs contrary to the gentleness with which God guides each person.

Indeed, rigorism is a brutality. It seems to me that the Year of Mercy serves also to dispel this brutality.

Undoubtedly, the Year of Mercy will illumine the 2015 synod and will imprint it with its style. There are persons, men and women, who, scandalized by the church because of a negative judgment issued in an impersonal and soulless manner, feel distanced from and deeply rejected by her. The responsibility of confessors here is great. Any judgment that is expressed must always and everywhere be presented and formulated in language that clearly expresses the church’s motherly concern. Pope Francis insists on the beauty and the joy of Christian life that the church ought to present. Through the voice of her pastors, the church must convey the message that she is being guided by the demands of divine mercy.

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