Benedict XVI shows us the core of Christianity
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP, the former theologian to the Papal Household, about the pontificate of Benedict XVI.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – For the last three years Benedict XVI has written two encyclicals ‘Deus caritas est’ and ‘Spe salvi’ as well as the book ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. These texts concern love, hope and the Person of Jesus. Why has the Holy Father dealt with these three themes at the beginning of his mission?
Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP: – The Pope realises that reminding the faithful of the ‘heart’ of the Christian message is very meaningful. That’s why, he wrote his encyclicals about love, the most important of the theologal virtues, and about hope. Benedict XVI is said to write an encyclical on the third theologal virtue of faith although he devoted many pages to this virtue in his encyclical ‘Spe salvi.’ In his documents the Holy Father deals with the problem of ‘the sense of God’ since the core of Christianity is the very misterium of God. We can discover the mystery of God thanks to the revelation as well as the Christian life that abounds in the theologal virtues: faith, hope and love, and, as St Paul says, the greatest of these is love (cf. 1 Corinthians 13). There is the risk of approaching Christianity through other matters. For example, we speak about Christian morality – in fact there is Christian morality – but Christianity cannot be reduced to morality. Christianity is a much wider term: it is life with Christ and morality is only its consequence. The same things are said about the Church and culture, the Church and dialogue, the Church and politics but all these matters are, I repeat, the consequences of Christian life. If we lose our identity everything will be destroyed. Therefore, Benedict XVI, inspired by his great intuition, wants to lead us to the core of Christianity again, i.e. to meeting God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ. ‘The heart’ of our faith is our friendship with God and that’s why, the book about Jesus Christ is so significant. Although I would like to emphasise that the book is the result of the work of the whole life of the theologian Ratzinger, and as such it does not constitute the Magisterium.
– Benedict XVI approved and authorised the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerning some aspects of the teaching about the Church. Why did the Pope conclude to confirm all that was written in the declaration ‘Dominus Iesus’ in the year 2000, namely that Christ ‘erected on earth’ the only Church and that the Church of Christ subsists (subsistit) in the Catholic Church?
– As you said this theme has been clearly explained in the document ‘Dominus Iesus’. It was decided to repeat some statements included in the document since there are still false answers to the question; Where is the Church of Christ? Some claim that the true Church has not come yet because it will be revealed at the end of times. Some think that the Church will come into being when all Christians are united. But the Church of Christ has already existed and subsists (subsistit) in the Catholic Church. Ecumenical discussions are dedicated to the subject of ecclesiology. Each Christian community should precisely define its understanding of the Church. The Catholic Church teaches that she is the Church of Christ, which does not mean that outside of the Church of Christ there is some emptiness. There are many degrees in the tragedy of being separated from the full communion with the Catholic Church. The first separation concerns our Orthodox brothers. However, the Orthodox Churches preserve the apostolic succession and seven sacraments, which makes them closely united with us. The second group is the Christian communities resulted from the Protestant reform. They do not accept the seven sacraments and there are serious doubts concerning the apostolic succession but they have preserved the Word of God and Baptism. But the document stresses the very important issue, namely that there is logic of Baptism, i.e. there is no Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Baptism but there is only one Baptism, which inclines to Catholic unity. We acknowledge relationship with our non-Catholic brothers but at the same time we say what our doctrinal vision of the Church is. Dialogue requires truth and seriousness.
– The Vatican circles speak about two next papal documents concerning the social teaching of the Church and the bioethical problems. Why does Benedict XVI want to present his opinion about these concrete subjects?
– The tradition is that the popes of our epoch issue documents concerning the social teaching of the Church. This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of one of the great social encyclicals, namely ‘Populorum progressio’ by Paul VI (John Paul II wrote his ‘Sollicitudo rei socialis’ on the 20th anniversary of Paul VI’s encyclical). Therefore, we have a good occasion to take up this subject again. The enormous scientific and technological progress has brought about new ethical problems. Cardinal Ratzinger used to speak about that as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in the year 1987 the Congregation prepared the instruction ‘Donum vitae’ concerning the subject of bioethics). John Paul II also dealt with some bioethical subjects in his encyclical ‘Evangelium vitae’. Nowadays we should take up new subjects because people have made the experiments concerning the beginning of life that no one thought about before. Not all technologically possible experiments can be accepted from the ethical point of view.
You are asking me why the Holy Father has taken up these two issues. One should explain that some papal documents answer the requests of bishops, theological faculties, specialised ecclesiastical organs and the faithful themselves. Consequently, the popes decide to prepare documents forced by circumstances, documents, which can be useful for the whole Church. Of course, this does not concern the first two encyclicals, which were marked by Benedict XVI himself.
– Signing the motu proprio ‘Summorum Pontificum’ Benedict XVI (7 July 2007) allowed the pre-counciliar Missal (1962) to be more easily used. How can we dare to criticise the Holy Mass that was obligatory in the Church for four centuries?
– ‘The heart’ of the Eucharist is always the same regardless of its rite: Byzantine, Chaldean, Antiochian or Latin. The Pope said that Holy Mass, which Paul VI had reformed, was a normal Latin rite. However, this rite includes an extraordinary form, the one using the former Missal. The Pope ‘enlarged’ the already existing permission. We should explain that the structure of Holy Mass remains the same. Only some gestures and prayers are changed. Why are changes introduced? The Eucharist has an unchangeable dogmatic dimension but the sacraments are for people. Therefore, one should also consider the pastoral dimension, which means that we deal with some adjustments to the local conditions in the Latin rite as well. The rite will be the same in Africa and Scandinavia but there will be different songs and expressions of piety because people’s mentality is different. The form of the Latin rite, introduced by Paul VI, focuses on the participation of the people of God and thus it reveals the universal priesthood of all baptised, which nevertheless differs from the sacramental priesthood.
– Does it mean that the severe criticism of the papal document was of purely instrumental character?
– Some people feared that the papal document would cause some confusion. But it did not since the problem concerns a small group of believers. I would like to add that Paul VI’s liturgical reform led to great confusion. It was introduced in the hothouse atmosphere of the post-conciliar period when there was the cultural revolution in the West in 1968. In that atmosphere some priests made changes, which did not follow the authentic interpretation of Paul VI’s reform. Because of that some faithful preferred to attend the Masses celebrated from the old Missal although they did not support Archbishop Lefebvre. I think that thanks to the above-mentioned motu proprio the Church wants to regain those faithful who found themselves outside of the Catholic Church due to the liturgical reasons. You have mentioned several most important documents of Benedict XVI. For my part we should add the Pope’s letter to Chinese Catholics.
– The theologian refers to the letter, which the world regards as a political text...
– This is a very important text. John Paul II claimed that the 21st century would be a century of missions in Asia, and especially in China. That’s why, I regret that the mass media devoted so little time to the document.
– As the former theologian of the Papal Household, how would you characterise the first three years of the pontificate of the theologian-Pope?
– Three years are a short period in the history of the Church. As a theologian I am glad to see that the Pope has focused on the mystery of faith: love and hope. Benedict XVI accompanies us in our pilgrimage to the centre of Christian life, which is the life in unity with Christ and his Mystical Body. Thus he helps us discover the true Christian identity. One should also notice the great liturgical celebrations. Benedict XVI focuses on the importance of the liturgy and prepares wonderful homilies. A homily is a liturgical act, and faith is expressed in the liturgy in a special way.