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VATICAN LETTER Dec-30-2005 (810 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

The pope needs a theologian? Former papal adviser reveals why

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- During his 16 years as theologian of the papal household, Cardinal Georges Cottier was often asked: Why does the pope need a theologian?

Pope John Paul II was a respected theologian and so is Pope Benedict XVI. It's hard to imagine either one of them having enough theological doubts to justify the appointment of a full-time consultant.

But if people imagine the papal theologian sitting around waiting for the pope to pose a question, the reality is quite different, Cardinal Cottier said.

The papal theologian's main task is to vet the many thousands of words prepared by Vatican aides for the pope to speak or publish. He checks for statements of dubious theology and otherwise hazardous phrases that could come back to haunt the pope.

"People have to understand that nowadays the pope is obliged to make so many speeches and send so many messages that he needs a lot of collaborators to prepare them," Cardinal Cottier said. "The theologian of the papal household is charged with reading all these texts and give(s) a theological opinion on them."

Cardinal Cottier, an 83-year-old Swiss Dominican, spoke in an interview in late December, shortly before retiring from his Vatican position. The Vatican announced Dec. 1 the appointment of a 54-year-old fellow Dominican, Father Wojciech Giertych, to replace Cardinal Cottier.

Cardinal Cottier said that given the number of papal speeches, sermons, messages, prayers, telegrams and other documents it would be impossible for the pope to write them all. The cardinal said he worked daily with the Vatican's Secretariat of State, going over the papal texts prepared by others.

"The first thing we look for is harmony of language, because if the sources are different, not only the style but the thought can be different," he said.

The theologian also checks for wording or a phrase that could be misinterpreted or taken out of context, perhaps by the mass media, he said.

A third concern, he said, is to be careful not to make the pope say too much about some topics.

"By this, I mean that when we have a theological issue that is still open to discussion and study, it's not a good thing that the pope pronounce on it too early. Because when the pope speaks with authority, it means the discussion is closed," he said.

For example, Cardinal Cottier noted that the International Theological Commission met recently to discuss the church's teaching on limbo and babies who die without being baptized. Pope Benedict gave a speech to the commission members, but without addressing the substance of the theological discussion.

According to tradition, the role of theologian of the papal household began with St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers, who was believed to have acted as theological adviser to Pope Honorius III in the 13th century.

Dominicans have always held the position, which until 1968 was called "master of the sacred palace." In the past, the job involved giving theology lessons to cardinals and other members of the Roman Curia and screening sermons by guest preachers who came to the Vatican.

For a time, the papal theologian also had to give the imprimatur to books published in Rome -- a task that, thankfully, has been discontinued, Cardinal Cottier said.

The papal theologian is not typically called upon to scrutinize texts that are penned directly by the pope, but he is often among the team of experts that studies drafts of papal encyclicals, sometimes giving advice on structure or phrasing.

For example, Cardinal Cottier said he previewed five or six draft versions of Pope John Paul's 1993 encyclical, "Veritatis Splendor" ("The Splendor of Truth").

The cardinal said the biggest difference between Pope John Paul and his successor is that Pope Benedict personally writes the "important texts" -- the major sermons and speeches, like his lengthy year-end talk to the Roman Curia, which Cardinal Cottier described as "almost an encyclical" on the post-Vatican II church.

Pope Benedict's first real encyclical, titled "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), was signed by the pope on Christmas Day and was expected to be released in January, the Vatican said recently.

Cardinal Cottier said that among the many memories he'll take from his years at the Vatican one in particular stands out. Before the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, he headed the theological-historical commission that examined darker chapters of the church's past, including the Inquisition and treatment of Jews.

The commission's work paved the way for the Holy Year "day of forgiveness," which featured a dramatic liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica and an unprecedented apology for the sins of Christians through the ages.

Cardinal Cottier said the liturgy was not only one of the most beautiful moments of the Holy Year, but marked "a decisive moment in the history of the church."


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