On March 4, 2007, French TV news ended with the announcement of the death of Noël Copin, retired editor of La Croix, the French Catholic daily newspaper, which has a circulation of a hundred thousand. Moving tributes were issued by government officials, representatives of the major political parties, and in Le Monde. Three bishops attended Copin’s packed funeral in Versailles.

Why all this for the editor of a daily paper founded in 1883 by the Assumptionist Fathers? A paper that in 1890, during the Dreyfus trial, described itself as “the most anti-Jewish Catholic paper in France”? That La Croix had long abandoned such prejudice was well demonstrated in 1994 when the Representative Council of Jewish Organizations held a meeting in Paris to mark the Dreyfus centennial, and “our friend Noël Copin, editor of La Croix” was introduced to a wide burst of applause.

Copin was born in 1929 in Eastern France, in the town of Besançon. He attended the local university where he became active in the Young Christian Student movement. His first job was with a newspaper in Nancy; a few years later he moved to Paris to work for La Croix, which by then the Assumptionists had largely handed over to professional lay journalists.

After serving as an Army reserve officer in Algeria in 1956, Copin returned to cover the war for independence there for La Croix. In Algeria, he said, he learned “that journalists had the opportunity of crossing barriers, meeting men on both sides who were fighting each other, and of telling others what they think, what they feel, and how they live.” That experience suited his temperament and confirmed his dedication to his chosen career.

During the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), Fr. Antoine Wegner, then La Croix’s editor, assigned Copin to Rome to cover the last three sessions. Copin later wrote a valuable book on the subject, in which he declared that “the council taught me that my church, though two thousand years old, was capable of marrying its time by returning to its source.”

In 1985, my wife Sally and I met Copin by a stroke of good luck. We were going to France on a teaching sabbatical and heard that he might rent his vacation home in Northern Provence. When we visited the Copins’ home in Versailles to pick up the key, we not only enjoyed an elaborate Sunday dinner superbly cooked and served by Noël’s wife Monique, but had the chance to talk at length with her unpretentious, subtly humorous husband. He in turn seemed delighted to learn that we shared his enthusiasm for the French theologians who had played such a central role at Vatican II.

Noël arranged for us to receive La Croix at our sabbatical home in Beaumes de Venise, and we quickly discovered that it was very different from diocesan newspapers in the United States. Coverage of the arts was sophisticated; political commentary presented a serious analysis of national and international developments; and treatment of specifically Catholic issues showed sensitivity to France’s strong secular tradition. Occasional priest-written editorials were both well informed and balanced.

We soon discovered that our village neighbors had a warm feeling for Copin. Indeed, he was a celebrity there, not because of La Croix, which few of them read, but because he was a TV star, having been a top interviewer and commentator on France’s Channel 2 before returning to La Croix as editor-in-chief in 1983. He was fair to all sides, they said, asked good questions, and avoided showboating.

As editor, Copin was open-minded and even-handed. For example, drawing out the human factors behind complex parliamentary debates, he was inclined to defend politicians rather than denigrate them, pointing out what was valuable in their different positions. He became widely known because of the talks he gave all over France, and La Croix gained an increased reputation for depth and fairness.

Despite his crushing schedule, Copin always managed to be available to his staff. When someone left the paper, he would give a laudatory talk about the person in the style of Bossuet, but always incorporating amusing personal anecdotes.

As editor, Copin maintained balance in the paper’s coverage of church-related issues, paying close attention to Paris’s Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger and events like World Youth Day. The controversial removal of the independent-minded Bishop Jacques Gaillot of Evreux was given fair coverage, but there were no passionate denunciations of authority. Subscribers learned what was going on at the film festivals at Cannes and Avignon, while also receiving regular reminders to support Catholic social action.

Copin tried to make the paper’s format more popular in the hope of appealing to the young. Although personally bewildered by the growth of the charismatic movement, he recognized that La Croix, as the only Catholic daily in the country, should reflect the interests of the entire faith community. His spirit of moderation, however, did not prevent him from declaring that the church communicates poorly in several areas. One important reason for this failure, he wrote, was its profound fear of sex, revealed in its tendency to look at women largely as “objects of concupiscence.”

He also pointed out that during the cold war, church authorities would offer subtle analyses of foreign-policy and military strategy, referring to deterrence as the lesser evil, even though it involves the threat that nuclear weapons might be used. Why then, he asked, did the church hesitate to say that the use of a contraceptive as a protection against the spread of venereal disease was also a lesser evil? It seemed to him that the priority traditionally given to a morality of prohibition prevented the hierarchy’s teaching from being understood. He pointed out that the Vatican’s 1987 instruction Donum vitae (“The Gift of Life”), dealing with artificial procreation, was received in France as just another condemnation, even though its basic intent was to present the link between love, sexuality, and procreation. Whereas a much needed debate on the danger of artificial techniques in procreation could have been initiated, the document spoke only the language of the licit and the illicit. This approach, Copin lamented, was inadequate when the whole point was to give love its full meaning.

He also mentioned Martin Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ as another example of the church’s poor communications skills. Two French cardinals, in their rush to judgment, offered criticisms before even seeing the film. Copin thought the film was mediocre, but he thought that anyone who heard its Hollywood-style Mary Magdalen cry out, “Give me a child, give me a child!” should have laughed rather than become indignant.

He worried that John Paul II’s countless homilies and exhortations ran the risk of turning people off through oversaturation. And he saw that as a loss because the pope was strongly against the Gulf War, recognized that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe had led to unbridled capitalism there, and was a lone voice for the rights of immigrants and the duty to welcome them.

Copin’s most profound experience as a journalist was his 1994 trip to Rwanda, following the massacre of Hutus there. He had hoped that after the Nazi atrocities, the Soviet and Chinese gulags, the killing fields of Pol Pot, and “ethnic purifications” in the Balkans, such monstrosities could be avoided in the future. La Croix, which had never published a photo of the dead out of respect for their humanity, did print a picture of the Rwandan horror on its front page. Copin reported that a relief worker told him, “God is absent in Rwanda,” and that a priest working with a world doctors’ team said, “Christ is in the process of dying of cholera in all these camps.” An atheist journalist added, “For me, the question is whether one can still believe in man.”

Copin himself wrote in La Croix that he had not lost all hope, but had

learned that hope has no force if it has not overcome the temptation of despair.... I learned that love has no power if it has not taken the measure of hatred.

In spite of the horror of Rwanda, I believe in man. I believe in man because as a Christian I believe in God who has created man out of love, in his image. I believe in man because as a journalist I realize that in the dramatic events I have witnessed, there is no solution to our problems unless each of us believes in man.

Ultimately, this is the link between my profession and my faith: one shows me the necessity of believing in man, the other gives me the reason to believe.

Noël Copin was not without his critics, partly because La Croix’s readership was moderately conservative, and some readers felt that he was unduly optimistic and insufficiently alarmed at the growing dechristianization of Europe. He had little sympathy with those—ncluding the pope—who complained that the European Union’s draft constitution made no explicit reference to the continent’s “Christian foundations.” His writing always showed a keen awareness of Christianity’s moral failures—wars, slavery, the Inquisition, and clerical corruption. A devout Catholic, he was nevertheless ready to acknowledge the positive contribution of the Enlightenment. Above all, he reminded readers that faith does not produce certitude.

Unfortunately, Copin never gave himself much chance to live in the vacation home he rented to us. After retiring from La Croix in 1994, he took on the presidency of Reporters without Borders, defending journalists in countries where freedom of the press was under attack. He also played an important role in Votre École Chez Vous, an educational initiative for handicapped children.

All this activity never prevented Copin from enjoying everyday life or performing regular acts of generosity, like driving Sally and me to Versailles and back from Paris after a long day at the paper. His humor was infectious, a constant asset that never abandoned him. Conversations were often interrupted by a sudden compulsion to dash off a little comic sketch. I recall one he did of François Mitterand, his wife, and his mistress—about whom we had not yet heard. It was funny, kindly, and above all, nonjudgmental.

Once, when Copin was driving Monique, Sally, and me around Paris in their old car, Monique complimented me by saying that I reminded her of her husband: I didn’t seem interested in money. But what she really admired, she added, was his good heart.


Related: Unlikely Prophets: How a Motley Crew of French Catholics Inspired Vatican II, by Jerry Ryan

Published in the 2008-09-12 issue: View Contents
Joseph Cunneen was founder and longtime editor of the ecumenical quarterly Cross Currents.
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