ROME – An old joke about the Dominicans goes like this.

A guy is in a hot air balloon that starts losing altitude, and he ends up stuck in a tree. He has no idea what his location is, and then he sees another guy walking past and yells down at him, “Hey, can you tell me where I am?”

Looking up, the passer-by responds, “Yes, I can … you’re in a tree.”

The guy says, “Ah, you must be a Dominican.”

The passer-by is startled, since he’s not wearing his habit or any other sign of belonging to the order, and says, “Yes, I am, but how in the world did you know that?”

The balloonist says, “Because what you say is perfectly true, and absolutely useless!”

It’s a way of lampooning the Dominican legacy of egg-headedness, building on their well-earned reputation for producing some of the finest scholars and intellectuals in the Catholic tradition – including, most famously, St. Thomas Aquinas.

In truth, the brain power of the Order of Preachers, as the Dominicans are formally called, has always been far more of an asset than a liability. Among other things, it helped insulate them from the post-Vatican II identity crisis experienced by some other religious congregations, because they were always too smart to get swept up in passing fads – either those in vogue before the council, or after it.

Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, who died Thursday at the age of 93, was a classic example of that Dominican ethos: Erudite, balanced, and preternaturally calm, rarely one to allow himself to be pulled too far in one direction or the other because his mind perceived subtleties where others saw simple binary distinctions.

Cottier served as the Theologian of the Papal Household from 1989 to 2003, meaning the heart of the St. John Paul II years. Contrary to popular impression, that’s not a full-time job, and he was never what one might call the “intellectual architect” of John Paul’s papacy – that role fell instead to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.

Indeed, at times people wondered why the Polish pope even bothered having an in-house theologian, since it was clear that all the theological heavy lifting was being done across St. Peter’s Square by Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

However, that doesn’t mean Cottier was without influence, or that John Paul, and for that matter Ratzinger himself, didn’t value his advice. On the contrary, whenever an internal read was needed on how thoughtful, non-ideological theologians might react to a proposed statement, ruling or gesture, Cottier was often their “go-to” guy.

Cottier’s balance is reflected in the fact that at various points in his long career, he managed to irritate both liberals and conservatives.

The Catholic left, for instance, howled when Cottier defended John Paul II’s rejection of open communion, when he defended Pope Pius XII against criticism of his alleged “silence” on the Holocaust, and when he said that renowned Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s idea of the “anonymous Christian” to explain how God is also mysteriously present in other religions was a blind alley.

(There may have been a bit of the old Jesuit/Dominican rivalry in the last point – even sophisticates, after all, have their tribal allegiances!)

The right, on the other hand, became piqued when Cottier suggested in a 2005 interview that in certain circumstances the use of condoms to fight the spread of AIDS might be legitimate, and when in 2009 he compared the thinking of U.S. President Barack Obama on abortion to that of Aquinas.

On that occasion, Archbishop Charles Chaput, then of Denver and now of Philadelphia, responded by saying that Cottier’s analysis “overvalues the consonance of President Obama’s thinking with Catholic teaching.”

In fairness, however, Chaput also said Cottier’s essay in the magazine 30 Giorni was “articulate,” and certainly that was one of the Swiss cardinal’s strengths.

At various points in his life Cottier taught in Geneva and Fribourg, and also served as the secretary of the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (A fellow Dominican, American Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, today serves in the congregation as an adjunct secretary.)

On Friday, Pope Francis sent a telegram to Cottier’s sister expressing his condolences, saying that “with deep gratitude” he remembers Cottier’s “strong faith, paternal kindness and intense cultural and ecclesial activity.”

I only met Cottier on a handful of occasions, but once we found ourselves at a conference in northern Italy and ended up passing a leisurely lunch together.

I found him to be exceptionally gracious and humble – the kind of person who would pose a question about some Church topic and seem genuinely interested in what you had to say, even though he had already forgotten far more about the subject than you would ever know.

Over 93 years, Georges Cottier served the Church he loved with his heart and his exceptionally nimble mind. Whatever one makes of his positions on specific controversies or issues, at the end of the day that’s not a bad epitaph at all.