Two PopesBishop Butler

Vatican II - Voice of The Church

The Church's English Voice — Bishop Christopher Butler, OSB

John XXIII and Paul VI - the
two Popes of the Council
Bishop BC Butler
"Let us not fear that truth might endanger truth"

Joy in Believing

by Bishop B.C. Butler

Faith is the basis of everything in the fully Christian life, and faith’s certainty is intrinsic to itself; it does not rest on external supports. Faith, says de Caussade, has no wish for proofs: those who live by faith accept the proofs of faith not as proofs but as ordained by God.

But Christians are part and parcel of a humanity only partially converted to Christ. And even within each of us there is an unconverted residue which feels the need of the support of “proofs”. Indeed, faith itself teaches us that to be a believer is the only fully reasonable way of being human: to this extent, then, even faith requires that “proofs” should be available to “justify” before the bar of reason the life of faith. The proofs are “ordained by God”.

If we lived in a completely Christianised world, the proofs of faith would be fully coincident with our experience, as normal as air and sunlight. But to live fully today in the whole human environment is to live in a pluralist, and largely post-Christian world, where the proofs are hardly come by without some personal effort and are kept alive and apt only by continuing effort.

Still, they are available. Wonder, the raw material of philosophy, laughs at the horizons of sense experience and demands a metaphysical source of finite reality. Love, even before it has become reflexively the love of God, has a rational abhorrence of the absurd. Conscience brings us face to face with an absolute requirement which, in order to be absolute, must be one with the source of finite reality, quod omnes vocant Deum. What, then, is the meaning of this human experience itself, this “world” in which God has placed us and through which he discloses himself to us? How, in and through it, does one respond positively and concretely to the love and the will of God? Has God himself provided any indications of the way in which he wants man, individually and socially, to find and follow him in this world? [1]

Searchings Book Cover There are religious traditions in history which claim to rest on such divine indications. They are grouped round and appear to find their culmination in the Christian gospel. From that point the road is easy enough. In his brilliant short account of his own conversion, Evelyn Waugh contrasts (in true patristic fashion) “the local, temporary character of the heresies and schisms and the universal, eternal character of the Church”. “It was self-evident to me”, he says, “that no heresy or schism could be right and the Church wrong”.

One could generalise: if there is a true religion, it is quite obviously the religion which calls itself Catholic and is known by that name wherever commonsense is not obscured by the need to defend a cause.

Thus the “proofs” of faith reach their full concreteness and their practical cogency in the “moral miracle” of the Catholic Church herself, in her existential reality—as the First Vatican Council affirmed. The years go by, experience is broadened and deepened, and the force of these proofs, this proof, increases rather than diminishes.

However, there is an important level of thought, more superficial than that of the fundamental proof, at which the state of things has been somewhat different. Of F.H. Bradley it was said that he maintained that this world in which we actually exist is the best of all possible worlds; and that everything which it contains is a necessary evil. Something similar could have been said of the Church before John XXIII: it was the best of all possible religions, and everything in it an intellectual scandal. This is an exaggeration, of course, but let us take a few examples.

The Catholic religion, firm in its proclamation that God has actually intervened in history, points to its canon of inspired literature as to a record of this intervention. The attitude of Church authority to the Bible was one of the biggest difficulties that I experienced in the last stage of my conversion. Inspiration it was said, meant material inerrancy; and when critical scholarship developed in the Church at the end of the last century, and in the first decade of this century, it was forcibly suppressed. A better climate began to spread with the publication of Divino Afflante a quarter of a century ago; but even just before the Council opened an obscurantist campaign was being launched in Rome itself.

Again, with its realistic claim to be true, Christianity had early come face to face with Greek philosophy, and when Justinian closed the schools at Athens it could seem to have won the day. But, as had happened before, Greece in her defeat had taken her victor captive, and already in the patristic age there was a tendency to see the Christian revelation as a sort of divine appendix to the discoveries of human reason. In modern times Thomist scholasticism had been almost canonised by Church authority; and it was inevitably a debased Thomism that actually dominated in the seminaries, because philosophy—like theology—cannot live healthily in a backwater, and modern man was no longer thinking scholastically.

An intellectual backwater was, in fact, just where the Church was living. It was as though the treasures she had amassed in her early years, when she appropriated the wisdom of the Greeks and the imperial genius and laws of Rome, had become too heavy a burden to allow her to keep up with the progress of human thinking and to assimilate the new vistas of experience. Her first reactions to the advances of modern science had always been negative: witness the affaire Galileo; witness the fact that when I was a young Catholic it was still doubted whether it was orthodox to believe in the evolution of man from a sub-human form of life. And of course there was the same negative reflex in the face of critical historical scholarship. I have already spoken of this as regards the Bible; but it had also been true in the sphere of hagiography—and still, after the Council, we were reading the Roman Martyrology.

A society which turns its back on actual life tends to harden and intensify its own more reactionary features. The Church’s reaction to modern advances was not only the Syllabus of Errors. It was the proclamation of papal primacy and infallibility (both of them, of course, absolutely true; which does not settle the question of their opportuneness, nor of the mode in which they were practically and theoretically interpreted). It was a growing centralisation and absolutism, which were draining the life away from local Catholicism and threatening to leave us with a totalitarian bureaucracy operating in a vacuum.

All this, it might be said, is very accidental to religion itself. What then, of religion itself? Take the liturgy. This, as we knew it in the preconciliar Western rite, was a public worship conducted by priests for a passive lay audience, in a dead language with which even the more educated minority of the faithful were rapidly losing all contact. Of course this worship was venerable; and of course it was beautiful—in the few places where it was properly performed. It was even devotional, if devotion means an aura of mystery which deliberately obscures the very signs of the transcendent Mystery incarnate for our salvation. Yet, curiously enough, the conservatism of modern Catholicism had been such that you could still read, in the liturgical texts themselves, evidence that the liturgy had been created with a quite different orientation.

There was one region of rapid religious change: that of devotion to our Lady. This was almost the only field in which Newman’s doctrine of development was being allowed a free, indeed uncritical, course. But development here was going on in a world apart from the total life of theology. It was taking shape in such phenomena as the Fatima cult and was reaching forward for further “luxury” definitions of doctrine. If I may borrow again from Evelyn Waugh, it began to seem that the Catholicism of the future would approximate more and more to the condition of an Italian tribal cult.

And this Romanised, Latinised, Italianised anachronism was being exported by missionaries to the non-White world, where it had made great strides under cover of the colonial powers but was surely doomed as the old Afro-Asian cultures reasserted themselves. It showed little aptitude for assimilating these cultures in the way in which the early Church had assimilated the Graeco-Roman culture. In India, where an ancient tradition of contemplation and metaphysical reflection was maintained by the Brahmin leaders of culture, the modern Church had gone, as if by instinct, not to these leaders but to the outcasts, and had presented itself not as the divine answer to man’s metaphysical hunger but as a provider of schools and hospitals.

At home, meanwhile, the Church seemed to have renounced any pretension to speak to the leaders of culture and to learn from them, or to be a ferment in social and political life. Called to a mission universal in depth as well as breadth, it reckoned its successes by the statistics of individual conversions, which ran, in a good year, at a rate of about one to every three thousand of the population. Its real effort was concentrated on preserving the faith and practice of those who were already its acknowledged members. Millions of pounds were being spent on this attempt, and there seemed little understanding that a strategy limited to defence is doomed to failure in the end.

Of course, there is a real sense in which the Church cannot fail. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. But we have no divine guarantee that her destiny will not be that of the coelocanthus, surviving with diminished numbers through having taken refuge from the main current of onward-moving life. The Samaritans still survive in Palestine.

For what was happening in the world outside the Church? Perhaps the most tremendous forward move since the coming of Christianity itself. Change-in-duration was not only the practical order of the day: it was the category in which men were learning to think. There was, it is true, a defect here. What was needed, in the field of thought, was a metaphysical underpinning. But the kind of metaphysics offered by the current Catholic textbooks could not supply this need, since they neither faced the modern questions nor spoke a language (I am not referring to Latin as against the vernaculars) which modern man could understand.

I have, of course, been exaggerating, and there were more hopeful omens than those which I have mentioned here, in the pre-conciliar Church. But there is not space here for a treatise, so I must be content with a caricature.

The suggestion for these reflections was provoked by an impromptu remark, made in public, to the effect that, as a result of the Council, I was more passionately convinced than ever of the truth of Catholicism. I must, of course, explain that I did utterly believe in the truth before the Council, as I do still. But the intellectual relief with which I contemplate the Council and its acts is nevertheless immense. And it is due to the activity of some two thousand elderly gentlemen who had usually qualified for membership of the Council less by the vigour of their intellectual life and interests than by their canonical and administrative acumen and ability and their devotion to a pastorate somewhat narrowly conceived.

During the First Vatican Council, Pius IX is said to have remarked that the action of the Holy Ghost would be found not outside but within the Council chamber. How else can the achievements of the Second Vatican Council be explained than as the effects of a powerful intervention of God’s saving Spirit? For in virtually every one of the areas so hastily outlined above, the Council has brought about a tremendous change for the better. It all adds up, it is true, to no more than a first step. And there will surely be much suffering ahead for all of us. But Adam was a first step. The first Christian Pentecost was a first step. Conversion, for the individual, is a first step. It seems to me that the Church, the People of God, has now been invited by Providence to move forward into a great Christian Renaissance.


[1] Cf. John A. O’Brien, ed. The Road to Damascus.