Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Preface to About Bishop Butler

By Arthur Wells

There is yet no full biography of Bishop Butler, in spite of his leading role in the Second Vatican Council and his place as England's pre-eminent theologian of the twentieth century. However, several authors have written about him and they and their publishers have kindly allowed us to reproduce their work on this website. In addition, other shorter memoirs have been made available by people who knew Bishop Butler in various aspects of his life. We are grateful to the writers who have made their memoirs available. Sister Anne Flood, whose warm 'Personal Memoir' is available, is an American Sister of Charity. Her PhD thesis was on Butler's ecclesial thought and her bibliography of Butler's writings is the most complete available. She has kindly made this major work available for this website. John Hayes offers an equally warm, almost domestic, tribute to the man he knew at St Edmund's College, Ware in Hertfordshire. Hayes would frequently serve Mass for the Bishop in his private chapel. In addition, there are extracts from the tributes and obituaries in In Memoriam.

Appropriately, two of the contributors to this section are Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey.

Very Revd Dom Daniel Rees OSB

The late Dom Daniel was Sub-Prior of Downside and later librarian and custodian of the Abbey's precious collection of books and much of its history. He had a deep knowledge of the English Benedictine Congregation, of Abbot Christopher Butler's part in the Congregation and his part in Vatican II. Rees was a young monk during Butler's abbacy and a student in Rome during the whole of Vatican II. He was therefore -perhaps uniquely- well placed to note the development of the Council, and - being in the same monastic community of Sant' Anselmo - he could also observe the dedication of his abbot to the momentous events in Rome. He wrote:

What was conspicuous about him when staying at Sant'Anselmo ... and what made a deep impression on the students was that, although he took the Council business and did his homework far more seriously than the other Abbots-President did ... he was most diligent in attending all the Divine Office, because as he put it to me, he wanted to retain '˜the monastic pattern of life'. He was equally assiduous in the practice of personal prayer, pacing the garden for the two half-hours he assigned to it every day as at home.

Dom Daniel has also written:

Butler and Vatican II were made for each other ... [Butler was] ... heart and soul in proclaiming the teaching of the Council and in some matters open to daring speculation. But he was also very tenacious of the dogmatic quality of Catholic beliefs ... [Premonitions of Vatican II]

Fr. Rees's contribution Seventh Abbot of Downside first appeared in the Downside School magazine The Raven (1986) under the pen-name Ceredig. A clearly important feature of his contributions is their first-hand provenance.

Very Revd Dom Aidan Bellenger OSB

Dom Aidan is Abbot of Downside and a historian. He too knew Abbot Butler at Downside and wrote for the Dictionary of National Biography the entry on Bishop Butler. Dom Aidan's most recent of many historical books is Princes of the Church - A History of the English Cardinals, co-authored with Stella Fletcher (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, England, 2002). The book refers to the strong possibility that Butler might well have been appointed to Westminster in 1963, again in 1976 and the book noted:

Some had hoped that Butler's distinction might be recognised, like Newman's by a red hat in old age'¦

To mark the Centenary of Dom Christopher Butler's birth, he mounted a series of lectures at Downside. They were concluded on the centenary day itself, 7 May 2002, by H. E. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster. His lecture was On the Office of Bishop.

Professor J. V. Rice

The late Valentine Rice was a distinguished academic. A particularly valuable aspect of his contribution is that he talked with Butler personally. Forty years ago, when at Harvard as a teaching Fellow, Rice was commissioned by the University of Notre Dame Press to interview the then Abbot Butler for a 'Character Portrait' in the series Men who make the Council (1965). According to Fr. Rees, Valentine Rice 'got out of the usually very reticent Abbot a mass of detail on his family and early life, which cannot be found anywhere else.' It is of no little significance that of the twenty-four portraits in the series, Butler was the only non-bishop; he was listed simply as Dom Christopher Butler OSB. All the rest, bar one bishop, were Cardinals or Archbishops. Even more to the present point: subsequently in 1973, when back in Trinity College Dublin, Rice edited a volume of Butler's writings: Searchings (Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1974). In his introduction Rice notes: 'The articles are broadly representative of Butler's thought over the period of his published work'. One article is reproduced in the website, and it is hoped to add more later. The obvious significance of Rice's Introduction, sections of which appear below, is that it was based on early taped interviews. The later interviews with Butler were, of course, when he was in his early seventies, when he had been in the hierarchy for several years. By then Butler had himself published: The Theology of Vatican II (1967) and A Time to Speak (1972). As bishop, he had had the opportunity to reflect on the Council and on its aftermath. Rice writes with sympathy and insight and his first paragraph includes: 'He came to Rome as President of the English Benedictine Congregation and soon attracted attention by his contribution to debate. In many ways he resembled Newman, though he himself would reject the comparison.'


However, notwithstanding Butler's own rejection, Rice's view was confirmed by many. My research at home and abroad with many hours of taped interviews about Butler might be summed up by one monk speaking of his former abbot: 'To me he seems a Newman-like figure'. But another Downside monk who probably knew Butler better than anyone, Dom Daniel Rees, went further : 'It has become a commonplace that the invisible father at Vatican II was John Henry Newman'. Newman had in Abbot Butler a mouthpiece who knew his master's voice probably better than anyone else in the conciliar aula.'