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

Dom Christopher Butler OSB - A Profile

by Valentine Rice

The Abbot of Downside, Dom Christopher Butler, emerged as one of the most significant prelates at the Second Vatican Council. He came to Rome as President of the English Benedictine Congregation and soon attracted worldwide attention by his contributions to debate. In many ways he resembled Newman, though he himself would reject the comparison. Both men came from Oxford and the Anglican tradition; both were members of religious congregations; both came in their maturity to play a leading role in the affairs of the Church.

For many years before the Council, of course, Abbot Butler had demonstrated a concern beyond the confines of his monastery. For almost forty years a stream of books and articles had come from his pen; more recently he had become well-known on B.B.C. radio and television. At the Council he emerged as an original thinker whose ideas were peculiarly relevant to the crisis which beset the Church. He emerged too as a bridge-builder'”as a man who, without any sacrifice of his convictions, could earn the confidence of men whose ideas differed from his own. He is today particularly qualified to participate in the reconciliation of the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions.

In December of 1966 Abbot Butler left his monastery to become Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster. This volume seeks to assemble from the journals of many years some of his more important articles and studies.


Some biographical information may serve to complement and illuminate these writings. A man's thought is a product of his living. And, for Bishop Butler in particular, the intellectual concerns of later years were conditioned by the problems with which he grappled as he made his way into Roman Catholicism.

Basil Christopher Butler was born on May 7, 1902, in the town of Reading, some forty miles from London. He was the second boy in a family of six children and was baptised Basil; the name Christopher he assumed when he became a monk. The Butler family was lower middle-class and strongly High Church. In 1911 he won a scholarship to the local grammar school; it was nominally Anglican but in practice was religiously neutral. He has never regretted this first initiation into pluralistic living.

Some spiritual crises of his adolescence offer significant indications for the years ahead. At the age of fourteen he was seized with a frightening scruple regarding the divinity of Christ. In order to lay the ghost he turned to the New Testament and sought for a text to settle the matter. He came to the opening passage of St John's Gospel; here, he told himself, was the proof that he needed. Though the text provided him with a working peace, he suspected at a deeper level that the problem had not been solved.

In the following year he felt for the first time a desire for ordination. The sacramental life had always been important to him and he liked to picture himself saying Mass for his people. At one level he thus sought for the epitome of Christian participation; at another he was beginning to doubt the central element in the Christian faith. At the time the two opposing poles were never brought into explicit confrontation. The schoolboy was far too busy.

When he was sixteen a curate in the local church set him to reading Newman. Within a year he experienced his first bout of 'Roman fever'. He dealt with it by reading Bishop Gore's Roman Catholic Claims; the book was so convincing that it seemed only a waste of time to read Abbot Chapman's reply.

In 1920 Butler won a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford. His life there was academically brilliant but socially undramatic. He read Classics and Theology and obtained a Triple First. In the intellectual climate of Oxford the old religious doubts returned with increased force. By the middle of his undergraduate years he was no longer concerned with the rival claims of the several Christian denominations; instead it was Christianity itself which was at stake. He saw that the truth of Christianity is necessarily dependent on the existence of God. And he saw that, even if one granted both the existence of God and the divinity of Christ, it was still necessary to justify the historical and institutional Church. He found in the writings of Baron Friedrich von Hügel a satisfactory apologia for the institutional Church. Here was a God-intoxicated writer, deeply immersed in the European tradition but equipped with the techniques of scholarly analysis and interpretation. Historical Christianity assumed a new plausibility for Butler when von Hügel convinced him that the mystical element in religion requires to be disciplined and contained by the structures of religious institutions.

It was neither a book nor an argument, however, which made the existence of God seem plausible. In his fourth year at Oxford there grew up a deep friendship between Butler and an undergraduate named Martin Hancock; the friendship has lasted to this day. The reality of the relationship seemed quite unintelligible if the universe were merely a product of blind chance, a mechanistic aggregate devoid of a Supreme Being. 'If you intellectualise the thing'Butler commented later, 'it becomes a sort of argument from a hierarchy of values, that the thing which is good but limitedly good cannot maintain its metaphysical entity unless you accept behind it the good which is unlimitedly good. But this puts it in too intellectual a form for the experience which I had.'[1]

By 1925 Butler had decided that he would be justified in seeking ordination. He was offered a post as Theological Tutor in Keble College and, at the age of 23, he began to teach there in October. The following year he was ordained a deacon of the Church of England.

He was at this time extremely radical in biblical criticism and could not admit the infallibility of Pope, episcopate, Church, or even, he remembers sadly, of Christ's human intellect. He was disturbed by the Anglican insistence upon credal formulae, and was therefore attracted by A. E. J. Rawlinson's theory that the general trend of the Church's mind was 'indefectible'. Thus, he felt that a false step here might be redressed by another there, so that, on the whole, the domain of truth could not disappear, but might in fact increase. One aspect of the theory, however, was disturbing. If the Church of England, without any claim to infallibility, could assert that the Churches of Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople had erred, was there any reason to suppose that Canterbury was not in error also?

In the summer of 1926 he went to Germany and discovered there for himself a living Catholicism which held the population as he had never known religion to do elsewhere. Henceforth he could view the Roman Church as a living thing rather than as an academic abstraction; he also felt torn in two between an enquiring mind and a basic need for the security of an unquestionable religious authority. Thus, even at the time of his ordination as deacon, he was divided between his intellectual liberalism and deep spiritual instincts which pointed to Rome. And then, in December of 1926, Martin Hancock confessed that he too was profoundly troubled by the Roman question. They decided that the matter must be settled once for all and set about reading systematically. And so began for Butler a spiritual journey which would involve much suffering and anguish.

He approached the matter principally from the point of view of the Church's unity and doctrinal authority and examined these issues in the light of the history of the first four or five hundred years of Christianity. Newman played a dominant role in this historical investigation. He read the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine several times and came eventually to conclude that the logic of the movement initiated by Pusey, Keble and Newman was inevitably oriented toward Newman's decision of 1845. He decided therefore that he could not honestly go forward to seek ordination as an Anglican priest. As Newman had done before him, he came to feel that his appointment at Oxford involved a moral commitment. And because he knew that it would be quite embarrassing for the authorities at Keble College if their Theological Tutor became a Roman Catholic mid-way through the academic year he went to see the Warden about his resignation.

B.J. Kidd was both magnanimous and understanding. He was sorry to lose his tutor and he asked him what he intended to do for a living. Butler said that he might teach. Kidd recommended that he seek for an appointment in a Catholic boarding school so as to experience Catholic living at first hand. He suggested that he try Downside School and he wrote personally to the Abbot. As it happened, there was no vacancy, but the connection that was established so accidentally was to influence Butler profoundly. The Abbot, Dom Leander Ramsay, was a man of immense learning and a master of English prose. His life had curiously paralleled Butler's own: he had learned his theology at Cambridge; he had been ordained an Anglican priest; eventually he had become a Roman Catholic in 1895. He invited Butler to spend some days of quiet at the abbey, and in the difficult months that followed it was to him that Butler would turn almost exclusively for help. 'At a time when you have been forced to break with old associations' the Abbot wrote him, 'it is my desire to give some indication as to the possibility of forming new ones to take their place. I have such a vivid recollection of the friendship which was shown me – and at Downside – when I was as you are, that I feel it as a duty, as well as a real pleasure, to hold out the hand of friendship to others.'[2]

And so, on July 12, 1927, Butler came to Downside Abbey. He came directly from the Anglo-Catholic Congress at the Albert Hall where he had delivered a paper on the Christian Eucharist and the Mystery Religions.[3] His first experience of the monastery was quite overwhelming and he was tempted to plunge immediately into the Roman Church. Abbot Ramsay he found immensely congenial; they had common ground in their mutual background in Anglicanism and in their interest in the Bible and early Church history. But when he left the abbey the certainty which had seemed within his grasp began to recede. The a priori consistency of Roman belief on the constitution of the Church appealed tremendously to his logical faculties, but there seemed to be a gap between what logic suggested and what history presented. He felt it was hard, for example, to do more than conjecture that Christ had intended St Peter to bequeath his primacy, and it was difficult to regard the rupture of 1054 as a mere detachment of members from a corporate unity which remained whole and entire after the secession. Moreover, the evidence for any inherence of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the original deposit of faith seemed so scanty that he had to hypothesise, at the very least, a direct revelation of such inherence. Perhaps he ought to trust the Church on such points? But until he could identify the Roman communion as the essential church such confidence was difficult.

He found a post as a Classics master in a boarding school in Brighton and began to do some work as an assistant deacon in a local Anglican church. He was still preoccupied with historical difficulties. He felt that the contention that Catholicity ceases when communion with Rome is lost was very hard to reconcile with the fact that the Catholic Church recognised as saints men who had died out of communion with Rome during the Acacian period. This, he conceded, did not particularly lessen the force of the argument for the papacy but it did allow an interpretation of the contemporary situation analogous to the interpretation of the Acacian episode to which Rome seemed to be committed. 'What seems to me possible,' he wrote to Ramsay on September 15, 1927, 'is that the basic Roman position and her doctrinal pronouncements might be true, and yet the East and the Church of England might be held to be dislocated parts of the one true (Roman) Church, and the way back . . . to be by a corporate movement.'

Throughout the closing months of 1927 he struggled in silence. Then on February 13 of the new year he sent a carefully-worded letter to Abbot Ramsay. He asked if it was possible to define an area outside of which the Catholic Church did not demand from the faithful an unconditional interior assent to authoritative rulings. He was worried, in particular, about the Church's claim to rule on the conscience of Christian writers and on 'dogmatic facts', facts not directly revealed, but connected with the content of Revelation. 'I have not troubled you with letters,' Abbot Ramsay replied, 'as I feel that it is the grace of God, not man's interference, which can put an end to your difficulties. From what you say it would appear that you have made real progress. Two points in your letter give ground for encouragement: (1) You seem to be arriving at a clearer perception that Catholicism is historical Christianity, and that the alternative to this is rationalism. (2) You admit that it is for the Church to decide what falls within the area of authoritative (and infallible) definition. These two points rightly understood and firmly accepted, cover the whole ground.'[4] With regard to pronouncements on the orthodoxy of Christian writers such as St Thérèse of Lisieux, he distinguished between the private mind of an author and his mind as expressed; it was on the latter only that the Church ruled. With regard to dogmatic facts, he argued that the office of protecting the deposit of faith must carry with it the power of teaching certain related facts with authority. How else for example could we know the canon of Scripture?

In March of 1928 Butler reached one firm decision. 'I came to the position,' he recalls, 'that if Christianity were true at all, I couldn't see that there was any form of Christianity other than the Catholic version. I still was not quite sure in my discursive mind that I believed in God, but if Christianity sprang from a universally valid intervention of God in human history, then God could not have so contrived things that the ultimate Christian truth resided in the Anglican solution.' And so he took off his clerical clothes and began to live as a layman.

On March 27 he wrote again to Ramsay. He was finding things very difficult. For some time past at intervals, but especially and continually during the previous ten days, he had been racked by doubts about the Christian revelation in general. He had been continuing to receive Anglican sacraments on the argument that a sheer suspension of all institutional practices seemed contrary to his deepest beliefs, yet he wondered if in conscience he could still continue to do so. On the other hand, many of the pronouncements of Roman authority on such matters as Hell, Our Lady and the Bible caused him acute and unabated difficulty. 'I am like one feeling about in the dark,' he continued, 'and starting off in what he thinks may be the right direction. Perhaps the situation will be clearer to you if I add that my closest friend decided to become a Roman Catholic ten days ago. I spent a good part of this afternoon in a Roman Catholic church. . . . I am very grateful for your prayers and need them very much.'

Abbot Ramsay received this letter at mid-day on March 28, after a night-journey from Ireland. His reply was unequivocal. 'In view of what you tell me, and as you are good enough to ask my advice,' he wrote, 'I have no hesitation as to the answer which I should give to your questions. I think the time has come when you can no longer make use of Anglican sacraments. . . The ground of my advice is not what loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church demands, but the fact that in the matter of sacraments we cannot act on less than certainty, and that certainty for you is morally impossible. I am aware of the grave responsibility which I take in advising you in the above sense. If you are prepared to accept that advice, I think you would be right in coming to Downside and indeed I urge that you do so. Come when you like and stay as long as you like. You will be committed to nothing by coming and you need no assurance that you will be left free to work out your problems with Almighty God without undue interference from anyone. But I am quite clear that you have reached the stage at which it is proper for you to choose a Catholic atmosphere in which to struggle with your difficulties. Anglicanism has had its chance with you and (as far as you are concerned) it has broken down.'[5]

And so, on March 30, Butler arrived on the 4.45 p.m. train to Chilcompton to spend the Easter vacation at the abbey. He arranged to be received as a Roman Catholic on Saturday, April 14. But when the time came he found that he could not go through with it. The Church's apparent attitude towards inspiration, inerrancy and modern biblical scholarship burgeoned into an impossible difficulty; he was closer than we are to the days of the Biblical Commission's reign of terror. So he returned to Brighton and again the whole of Christianity began to be in doubt. In those weeks he was facing the bleak problem of whether he could accept Christianity at all, in view of the apparent obscurantism of that form of Christianity to which he seemed to be driven.

On May 10 he wrote again to Abbot Ramsay. Things again were going badly. His general feeling was that the Christian fact and its evidences seemed tiny in face of the sombre whole of human experience with all of its suffering and sin and godlessness. The doctrine of Hell still troubled him; he had gone to see a priest in London who gave him a brilliant tabloid lecture on the subject, but even eloquence could not remove the thing or make it palatable. On the other hand, he did not feel that the arguments against the Faith were strong enough to justify him in turning his back on Christianity. Perhaps he should ride rough-shod over his difficulties and be received forthwith, praying God to forgive him if he were making a mistake?

Abbot Ramsay thought that Butler should wait; he felt that he was at the time in an undue state of tension and that it would be most unwise to take any major step while in that condition. On May 20 Butler wrote again. He was longing to be inside the Church and to receive the sacraments; he looked to this to give him the stability he needed. In some ways the hardest thing to talk about was belief in God. On the whole, he kept returning to the position that a theistic philosophy was the most rational. The First Mover argument of St Thomas seemed to probe deeper than the objections which could be raised against it. Furthermore, the moral argument seemed to hold good, and the appalling mystery of evil seemed less damaging to Theism than the moral imperative was to any non-theistic position. The great temptation, of course, was to agnosticism, but he was inclined to think that agnosticism was fairly met by the twin facts of the categoric, absolute character of duty, and by the actuality of religion as a positive efflorescence of personality in the prophets and saints. But he could never feel certain of his position in the same way that he was certain of a friend's love.

As for Christianity-Catholicism, he felt he could honestly hold that Christianity was the highest and deepest of religions. Indeed, in its faith in the Incarnation it seemed to have reached not merely to a comparatively higher position, but to a sort of telos. And, in innumerable deep ways, Catholicism seemed to ring true. 'There are elements in the Church's teaching,' he wrote, 'which seem to me profoundly hard of acceptance, but they are, on the whole, I think, not the sort of snags which one can imagine God to rely on for dissuading men from taking a false step. If a religion were untrue, God surely wouldn't let it seem profoundly true in every respect save over (let us say) the Virgin Birth. He would give us grounds more relative than that.'

Perhaps the apparent superiority of Christianity among extant religions was merely an illusion of our pervasively Christianised European minds? He honestly did not think so. There must be something in the final religion, he felt, which absolves men from further search and enables them to say: This, if it can substantiate its claim, is what we are looking for. Such an absolute finality seemed to be forthcoming if the Incarnation was a reality.

Abbot Ramsay replied that Butler's difficulties seemed to cover the whole ground, yet at each stage he admitted that reasons for belief predominated.[6] 'My reading of the situation is this,' he said. 'You have a very active mind and the tension of the present crisis, working upon a marked tendency to intellectual scrupulosity, has caused the will, for the time being, to lose proper control of your mental operations. Reasons for and reasons against are crowding into your mind and dashing against each other, and the will is not working in such a way as to put them in their proper place and to force a decision. You must try to be master in your own house. You must endeavour to show the calmness and firmness of a judge on the bench.' He reminded Butler of an old point of Newman's'”that with regard to Christianity, it was mathematical, not moral demonstration that is impossible. 'The latter kind of demonstration,' he continued, 'is sufficient basis for the fullest certainty and has to serve us in most of the important things of life. My advice is that you should try to get order in the processes of your mind; that you should, by the exercise of your will, force your reason to face the essential points one by one, and to register a decision on (1) God, (2) Revelation in the Incarnation, and (3) the Church.' And when he had done so he should not fail to distinguish between the registered decisions of reason and the consolation or otherwise which he might experience in the region of feeling.

On the morning of Thursday, May 31, 1928, Butler faced up to the three questions. Again, he eliminated agnosticism as a viable solution. He went through a difficult time over the question of God, but decided that experience presupposed an Eternal Reality which is Perfect Being, and that things within our experience, in the measure of their perfection, approach to the nature of the Eternal Reality. Personality and goodness are the most deeply real of our experiences and there seemed to be no doubt that, in treating of the Eternal Reality as infinitely personal and absolutely good, we approach nearer to his nature than by denying him these characteristics. He dealt with the questions of Christ's divinity and of the Church's divine mission almost out of hand. In neither case was the evidence intellectually irresistible, but in each case it was far too strong to make a convinced negative reasonable. With regard to his old problem regarding the Church and biblical scholarship, he made an act of faith that since the Church was true, its real doctrine on Scripture must be compatible with the truths discovered by modern scholarship.

He went into a church and said a Credo and a Gloria. He became a Roman Catholic at Downside in June, 1928, and was received in mental suffering and spiritual blankness. It would be over a year before his new faith brought him any consolation.

After his reception as a Roman Catholic, Basil Butler found a post as a Classics master at Downside school and began to teach there in September of 1928. It was a time for decision-making. He was quite certain that school-teaching was to be merely a temporary arrangement, and already felt that he wanted to be ordained; the essential decision was between the monastic life and the secular priesthood. His friend Martin Hancock opted for the latter and arranged to go to the seminary of S. Sulpice. 'My wishes are urging me to be a secular,' Butler wrote him in January of 1929, 'and are repelling me from monkery; at the same time I am anxious not to be led off the track by mere wishes; and when I get below the region of wishes I am rather in the dark as to what line to take.'[7]

It was perhaps loyalty to Newman which brought him to Birmingham to investigate the Oratory during the Easter vacation of 1929. He was shown Newman's wig; the dead hand of the old man seemed to weigh like lead over everything; he thought the country house of the congregation was 'musty in excelsis'. So he returned to Downside.[8]

In weighing the claims of the monastic life he was influenced by the relative freedom which it would afford for intellectual work and by the consideration that it seemed closer to the Gospel ideal of perfection, provided that one was free to enter it and was capable of living with its demands. In spite of the personal disinclination involved, the final decision seems to have come rather easily. 'I have decided in favour of Downside,' he wrote to Martin Hancock on April, 1929. 'I spent some time before the Blessed Sacrament on Tuesday afternoon, and meant to settle it all yesterday, but went to the pictures instead. This morning I went into Church about eleven o'clock and had a colossal think. I decided that my advisers more or less cancelled out... What remained was the fact that I had for so long had the idea of being a monk in my mind and that as things turned out I have been brought into close contact with Downside... So in the end I let that turn the scale.'

He entered the novitiate at Downside in September of 1929 and took the name of Christopher. He began to study theology again; in view of his previous studies the normal period of preparation for the priesthood was reduced from six years to three. He found the life of the monastery congenial. On October 12 he wrote to Martin Hancock: 'I am certain that it brings real peace to know that everything except sin is a means of union with God, and is in fact a mode or occasion of union.' The following February he could write: 'You know, I am getting back the old desire to become holy. It seems to me the one thing in life of which the value is certain.' A year later he felt that all that mattered was that one take one's religion literally. 'Let us pray for each other,' he wrote on March 5, 1931, 'that we may have courage and grace to stake all our money on Christ as the actual lord of our lives and will within our wills.' He began to write for the Downside Review and experienced a certain conflict of allegiance between philosophy and scripture. He concluded that his philosophic powers were not as great as his philosophic passion, whereas he had a fair amount of faith in his capacities for biblical scholarship; furthermore, this activity also fitted in well with Benedictinism and the spiritual life.[9]

He was ordained priest in the summer of 1933 and for the following six years he taught Classics at Downside school and Scripture to the young monks at the abbey. He continued to write. Two years after his ordination he went through a difficult time. On September 18, 1935, he wrote: 'I am in such '˜darkness' as never was'”though darkness is not quite the word, for it is rather as though the whole spiritual universe has dissolved into thin air and left one with the daily paper and one's sausage and mash. The angels must think us very weird, mustn't they?' The chores of teaching provided a lifeline. 'School started the week before last,' he wrote on January 26, 1936, 'and as I hoped it is working. . . . I pass my time between the sane paganism of my school life and the mad misery of the holidays.' A year later he was still in travail. On reading a prayer-book for boys by a fellow-Benedictine he would write: 'I felt rather like weeping when I saw it, since it brought home to me how my own days have declined like a shadow, my bones grown dry like fuel for the fire.'[10]

By April of 1937 he was buoyant again, doing a little Homer, 'enjoying'  the Synoptic problem, and talking philosophy and theology with Fr. Mark Pontifex and Br. Illtyd Trethowan. In face of the gathering European crisis he became involved with Catholic Action. He declared that politically he was neither a Fascist nor a Communist; the only signum victoriae was the Cross, even if it brought martyrdom. The Church, he felt, should ask much of the laity since 'the need to sacrifice one's self, all that is deepest in one, is really a far more tremendous need than the need for food and drink and justice.'[11] In December of 1939, he became headmaster of Downside school and continued in that post until 1946. He was happy in the work; it was an anodyne in time of war to be involved in the eternal problems of youth. Life was busy and the stream of articles dried up completely.

Christopher Butler was elected Abbot of Downside in 1946 and was re-elected in 1954 and 1962. When he became Abbot he returned to his writing and began a systematic study of modern Continental theology. He published six books: The Originality of St. Matthew (1951), The Church and infallibility (1954), Why Christ? and The Church and the Bible (1960), Prayer in Practice (1961), and The Idea of the Church (1962). In 1961 he became President of the English Benedictine Congregation and in that capacity came to the Second Vatican Council.

He experienced the Council as a profound education. He was surprised to find that the Church as a whole was much further to the left than he had imagined it to be. He was particularly impressed by the Uniate Churches. Previously he had met them only on the pages of books; now he found that these churches, so limited in numbers, are a standard witness to the world that Catholicism is something larger than Latinism. His Anglican background enabled him to contribute non-Roman theological insights and was particularly relevant in an assembly which sought for Christian re-union; his life-long concern with the Scriptures assured the biblical scholars of a champion. During the second session he became a member of the influential Theological Commission.

In December of 1966 Abbot Butler accepted appointment as Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, and assumed particular responsibility for the fifty-one parishes in Hertfordshire. He was already familiar with pastoral work since the abbey at Downside had the care of several parishes. He serves on the Commissions for Theology and Ecumenism of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales. As bishop he is in daily contact with the flux of events and has found a new appreciation for history as it is being made in all its particularity. Though there is less opportunity than in the monastery for reflection he has been able to complete three new books, The Theology of Vatican II (1967), In the Light of the Council (1968), and A Time to Speak (1972).


Bishop Butler returned from the Council with a conviction that its impetus must be sustained. The contemporary Church is still in crisis. The Council gave voice to pressures and dissatisfactions within the Church and it achieved almost miraculous results. However, the work which it initiated must be brought to completion. And here he professes to be profoundly troubled. At the Council the progressives carried the centre with them by an exercise of holy rhetoric; when these same bishops of the centre are immersed again in the work of their dioceses there is a serious danger that they will succumb to the pressure of traditional associations.

And so the future of the Church is still in doubt. Bishop Butler likes to illustrate its predicament by means of an analogy. In the twentieth century the situation of the Church is like that of a biological species when the moment has come for a new step forward in evolution. When significant changes have occurred in the environment a species is faced with an existential crisis and it may respond in one of three possible ways. It can make itself plastic to the new situation, introducing change and modification within itself, while maintaining only its basic identity intact. Alternatively, it can refuse the challenge and entrench itself ever more firmly within its traditional structures and patterns. It will then go to the wall and perish, and future scholars may one day discover its fossilised bones in the ground. Faith teaches us that this cannot happen to the Church; we have a divine guarantee that it will not perish. But there is a third possibility for a biological species: it can flee from the challenge and take refuge on the borders of natural history, like a blind fish on the floor of the Indian Ocean. And this, he believes is a very real peril for the Catholic Church. 'We have a guarantee from God,' he has stated, 'that the Church will not cease to exist. We have no guarantee that it will not become so irrelevant to the human race that it survives, like the religion of Tibet, only on the margin of the real history of mankind.'

The fundamental issue is therefore one of relevance. If the Church is to be relevant to contemporary man and to man of the future it must undertake a process of adaptation in depth. And central to this work must be the elaboration of a new and deepened theology. He believes that the traditional manual theology—on which indeed perhaps the majority of the Church's ministers have been nourished—is no longer adequate. Despite the insights which it enshrines, it has been unduly shaped over the centuries by the twin pressures of Canon Law and medieval thought.

Bishop Butler deplores the situation which has frequently obtained in which Canon Law seemed to control theology. Too many churchmen, he feels, still look at their theology through spectacles of Canon Law rather than adopting the more Christian stance of looking at their Canon Law through spectacles of theology. Canon Law busies itself with exact propositional formulations; it proceeds by deductive methods and allows for exceptions. Its influence has tended to produce a propositional theology, proceeding by deductive means and leaving a number of loose incoherencies at the periphery which have to be allowed for by exceptions. This, he feels, is absolutely alien to the spirit of the Bible and to the spirit of a religion whose revelation consists in an Incarnation of the Word of God.

The restrictive influence of medieval categories is not the responsibility of the men who created the medieval synthesis. The scholastics, in developing a theology, set out from the Bible and tried to intellectualise the evidence which it presented. They conceived of theology as the rational explication of the data of revelation and they were faithful, on the whole, to the principle that philosophy is the servant of theology. In the course of time, however, there has developed a tendency to accept the completed philosophical theology as the starting point. As a result, he insists, the biblical data are partly distorted, partly rejected and omitted, and the criterion of orthodoxy has been the finished product of the medieval synthesis. Very frequently, the traditional theologian is operating within an essentially philosophical framework of thought and, as a result, it is generally the Bible which has to bow to his philosophy.

There must therefore be a return to Christian origins, and the new theology must be a biblical theology. 'We must begin by admitting with St Ambrose,' Bishop Butler states, 'that God has not chosen to reveal himself by a propositional revelation; he has chosen an historical method, and has revealed himself through the historical person of Christ. The right world of discourse, therefore, in which to approach the question of theology, is not that provided by the Hellenic scholastic philosophy, with its non-historical orthodoxy, but the world of discourse provided by the modern study of history. Now the whole of this is uncongenial to a mind which has been formed by the scholastic system. It must all sound terribly vague, because the method of history is not deduction but a convergence of probabilities. It is a trial and error approach, which seems terribly untidy intellectually. Nevertheless, I think it is the kind of approach which is appropriate for a religion which is incarnated in history. We've been trying for too long to stretch Christianity on a procrustean bed of Hellenic categories and concepts.'

He differs from many progressive theologians, however, in his conviction that it is not sufficient merely to elaborate a biblical theology. The human mind asks philosophical questions; it reaches toward synthesis. Accordingly, he feels it will be necessary to create a new Scholasticism from the mating of a deepened philosophy with the insights of biblical scholarship. And he thinks that the philosophy for a new and open synthesis is at hand in the philosophy of Bernard Lonergan.


For much of his lifetime Bishop Butler has been engaged on such a programme of new theological beginnings; many of the articles in the present volume are such searchings in theology. These articles span a period of forty years and range from his first published piece of writing to an epilogue written in the wake of the Council. They have appeared in a variety of publications; some may be difficult of access to the general reader. The studies are reproduced here substantially in their original form; occasional minor alterations have been made principally to rationalise conventions and to eliminate dated references.

The articles are broadly representative of Butler's thought over the period of his published work. Over the years one can discern a variation of tone, from the rather ultra-Catholic stand of the earlier pieces to the confident and mellow Butler of later years. There is also a diversity of approach. Some of these pieces are unashamedly academic and technical; others are aimed at a wider public. There is also considerable variation in subject-matter; indeed, it was tempting to compile from the corpus of available material separate collections of scriptural studies, of philosophical pieces, of commentaries and book reviews. No doubt this work will some day be accomplished. However, there seemed room at the present time for a collection which, were the subject-matter of a lighter nature, might be termed The Best of Butler.

The editor has therefore sought to identify some of the more important studies without regard to type, and the selection has been approved by the author. There was, of course, a considerable problem of ordering. The articles could conceivably be grouped by theme and category; however, themes overflow from one composition to another and categories could be over-rigid. It seemed best in the end to place the studies in chronological order, attaching the date of composition. This would help to situate them in context and would clarify any development in thought that had taken place over the years.

Beneath the surface diversity of these studies there is, however, an underlying unity of concern. There are two unifying principles'”the particular biographical experiences of the author and his emphasis on the necessity for a theological return to the Bible. The second principle is, of course, a product of the first. And very frequently both are operating together.

The first article in the book, 'The Christian Eucharist and the Mystery Religions', is a product of Bishop Butler's Oxford years. 'The Absurd and John Chapman' flows from his experience as a Benedictine; it is an analysis of the spirituality of a former Abbot of Downside. The pieces on the Council issue from one of the most important phases in his life and manifest his present involvement with aggiornamento and Christian unity.

The biblical emphasis, on the other hand, yields first of all several general articles on the Bible. 'The Catholic Faith and the Bible', for example, tackles the problem of the role of the Bible in the Roman Catholic Church, and may serve as an introduction to his book on the subject. 'The Priority of St Matthew's Gospel' is a convenient summary of a central Butler thesis which receives extended treatment in a separate volume. And 'Collective Bias and the Gospels' levels a serious charge against a consensus of contemporary biblical scholarship.

The remaining articles constitute, in terms of volume, the major part of the book. By and large, they bring together existential concerns and analysis of the scriptures: Bishop Butler searches the data of revelation for fresh insight into theological problems, particularly those problems with which he wrestled on his way into the Church. The problem of authority in religious matters was a considerable stumbling-block to the young Butler; in 'Authority and the New Testament' he seeks for a scriptural solution. The growth of religious dogmas had occasioned him considerable difficulty; more than once he returns to Newman's theory of development. 'Spirit and Institution in the New Testament' is perhaps the most technically mature statement in the whole collection. It reflects the author's longstanding preoccupation with the problem of the institutional nature of the Church, and returns to what von Hügel told the young Oxford tutor many years before, that the mystical element in religion must be disciplined and contained by the structures of formal institutions. Through an analysis of the New Testament Bishop Butler discerns this conjunction of spirit and institution at the heart of the original Christian deposit.

Another central and related theme is to be found in 'One Aspect of the Christian Fact' and in 'The Meaning of History'. We must distinguish between the incarnational and the eschatological aspects of Christianity, he says, and it is imperative that we should not emphasise either to the exclusion of the other. Rather, we must recognise them as two co-penetrating elements of the one reality, and 'the key to the understanding of Christianity is precisely this conviction that the beatific future of redeemed humanity is already contained, though not exhausted, in its militant presence.'

Concern with the nature of the Church inevitably leads to concern for Church unity. Three studies in the present collection deal specifically with ecumenism; they are 'Unification', 'The Unity of the Church', and 'The Constitution on the Church and Christian Reunion'. They manifest a development in thought, from the detached and philosophical tone of the first to the pragmatic optimism of the last. Though the context of 'The Unity of the Church' is pre-conciliar, the article is significant for containing the first articulation of an idea which Bishop Butler would later develop in A Time to Speak'”his suggestion that doctrinal reunion must involve the quest not for a Highest Common Factor but for a Least Common Multiple which, by integrating all that was positive in the various traditions, would yield a synthesis richer than that of any tradition taken on its own.

Finally, there are those essays which are concerned with the ultimate basis of all Christian involvement'”faith. 'Belief and Reason' explores the notion of faith from a philosophical standpoint and manifests the unmistakable influence of Bernard Lonergan. And 'Joy in Believing' accepts both the mystery and the experience of religious faith in the second half of the twentieth century.

As editor of this collection I wish to thank Bishop Butler for the privilege of working with his materials. The idea for the book was Michael Glazier's; throughout the progress of the work he has never failed to provide encouragement and support. And I wish to express to Miss Vera Burke and to my wife, Ellen, my sincere gratitude for their assistance in the preparation of the manuscript.

Trinity College, Dublin
Valentine Rice


[1] Except where otherwise indicated, reported statements and biographical data in this Introduction are based on tape-recorded conversations which are in the possession of the editor [Valenine Rice]. For a more extended biographical account see my Dom Christopher Butler, No. 15 in the series Men Who Make the Council (University of Notre Dame Press, 1965).

[2] June 26, 1927. The editor is grateful to Bishop Butler for placing this significant correspondence at his disposal.

[3] The paper is reproduced in this collection by courtesy of the Church Literature Association. It was Bishop Butler's first published work.

[4] February 20, 1928.

[5] March 28, 1928

[6] May 20, 1928

[7] I am grateful to Bishop Butler and to Canon Martin Hancock for allowing me to quote from their correspondence during this period.

[8] Letter written on Wednesday of Easter Week, 1929.

[9] Letter of April 29, 1932

[10] December 20, 1936

[11] September 29,1937


Acknowledgement is gratefully made to the owners of copyright for permission to reprint the following studies:

'The Christian Eucharist and the Mystery Religions', originally published as 'Christianity and the Mystery Religions', Report of the Anglo-Catholic Congress, 1927. London: Society of SS. Peter and Paul, 1929.

'One Aspect of the Christian Fact', Downside Review, Vol. LV, January 1937.

'Unification', Downside Review, Vol. LV, April 1937.

'Authority in the New Testament', Downside Review, Vol. LVII, October 1939.

'The Priority of St. Matthew's Gospel', Downside Review, Vol. LXV, April 1947.

'The Duality of History', originally published as 'The Value of History', Downside Review, Vol. LXVIII, July 1950.

'The Unity of the Church', Blackfriars (now New Blackfriars), 1950.

'The Catholic Faith and the Bible', Downside Review, Vol. LXXV, Spring 1957.

'Newman and Development', originally published as 'The Significance of Newman Today', Dublin Review, Vol. CCXXXIII, Winter 1959.

'The Absurd and John Chapman', originally published as 'English Spiritual Writers: John Chapman', The Clergy Review, Vol. XLIV, November 1959.

'The Object of Faith According to St. Paul's Epistles', Extractum ex Studiorum Paulinorum Congressus Internationalis Catholicus, 1961. Romae: E Pontifico Instituto Biblica, 1963.

'Spirit and Institution in the New Testament', London: A. W. Mowbray, 1961.

'Collective Bias and the Gospels', Downside Review, Vol. LXXX, October 1962, and Vol. LXXXI, January 1963.

'The Constitution on the Church and Christian Reunion', Downside Review, Vol. LXXXIII, April 1965.

'Belief and Reason in Science and Religion', originally published as 'Belief in Science and Reason in Religion', Downside Review, LXXXIV, January 1966.

'The Aggiornamento of Vatican II', Vatican 11'”An Interfaith Appraisal, ed. John H. Miller, Notre Dame and London: C.S.C. University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.

'Joy in Believing', The Tablet, Vol. CCXX, February 5, 1966.