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

Bishop Butler - A Voice for Change

by Arthur Wells

BISHOP CHRISTOPHER BUTLER was and remains one of the most significant English Christians of modern times. A polymath of outstanding intellect, he became a significant theologian and, well before the Council, he was questioning Catholic scholarship in these islands:

What contribution is English Catholicism making ... in our century to the general progress of studies? ...Why are we so poverty stricken?
(Dublin Review, 1958,
No. 476, pp.1 17-18)

Butler was then concerned mainly with Scripture, but it was largely true across the theological board, being one result of our Catholic history. Before Henry VIII's break with Rome, England was abreast of Europe in higher studies. Erasmus taught at Cambridge with Fisher and included Colet and More among his friends. But the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 was heralded by Wiseman's triumphal From Without the Flaminian Gate followed by the ultramontanism of Manning. Both men and attitudes were, however, of their time, with Romanism 'obligatory'. Butler later drily wrote of: 'that curious presumption that Canon Law dictates theology's terms rather than vice versa'.[1]

The English situation became clear in Derek Worlock's account of our hierarchy in Rome for the Council. During a meeting in the Venerabile in 1962. Heenan, then Archbishop of Liverpool, offended many of his brothers by proposing Abbot Butler for the doctrinal commission because: 'We haven't any theologians in the hierarchy.[2] Worlock described it as a 'bombshell', and Butler was acutely embarrassed. Cardinal Godfrey had doubted whether Butler, as an abbot, should even be invited to join the bishops' discussions. But that incident may have been the beginning of the fruitful working relationship that reflected great credit on both Heenan and Butler: they were the most likely successors to Westminster when Godfrey died in early 1963. Not being a bishop, Butler was the less likely, but the evidence shows that each knew that Butler might have been appointed to Westminster rather than Heenan.

A brief biography

Basil Edward (Christopher in religion) Butler was the third of six children in a devout High Anglican family. Limited family resources meant that scholarships were needed for the substantial education each received. Siblings, Miss Butler and Archdeacon C.H. Butler stress that Basil was exceptional. His scholarship to Reading School was won two years earlier than normal and only the return of men from the Great War prevented his taking up his scholarship to St John's. Oxford. before 1920. He gained a triple first (Mods. Greats, Theology), was appointed theological tutor at Keble, ordained deacon and thus seemed set for a brilliant career in the Church of England. His painful conversion to Roman Catholicism is told in his own A Time to Speak. His approach to truth and his personal piety explain much of his subsequent influence. Butler entered Downside (1929) and was already an abbot and scholar of distinction when, at the age of 60 he was called to Rome as a full member of the Second Vatican Council. This followed from his election (1961) as Abbot-President of the English Benedictine Congregation. His abbatial and presidential duties remained demanding throughout the Council: one, piquantly enough, was to preside at the election and to install Basil Hume as Abbot of Ampleforth.

The Westminster effect (and the lack of it)

Had Butler succeeded to Westminster, he would have come under detailed scrutiny while in office and a biography would have been near-automatic and not still awaited. However, Newman was long in shadow, and, almost incredibly, the first symposium on him in England took place only in 1967. Fittingly. the final paper was given by Butler on 'Newman and the Second Vatican Council'.

Comparison has been drawn between Butler and Newman, but that is a separate study, save perhaps for: 'Some had hoped that Butler's distinction might be recognised, like Newman's, by a red hat in old age.' The same authors referred to Butler's consideration for Westminster in 1963:

The ... illnesses of nearly all the twentieth-century archbishops of Westminster paralysed the Church repeatedly. With Heenan's death the succession was perhaps more crucial than ever. One name which had been canvassed in 1963 was the intellectually outstanding former abbot of Downside. Christopher Butler whose contributions to the Second Vatican Council had been the most significant of any Anglophone participant, but in 1975 he was already in his seventies and perhaps suspect in Rome for his forthright comments in 1968 about Humanae Vitae.[3]

On Cardinal Hume's untimely death in 1999 the press speculated on the succession. Reviewing the past. The Tablet usefully took the occasion to expand the picture in 1963:

The Tablet can now reveal Pope Paul VI's own choice for Westminster was not in fact Heenan at all, but Christopher Butler, the Benedictine monk who, as Abbot of Downside and Abbot-President of the English Benedictine Congregation, had so impressed the Pope by his contributions to the Second Vatican Council. The Latin documents confirming Butler's appointment had been drawn up. At the last moment Cardinal Villot, Secretary of State [sic] persuaded the Pope to change his mind. Villot had been Heenan's seminary teacher and thought he would be just the man for Westminster (The Tablet, 12 December 2000, p.189).

That was, of course, during the Council. A fellow monk said later: 'Christopher Butler and the Second Vatican Council were made for each other', and it was Butler's impact, early in the first session, which attracted such senior attention. But Butler had long been a member of the hierarchy when he wrote:

The instrument [the Curia] which exists to serve him [the pope] can, in fact, enmesh him in an almost unbreakable web.

Aware of an unfair cloud concerning Humanae Vitae, Butler knew also at the time of Heenan's death of the discomfort his candidature caused in Rome. But in confiding his thoughts privately in 1975, he added: 'I hope they won't get me second time round!' Any suspicion of his orthodoxy was, of course, preposterous. According to a monk of Downside:

[He] 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.[4]

He was later made a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which he found ironic, but took the duties seriously. However, before returning to the Council, it is necessary to view Butler's even earlier work.

Butler's work prefiguring the Council

In his early days Butler was subject to many influences, but, in particular, he had been indebted as a scholar to Newman, in prayer to de Caussade and in both to von Hügel. His basic scholarship was mainly scriptural, resulting in some early works. In 1960 his The Church and the Bible was invaluable preparation for the Council's work on Revelation. Other early works prepared Butler for the debate 'On the Church' and his The Idea of the Church (1962) strikingly prefigures Lumen Gentium.

Butler in the Council

Arriving in Rome, Butler found himself in company with many others who to his surprise shared his own views about the needs of the Church. He was among that handful of experts (periti) who were also full voting members. Quite early he had been sufficiently recognised to be voted onto the key doctrinal Theology Commission by the Council Fathers. He was thus able to speak in the aula, not only with his own voice and insights, but also with the assimilated knowledge and wisdom of his eminent Commission colleagues, recalling that the periti had no voice in the aula itself. Butler spoke fluent Latin, knew exactly what was afoot and his contributions were widely understood. The series of 'Character Portraits' of 24 'Men Who Make the Council',[5] placed him among just one per cent of the leading Fathers in Rome. All but two were cardinals or archbishops: just one 'mere' bishop and one religious superior-general: Abbot Butler. The records confirm that Butler's significance was clearly established in St Peter's. To his personal disadvantage, perhaps, he did little 'networking'. He preferred to prepare, contributing notably to three of the four major Dogmatic Constitutions: 'On Revelation' (Dei Verbum), 'On the Church' (Lumen Gentium) and 'On the Church in the Modem World' (Gaudium et Spes). For the last of these he was among the leaders in wrestling with issues of justice and peace in an unequal and a terrifying new nuclear world. But he was not alone in considering Del Verbum as the key-stone of Vatican II.

Butler and the debate on Revelation

The source of Revelation was the most basic issue and was of deep concern to Abbot Butler – without secure revelation there is no Church. Ne timeamus quod veritas veritati noceat, was the striking phrase from one of Butler's speeches in the debate. The thrust of the phrase is: 'Let us not fear that truth can endanger truth.' It reflects his principles and owes much, no doubt, to St John's 'The truth. after alL cannot give birth to a lie' (I John 2, Knox). The first drafts of De Revelatione given to the Council took little account of the recent scholarship encouraged by Pius Xli's Divina Afflante Spiritu. Stress on two sources of Revelation: Scripture and Tradition—with a tilt to Tradition—had been a reaction to the Reformers' Sola Scriptura. The Council resolved this issue in the most secure, yet most open, way possible: the one source of Revelation is Christ himself. Christ is 'The message as well as the messenger'.[6] Butler's role in Del Verbum is noted in this private letter:

We are to have a meeting of the Doctrinal Commission this week, when we shall begin to deal with the final suggestions for improving the document on Revelation. I shall be immensely relieved if this document is passed in a satisfactory form ... in this Council, we are in transition from the old to the new and the new is, so to speak, only half-born, while the old is only half-dead – if you see what I mean! (25 September 1965).

Almost a month later, however, his concern reappeared more strongly:

One of my main anxieties at present is about the Revelation document. As it stands it is, on the whole, very good; ... but there is a hard core of opposition to it.

And then after his four years of intense effort at the heart of the Council he writes: 'The "winding up" process is a bit tiresome ... since the De Revelatione is the only remaining open issue that I am passionately concerned about' (To Mary Butler, 18 October 1965).

The eventual Dei Verbum was largely as Butler hoped.

Council objectives and achievements

Shortly before the Council closed, Butler gave his sister an assessment of achievements and included:

The Roman Catholic people in England have, so far, only a very shadowy and imperfect idea of what it all means – they are pre-occupied with little changes in Mass ceremonies etc. To me the Council is potentially one of the biggest things that has happened in the Church since 1054. But so many people, even if they have been members of the Council don't seem to see it. It is rather like the question of appreciating the real significance of the New Testament: some people see nothing but a host of critical questions, while for others it is the splendour of a tremendous revelation (26 October 1965).

Pope John's aspirations for the Council were a renewal of the Church (aggiornamento), thus easing a return to Christian unity, while maintaining essential truths:

The greatest concern of the ecumenical Council is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more effectively. (John XXIII, 11 October 1962).

Butler's hopes rose with the Pope's speech and during the Council, but as to the subsequent achievement of aggiornamento, his anxieties grew with time. The evidence and reason for this would need separate treatment, but Pope John Paul II himself has asked for an examination of conscience on a certain neglect of the Council.

Recalling Bishop Butler

It is rare these days that Dom Christopher is now readily called to mind. To help remedy that, a symposium was mounted at Heythrop College on 12 October 2002. With the Principal, it had the patronage of the Abbot of Downside and of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster who gave the opening address. This event neatly celebrated both the centenary year of Butler's birth and the 40th anniversary of Pope John's opening of the Council. Six experts spoke, including two Council Fathers, now a rare breed.

Over 200 attended. For a new generation, perhaps it is not superfluous to further emphasise Butler's significance and a considerable breadth of testimony could be offered. One of the weightier comments came from the late Professor Adrian Hastings:

He would now increasingly come forward as the one senior English voice, at once unimpeachably loyal to Rome. yet cognizant of the full weight of contemporary theological scholarship and able to shake himself free of the simplicities of ultramontanism.[7]

Nevertheless, Butler always attached considerable significance to authority:

..without the counterpoise of an ecclesiastical authority which ... could rightly claim to speak for Christ my critical leanings could take uncontrolled possession...[8]

However, as with Newman, authority must respect conscience. Authority in relation to conscience was the core of Butler's comment when asked in 1968 to be spokesman for the hierarchy in the wake of Humanae Vitae. It might, perhaps, have deprived him of regard in Rome and a red hat, but he kept many priests and people in the Church.

In conclusion

The core of this study is that Butler was a very important historical figure. The Canadian Bishop R.J. De Roo, himself a Council Father, asserted:

I would without hesitation rate him as the outstanding English-speaking theologian at Vatican II and in several ways as an authentic precursor of the Council (Downside Review. January 2003 p.66).

Bishop De Roo concluded: 'Pope John Paul II has repeatedly affirmed that Vatican II is a sure compass to guide the entire Church into the future... Catholic leaders in our faith community will find no more reliable guide than Christopher Butler.'

Butler always retained his early concern about implementation of the Council:

The question remains, of course, how soon and how thoroughly it [Council teaching] will be put into operation. That is one of my major concerns now: how far the Council's work is going to be made fruitful in the post-conciliar Church (to Miss Mary Butler, 1965).

Book JacketOrdained bishop in 1966, Butler was popular among priests and not just in Westminster diocese; the many lay people he worked with and encouraged were equally enthusiastic, perhaps unsurprisingly, for he wrote: 'The question is not: What is a layman? but What is a Christian? A different image of the Church results.'[9]  His later work included many significant articles interpreting the Council, but if no other writing of Butler's survived, it would be essential to preserve The Theology of Vatican II (1967. 1981) and A Time to Speak (1972). When Butler died in 1986 the then usually understated The Times wrote: 'An intellectual giant'; The Sunday Telegraph: 'a true reformer' and other tributes poured in. Perhaps the most movingly accurate came from the late Bishop Alan Clark:

His love, a real passion for truth, one of the most loveable men I have ever encountered. It is not given to many to sit for so long at the feet of a Master in Israel.'[10]

How to rank Butler? Whether or not Butler is the successor of Newman and Von Hügel: sadly perhaps, few may think it matters but, equally, today those who believe that the world needs the Church, may also believe that we need Butler's intellect, breadth and balance. He combined these qualities with his concern for tradition, but with realism about the present and for the future, perhaps with more foresight even than Newman. Recalling Newman's late recognition, we may hope that Butler's recognition is soon to come.



[1]     B.C. Butler, A Time to Speak, Southend: Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1972, p.145.   

[2]     C. Longley, The Worlock Archive, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 2000, p.88.

[3]     D. Bellenger and S. Fletcher. Princes of the Church: a History of English Cardinals, Stroud: Sutton Publishing, p.164.

[4]     Daniel Rees OSB to author. A senior monk of Downside, Rees was a student in Rome throughout the Council. Living in Sant'Anselmo, where Butler lodged, he was in an unrivalled position to observe both Butler and the Council.

[5]     Pamphlet by Professor J.V. Rice, Notre Dame series of 24 portraits (South Bend, Indiana: Notre Dame, 1965).

[6]     Canadian Bishop Remi de Roo, sermon in Westminster Cathedral, 13 October 2002.

[7]     Adrian Hastings, A History of English Catholicism, London: SCM, 1991, p.565.

[8]     A Time to Speak, p.139.

[9]     B.C. Butler, In the Light of the Council, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1969, p.63.

[10]   From a collection of obituary memorials published by St Edmund's College. May 1987, pp. 15, 16. Butler had been President of the College.