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

Preface to Bishop Butler's Writing

By Arthur Wells

As they are out of print, it is hardly realistic to recommend Butler's books for reading. The same applies to his multiple articles so that the best that can be done here is to reproduce examples. Simply for practical reasons, these are sadly limited, but we may be grateful for the internet and for current technology. Here we offer Bishop Butler's writing on the Second Vatican Council, but there is much else which should be re-published in order to demonstrate the breadth of his scope and vision - not least on prayer.

Butler's words reproduced under his picture on the website masthead Let us not fear that truth might endanger truth—delivered in Latin of course—were a guiding principle of his life. Another Council Father, Bishop Remi De Roo, who heard them as delivered in St Peter's, recommended that they be central to any study on the work of Christopher Butler. They have become the lodestar of this website. We are now able to re-publish his contribution in the immediate aftermath of the Council: an address which he gave at an important symposium on 'Newman and the Second Vatican Council'. The list of twelve distinguished speakers was headed by The Most Rev. Dr A.M. Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury and by Bishop Butler himself.

It may be noted that that symposium in 1966 was a significant ecumenical event and that the fifty members of the symposium from Europe and North America included The Most Rev. H. E. Cardinale, Apostolic Delegate to Great Britain and the Most Rev. G. P. Dwyer, Archbishop of Birmingham.

While only a fraction of Bishop Butler's output can be recorded in this website, attention is drawn to the bibliography of over four hundred items. This preface touches now on some of the Council matters with which Butler was deeply concerned, beginning with freedom of scholarship, followed by a note on the Council context in which he found himself in Rome and where many of his convictions were reinforced and much of his future apostolate was formed.

This context, albeit in barest outline, is necessary for an understanding of the Council and for some of Butler's further writing which will be published in future editions.

Freedom of Scholarship

The masthead words Let us not fear that truth might endanger truth were spoken in the debate on Revelation. Both Scripture and the essentially related tradition were of abiding concern to Butler since his Oxford days, as he himself relates. The context of his speech in the aula was freedom of scholarship in biblical studies—a freedom certainly not taken for granted in the Catholic Church before Vatican II. Forty years on, much theological study remains under centralised control. However in Scripture the freedom for exegesis won by those Council Fathers and periti (experts) who were Scripture scholars has remained substantially unhampered. While, for example, stressing the potential danger of the historico-critical method in the hands of unbelievers, the then Abbot Butler was in the van of the movement for free scriptural study; this was of a piece with his passion for truth. A monk of Downside writes: '... Butler was aware... that in scripture studies it was very hard to do justice at the same time to the literal meaning, the object of historico-critical methods, and to the spiritual meaning, the relationship of the whole bible to Christ and the life of the Christians.” (Letter to the author, 10 November 2005.) But freedom and accuracy of scholarship are of the essence.

Passion for Truth

An endorsement of the principles which guided Butler and the validity of the masthead quotation are emphasised by a brother bishop, Alan Clark of East Anglia, in a memorial

A giant mind... a passion for truth... one of the most loveable men.

That was the general estimation of those who knew him well.

The Council Organisation and Commissions

Forty years after the event, the significance of the debates cannot adequately be appreciated without some understanding of the Council organisation. In future this website will contain more substantial reference to how that organisation was set up and how it evolved. Only the briefest account is possible here. Pope John could of course in theory have made whatever organisational arrangements he wished, but given his age, and for practical considerations, he had little option but to let the Roman Curia set up the Council Commissions. As a result, the Commission organisation virtually mirrored the organisation of the Roman Curia and the Commissions' principal officers were curial men. The Roman Curia was largely conservative but there was one crucial exception. Cardinal Augustin Bea, the German Jesuit, was appointed directly by Pope John to head the new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. The Secretariat did not become a full commission, however, until after the Council had assembled. Nevertheless, Bea was to prove a powerful influence in helping to 'open' the Council to fresh thinking.

In the Second Session, in 1963, this fresh thinking led, inter alia, to the enlargement of the Theology Commission to include more periti. However, a few more full members, including Butler, were also added; his central and senior position should be explained. He was called to the Council as a Major Religious Superior, having in 1961 been elected President of the English Benedictine Congregation. Additionally he was a significant scholar, and as already mentioned, an expert Latinist. He had made a solid mark in the first session at which, as it happened, he made the last speech (see an account of it). It is noteworthy that the elections [to the Commissions] were by all the Fathers, which confirms the mark Butler had made. The Theology Commission was central, immensely influential, and to it were referred all matters concerning the essence of the faith. Although not yet himself a bishop, Butler was in the innermost committee meetings among the most senior bishops and in discussion with the world's leading theologians including, for example, Rahner, Congar, de Lubac. The theologians fulfilled an immensely valuable role as many, including Butler, testified. Butler had high regard also for the competence of several of the Roman theologians, periti, even though he may not always have concurred with their views. The peritus, (expert) it may be recalled was either formally appointed by the Vatican or officially invited to Rome by a Council Father as his personal adviser. For example, Cardinal König was accompanied by Fr Rahner.

Although accredited to the Council, none of the periti, of whatever persuasion, had a direct voice in the Council hall. The handful, like Butler who were themselves experts in their own right, as it were, but were also full members, were able to speak in the debates. Butler, therefore, spoke on the basis of his own scholarship and with the additional learning acquired in the expert Commissions and committees to which he had been elected or appointed. Together with his fluent Latin probably accounted for the respect he was accorded both in the hall (aula) and in committee. It was, perhaps, this intensity of experience, which caused him to regard Vatican II as a second conversion. It also lent authority to his work in Rome, to his later writing and was no doubt one reason why he was subsequently appointed as a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)

Butler's Books and Other Writings

Butler's books were written either during his monastic decades at Downside before the Council, or at St Edmund's Ware, in Hertfordshire, where he lived from 1966 as an auxiliary bishop of Westminster and as President of the diocesan seminary.

Some of his pre-conciliar work prefigured aspects of the Vatican II documents and much before the Council was developed in relative isolation. For example: The Church and the Bible (Darton Longman & Todd, London,1960) and The Idea of the Church (Darton Longman & Todd, London/Helicon Press, Baltimore, 1962) linked him firmly with La nouvelle theologie, which was developing in continental Europe, although he did not realise this until he arrived in Rome in 1962 and began to mix with other theologians. Reaching Rome for the Council, he inevitably moved in a wider circle (not ideal for a monk dedicated to a cloistered life of prayer but good for the Church!) and he was surprised to find that much of his thinking was shared by many important theologians in Europe.

After the Council, he produced a stream of work; mainly in talks, lectures, articles etc, but also some valuable books.

He wrote for the major journals of the time in English-speaking countries, but perhaps mainly for the UK weekly The Tablet. Many of his articles were reissued in collections, for example in In the Light of the Council (Darton Longman and Todd, London 1968) and Searchings (Ed, with Introduction by Valentine Rice, Geoffrey Chapman London 1974). Acknowledgement is given to the journal and book publishers for their generous permission to reproduce the various works.

Our first article in this section titled The Second Vatican Council is an extract from perhaps the most significant of Butler's books: The Theology of Vatican II (Darton Longman and Todd, first published in 1967, revised and enlarged by Butler in 1981).

A reviewer of this book wrote:

'The depth of change [wrought by the Council] is admirably sounded in this small but brilliant book. Its great quality is its authority. Bishop Butler speaks from intimate experience of the whole Council. ... Throughout the book, there is abundant evidence of a fine sense of proportion, the saving grace of the contemporary theologian. Bishop Butler has a delicate feeling for history, combined with a humble openness to new insights. Bishop Butler must be persuaded to give us more of himself.” (James Quinn SJ, Clergy Review, vol. LIII 1968, pp. 323-5).

That general commendation applies to virtually all Butler's work. Aged 64 when the Council ended, Butler had gone to Rome as a little-known Abbot—a classicist, a scripture scholar and historian. He emerged as an internationally distinguished theological figure. Quietly and without self-regard, he proceeded to give the public more—not of himself exactly—but of the Council and its vision for the future of the Church and the world.