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

Bishop Christopher Butler, Mary and the Church

By Aidan Bellenger OSB

In 2002 the centenary of Bishop Christopher Butler’s birth was celebrated at Downside with a series of lectures. They included presentations by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor and Archbishop Rowan Williams. The Cardinal, like Butler, was born in Reading(1) and the Archbishop singled out Butler’s book on prayer as one of his Favourites(2). Another lecture in the series, by Dr Sarah Boss, was on ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Church’ and this paper has a similar theme but looks in particular at Christopher Butler and his contribution to Mariology.

Basil Edward Butler (Christopher was his religious name) was born on 7 May 1902, one of the six children of William Edward Butler, a wine merchant, and Bertha Alice Butler, nee Bowman, from Suffolk, who had been a schoolteacher before her marriage(3). The family were Anglo-Catholic, not Roman Catholic, and his father was ‘deeply opposed to the latter’(4). He was a bookish boy and he passed from Reading School to St. John’s College, Oxford, on a scholarship. He had a glittering university career, at least at an academic level: not for him the diversions of games or the Union. He was awarded the Craven Scholarship and the Gaisford Greek Prize and was proxime accessit for the Hertford Scholarship; he took a triple first in ‘Mods’ (1922) ‘Greats’ (1924) and Theology (1925). In 1925 he became a theology tutor at Keble College and the following year was ordained a deacon. He was already experiencing ‘doubts’ about Anglicanism, and in 1928 was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Downside Abbey after a slow and tortuous period of searching, which, as with so much else in his life can be traced in his correspondence with Martin Hancock (later a canon of the Brentwood diocese, an Oxford contemporary and lifetime friend) copies of which are kept at Downside.

Downside Abbey, established in Somerset in 1814, was a community of the English Benedictine Congregation which had begun life in 1606 at Douai in France. Its great abbey church, the largest in England, was a symbol of its monastic aspirations but its school and parishes reflected the unique blend of cloister and mission characteristic of English Benedictinism. Downside was a congenial place for a convert from Anglicanism; two of its abbots had been former Anglican clergymen. As a novice Butler was drawn to the reforming party of Dom David Knowles, the monastic historian, and sought a purely contemplative life, but as a professed monk and as a priest (from 1933) he taught in the school and became its Head Master (from 1939-46) during the difficult years of the Second World War. In 1946 he was blessed as Abbot of Downside and was twice re-elected (in 1954 and 1962). In 1961 Butler was elected Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation and it was in this capacity that he took part in the Second Vatican Council. In 1966 he left Downside to go to London as Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster under Cardinal Heenan. He resided, as Area Bishop of Hertfordshire, at St Edmund’s College, Old Hall, where he was the last president to do so. He was Vicar Capitular of the Archdiocese in the interim between Heenan and Hume. He was very prominent on the national and international ecumenical stage being co-chairman of ‘English ARC’ from 1970 to 1981, and was twice honoured with the Cross of St Augustine by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The public life, which included celebrity as a radio performer, (which along with his newspaper interviews often had a spontaneity lacking in his daily life) did not come easy to him. ‘Butler did not enjoy taking decisions and his years in authority were often burdens which he found hard.’(5) To a great extent he was the donnish intellectual, a pipe-smoker with an interest in chess and detective and science fiction novels, diffident and scrupulous, ‘the scholar monk, who compelled attention on account of his fine mind, his moral stature, and his deeply personal care for all with whom he came in contact.’(6) His thoughts and writings were most deeply influenced by his scriptural studies but he had been much interested at various times in his life by Newman, von Hügel and perhaps decisively by the Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan. As I suggested in The Dictionary of National Biography (1996), like the abbot in the Rule of St Benedict, he made full use of things ‘nova et vetera’ and always retained much of that balance of the Middle Way which distinguishes classical Anglicanism and to some extent English Catholicism. He published many books, reviews and articles including The Originality of St Matthew (1951), in which he argued for the priority of St Matthew’s Gospel and The Theology of Vatican II (1967), which celebrated what was the great experience of his life, an aggiornamento for him as well as for the Church. He went to the council reluctantly; despite his classical learning he was more ‘the Little Englander’ than the Europhile, but he became an enthusiast: ‘Having feared it as a possible further step in the Church’s retreat from modern knowledge and the modern world, I now began to see that it might turn out to be what John XXIII had encouraged us to expect: a New Pentecost.’(7)

It gave him an enhanced vision of theological understanding and what he came to see as ‘a recovery of hope’.(8)

His contribution, as the most eloquent of the Anglophone Council Fathers (and I emphasize ‘Anglophone’ as his Latin had a quite distinct, Oxonian, sound, foreign to the more vociferous French and Italian Fathers; ‘Che Lingua?’ queried the prelate sitting next to the English Jesuit Archbishop Thomas Roberts on a Butler speech), was to argue for the ecumenical and theological positions which he had developed over many years and which, progressive by English standards, seemed to square up with many European contemporaries.

At the first session (1962) he spoke on the debate on the liturgy to prevent the Council giving the impression that it might be making dogmatic definitions. He argued in favour of freedom of enquiry for Catholic biblical scholars. He was honoured by making the closing speech of the session. ‘There are two ways of looking at the church’, he said, ‘which are in apparent opposition … we are trying to rise to a higher viewpoint which would give due emphasis to both sides’. At the Second Session (1963) he suggested that the Church of England should be given special consideration among the separated brethren. At the Third Session (1964) he again defended Catholic biblical scholars: ‘What we want is not the childish comfort which comes of averting our gaze from the truth, but a truly critical scholarship which will enable us to enter into dialogue with non-Catholic scholars.’ In the Fourth Session (1965) he showed his interest in the debate on nuclear weapons when he considered the very ‘conditional intention’ to use nuclear arms as ‘gravely immoral’.(9)

What concerns us here is, however, not Butler’s great overall contribution but his role in the drafting of the Eighth Chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium: The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church . This chapter was appended to the constitution on the Church by a vote of 29 October 1963, in which the Council Fathers, by a small majority, (1,114 in favour, 1074 against) decided not to issue a separate document on the Blessed Virgin Mary, as had been originally planned. The chapter, speaking both of Mary’s relationship with Christ and with the Church, represents a compromise between two tendencies in Catholic theology: her unique connection with Christ the Redeemer, on the one side, and her close connection with the Church as the first of the redeemed on the other.

In The Theology of Vatican II Butler devotes some five pages to the subject of the Blessed Virgin Mary.(10) He talked of the vigour of the development of the devotional and theological cult of the Virgin in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the problems which such movements give to ecumenical dialogue. He concludes that the Council ‘ratifies … devotion to Mary, while warning preachers and theologians against both excess and defects in this sphere, and against anything that could convey a false impression of the Church’s real doctrine concerning the Mother of God’.(11)

The genesis of the Conciliar text was gradual and was surrounded by what Butler called ‘a great deal of heat and excitement’. During the preparatory work a separate schema on our Lady emerged, but during the first debate of 1962 Cardinals Suenens and Montini expressed the opinion that Mary should be ‘Mother of the Church’. In October 1963 the original schema on Mary was amended in line with its integration in the document on the church. It was at this stage that a text from Butler emerged along with another from the Chilean bishops. These were in the background of the final version prepared by Carlo Balic, who had favoured a separate schema, and Mgr Gerard Philips, of Louvain, who was in effect the final editor. Balic, a Croatian Franciscan and editor of the works of Duns Scotus, had drafted the original schema that had been rejected as a separate Council document The Belgian Philips had been spokesman for the other side. This yoking of the opposite sides was usual in the redrafting of the Council’s documents in order to obtain as complete as possible a consensus for them. Balic visited Butler at S. Anselmo, the Benedictine abbey in Rome where Butler lived during the Council, several times. He was very hurt at the rejection of his document and Butler, the least Machiavellian of men, was blamed for political machinations to bring it about.

The text was promulgated on 21 November 1964.(12) The Council debate on our Lady ‘showed,’ Butler wrote, ‘how wise the Commission was to offer a “middle of the road” text. The question remains whether … the Council will adopt the title ‘Mediatrix’ for Our Lady; the doctrine of her ‘mediation’ is in the document even if the word is not adopted. She ‘mediates’ as we all, in the state of grace in the mystical body, mediate.’(13) There was much controversy in the air. The Italian Press saw the English bishops (and their spokesman Butler) as undermining the Marian theology of Pope Pius XII; Mgr H. F. Davis, an English theologian, defended the traditionalism of the teaching and its basis in pre-schism theology, the common tradition of the undivided Church.(14)

Butler’s document is not then as has sometimes been hinted, the key text of chapter 8, but the weight of his scholarship was significant in pushing the integrated schema through. In particular, he gave it a strong biblical and patristic foundation As Robert McAfee Brown, a Protestant observer at the Council put it, ‘it can be ecumenically creative to incorporate a statement about Mary in De Ecclesia that has a strong Biblical basis’.(15) Butler would have appreciated the collaborative nature of the final drafting; his own contribution reflected his own Benedictine community. Butler benefited from a monastery at Downside which boasted many scholars and theologians including his near contemporary, Dom Illtyd Trethowan, and his junior, Dom Sebastian Moore, still happily with us, who shared his enthusiasm for Lonergan. But it was Dom Ralph Russell, known always as ‘Tusky’ at Downside, on account of his prominent teeth, who made a lasting contribution to the Second Vatican Council. Bishop Butler has written:

Between the first and second sessions of the Vatican Council, I wished to have a document which would serve as an alternative to the draft document on Our Lady. I naturally turned to Father Ralph who prepared the document which I took out to the second session and which became known at that time as the ‘Butler Document’. There were two other such unofficial documents going around, and between us, I think, we may have helped to get that profound revision of the original draft which is now one chapter in the Constitution on the Church. The Butler document’s treatment of the patristic evidence (Fr Ralph’s own strong point) was particularly appreciated, and the patristic aspect is one of the better sides of the official present text.(16)

More sharply, in a Catholic Herald interview Butler recounted: ‘What I did was to get hold of a theologian who happened to be under a vow of obedience to me, outline my ideas to him, and tell him to get on with it’.(17) And writing to Dom Ralph himself: ‘I do feel extremely grateful to you for your devoted work in drawing up your schema. Nothing can be proved, but it is at least likely that our schema was a factor in securing the majority on Tuesday’.(18)

George Lionel Hansby Russell, in religion Ralph (1903-70), a Devonian by birth, was educated at Downside and at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he took a first in Mods and a second in Greats. He entered the Downside community and after studies at S. Anselmo in Rome he was awarded a Roman DD for a thesis on the Mariology of St John Damascene. Roman doctorates at the time were not as arduous as their modern equivalents, and it seems that Father Ralph never reverted to their subject until he came to write his piece for Butler. A Downside confrère, Dom Ambrose Agius, had written widely on precisely the same topic. Patristic studies had been much encouraged at the monastery by the great Syriac scholar, Dom Hugh Connolly, and a string of abbots with similar interests. Nearly all the remainder of Fr Ralph’s life was spent at Downside where he taught dogma and scripture in the monastery almost continuously from 1933 to 1966, as well as teaching religious studies in the school. He served as novice master and was involved, with a characteristic enthusiasm, in a number of ventures: Catholic People’s Weeks, the Downside Symposium (from 1952) and the Young Christian Workers. A man of learning and erudition, he had little time for sustained scholarship, but his support and encouragement for Christopher Butler’s work throughout Vatican II gave Ralph Russell, whose paternal recusant background had once made him the arch-apologist of militant Catholicism, a new, late-flowering interest in ecumenism. His work in the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, combining his two passions, ecumenism and our Lady, was highly important. Dr Eric Mascall writing in the Tablet (29 August 1970) said the Society revived enthusiasm for ecumenism just as it was flagging, and the Bishop of Taunton wrote in the Bath and Wells Diocesan News: ‘Father Ralph was a delightful companion and an affectionate friend. In his presence denominational barriers seemed to collapse, and you were just aware that you were in the presence of a real Christian Saint.’ Russell’s approach was commended in a letter to him from Archbishop Cardinale, the Apostolic Delegate in London, in 1967, on a paper on ‘The Scriptural Basis of Ecumenical Dialogue with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary: ‘it is exactly the kind of thing we need today, and which honours Our Blessed Lady far more than a million candles! No light is greater than the one we have in the Scriptures, and we have that one in common with all our Christian brethren.’(19)  Butler was, in his own way, as unworldly as Ralph Russell and I remember an old priest friend of Butler and myself, Canon Clement Parsons of the Westminster Diocese, ten years Butler’s senior, being very disappointed by the lack of personal information in the nearest thing to an autobiography that Butler wrote, A Time to Speak (1972); it is an intellectual apologia, or spiritual quest rather than the anecdotage of the sage. Unlike Russell, whose lifetime devotion to our Lady was shown by his passion for Lourdes, Butler had a more cerebral Mariology reflecting his restrained personality; Butler, in an unguarded moment, described his attendance at the Clifton Diocesan pilgrimage to Glastonbury as ‘his annual penance’. Yet in A Time to Speak he does have some interesting reflections on Mary. He acknowledges (p. 65) his debt to J. P. de Caussade, the eighteenth-century Jesuit, who saw Mary as the exemplar of ‘the purest and simplest self-abandonment to the will of God’ and the ‘epitome of all the mystical theology of her ancestors’. Later (p. 160) he develops this theme and puts flesh on Mary as the answer to the problem of incorporating the Jewish faith in the Christian perspective:

Closest, uniquely close, to Christianity is the Jewish faith. From the womb of Judaism Christianity had its birth, and deplorable though relations between Judaism and Christianity have often been (a relatively short period of Jewish ‘persecution’ of the Christians, who were regarded as heretics, followed by long sad centuries of anti-Semitism) the only valid Christian attitude to Judaism is one of deepest gratitude as to a mother who has given us life. The mother of Jesus Christ must be taken as the very exemplar of Judaism.

Butler always writes in a crisp, nuanced and suggestive way, but one looks to him for precision and intellectual integrity rather than for intuition and spontaneity. It reminds me of a story about the first Abbot Butler of Downside (Dom Cuthbert, the historian of Vatican I). When told by one of his community that he had experienced a vision, Butler replied, firmly, ‘At Downside, we do not have visions’. Yes, perhaps so, but had it not been for Christopher Butler’s contribution, the shape and character of the Marian teaching of the Second Vatican Council would have been very different.


  1. ‘When we met we often talked about the “old town” and its significance in the greater scheme of things’, C Murphy O’Connor, The Pastoral Office of a Bishop, Downside Lecture, 7 May 2002, p. 1. Published in Briefings (12 June 2002)
  2. R. Ashby, ‘Rowan, man of prayer’. Tablet, 27 July 2002, p. 7.
  3. These biographical details are a summary of my contribution to DNB 1986-90 (Oxford, 1996). pp 55-6. Valentine Rice in Dom Christopher Butler (Notre Dame, 1965) had some interesting observations, as has Sister Anne T. Flood in her PhD thesis, B. C. Butler’s developing understanding of Church: An Intellectual biography (Washington, 1981), which places Butler’s ecclesiology in its developmental context.
  4. B. C. Butler, A Time to Speak (Southend, 1972), p. 10.
  5. John Todd in his obituary of Butler, Tablet, 17 September 1986, p. 1030.
  6. ibid., p. 1029.
  7. A Time to Speak, p. 144.
  8. ibid., p. 1
  9. For his Vatican Council career up to the final session, see Rice, op. cit., pp. 37-46, which discusses Butler’s aspirations as well as his achievements.
  10. C. Butler, The Theology of Vatican II (2nd edn, 1981, first published l967, pp. 73-9.
  11. ibid., pp. 78-9.
  12. J. H. Miller (Ed), Vatican II: an Interfaith Appraisal (Notre Dame, 1966) pp. 303‑5.
  13. Downside Abbey Archives, Butler Papers, A4i, Letters from Butler to Prior,
  14. ibid. newspaper cutting, Universe, 22 November 1963: H. F. Davies on ‘The Big Row over Our Lady’
  15. R. M. C. A. Brown, Observer in Rome (London, 1964), p. 90.
  16. Quoted by Dom Daniel Rees in his obituary of Dom Ralph Russell in The Raven (Downside School Magazine) 61 (1970), p. 9. The discussion of Russell in this paper depends on this obituary which runs from pp. 4 to 10 with an afterword (and an illustration) by Dom Hubert van Zeller, pp. 12-13. I am grateful for Dom Daniel Rees’ comment on this paper.
  17. Downside Abbey Archives, Butler Papers, A4i. Cutting, n.d. (but 1963).
  18. Downside Abbey Archives, 1214. Papers of Ralph Russell. Butler to Russell, 31 October 1963
  19. ibid. H. E. Cardinale to Russell, 23 June 1967.


(This paper was given at the ESBVM Chester Congress in September 2002)
© ESBVM, 11 Belmont Road, Wallington, Surrey, SM6 8TE, U.K.