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

Bishop Christopher Butler OSB –
His Role in Dei Verbum

By Arthur Wells


In 2002, we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Dom Basil Christopher Butler OSB and the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In 1958, Don Angelo Roncalli, lately Patriarch of Venice, had—to his surprise (eccomi papa!)—found himself elected Pope. Dom Christopher was then mid-way through his second term as Abbot of Downside and was already distinguished in Benedictine and scholarly circles. Dom Christopher came to contribute much to Pope John's aggiornamento and to the restored importance of Scripture in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

Butler's concern with Scripture is the core of this article, even if such a narrow focus risks obscuring the breadth and importance of the man and of Vatican II itself.

Arthur Wells
Arthur Wells

In the chair of Peter a bare three months, Pope John XXIII surprised the world early in 1959 by announcing a General Council. By then well established as Abbot, Dom Christopher could not have foreseen the extent to which he personally would be affected. He had twice been elected Abbot of Downside (in 1946 and 1954) and would be again in 1962. Election in 1961 as Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation made him a major religious superior and in that capacity he was called to Vatican II. He became a significant force in the formulation of major Council documents, and, after 1965, was a leading English figure in the implementing of the Council's teaching, making it a principal part of his mission. His 'Sarum Lectures' at Oxford evolved into his brilliant The Theology of Vatican II, and he often described the effect of the Council on him personally as a 'second conversion'. Exceptionally in the vast assembly, he was in a select group—a handful—who combined full membership with scholarly expertise. When the Council actually began in 1962, Butler was aged sixty, and, had his life ended then, it would have been a life of distinction, and—even at that early date—worthy of the biography which is yet awaited.

This article virtually passes over the first sixty years of a man who must in time surely be ranked as a successor to Newman. Butler's story must be told; his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography got close, but not yet close enough: If Cardinal J.H. Newman was the invisible father of the Second Vatican Council, then no one was better suited to be his spokesman than [Basil] Christopher Butler'. [i] From the relative obscurity of a monk vowed to stability in one abbey, Vatican II would bring Abbot Butler into prominence internationally, both within the Church and in the wider world. It is argued that, had the right choice been made, he would have been appointed Archbishop of Westminster in 1963. Most of the prelates who were full members of the Council were bishops, often appointed for administrative skills; few were fluent — competent even — in Latin, which was the working language of the Council. Butler was fluent, and this was an invaluable asset. Most bishops were assisted by periti (experts), but, as noted, Abbot Butler was a peritus in his own right. His fields of expertise included Scripture and early Christian history, and to these could be added an instinct for ecumenism. Much originated from his early life in the Anglican Church, but he also had the scholarly support of his community at Downside, not least from Dom Ralph Russell, with the chapter on Our Lady in Lumen Gentium. These were important advantages not widely replicated, and as a result Abbot Butler came to belong to the eminentissimi in the aula in St Peter's. He was the only non-bishop to be featured in a series of 24 profiles of prelates: the series was entitled Men Who Made The Council.[ii] The others were 17 cardinals, 5 archbishops and 1 bishop. Council 'voting' members numbered almost 2,500. From several statistical standpoints, he was among the top 1% or 2%. Clearly Abbot Butler had become a heavyweight.

Initial Difficulties and Dissonance Surrounding the Council.

It is widely known that the Cardinals of the Roman curia were at first startled by the announcement of a Council, then mainly opposed – and they were not alone. Surprisingly, it seems that even men like Lercaro of Bologna and Montini of Milan, both of a 'progressive' mind, and both papabile, initially felt the calling of a Council to be a mistake. However, both soon came to give solid support. Giovanni Battista Montini had been exiled, as it were, to Milan by Pius XII – pointedly without the red hat. Montini was thus excluded from the conclave on Pius's death. But he was John's first appointment to the college of cardinals and as John's successor, Paul VI was to take the decision to continue the Council. However, on first hearing of the proposed Council, Archbishop Montini famously called Fr Giulio Bevilacqua and said of John: 'This holy old boy doesn't seem to realise what a hornet's nest he's stirring up.' Bevilacqua is reported to have replied: 'Don't worry, Don Battista'the Holy Spirit is still awake in the Church.'[iii] But it was not only senior men in the Church who were startled or alarmed at the prospect of another Council. There were many who considered that Vatican I in 1870 had made any conciliar process redundant. Others, more attuned to the twentieth century and its needs, were apprehensive – although for totally different reasons. Few people yet knew the forward-thinking and openness of Pope John's mind. It was not easy in advance to grasp what he meant by aggiornamento, particularly as the usual translation: 'bringing up to date' could mean almost anything. It became evident very early on that the dear, pious, albeit shrewd 'old boy' nevertheless did not himself have anything like a clear plan, although he was convinced that a Council was needed. It was a muddled time. But many priests and people, suffering from the climate of rigidity in the Church, actually lived the problems rigidity created. Perhaps a majority found comfort in the apparent solidity of the status quo and this was often the motive for new converts, but many were restive, or left. Despite this, there was real cohesion among the faithful. By today's standards, adhering numbers — in the British Isles at least — were considerable, but it is perhaps necessary to have experienced the twentieth century pre-conciliar Church at first hand to know that the period between the two world wars was not 'a golden age' for English Catholicism, as one fairly recent convert had it.[iv]

Many accretions to what he saw as the essentials of the Faith had troubled Butler at the time of his own conversion, but he came to accommodate them in wider considerations, as he wrote in his quasi- autobiographical A Time to Speak.[v] Rigidity — initially an increased uniformity following the Counter-Reformation — had been reinforced by the Modernist crisis in the reigns of Pius IX and Pius X. The canonization of the latter in 1950 had somehow confirmed Pius XII's own theological 'retrenchment'. The earlier popes had set in motion a strong centralizing process. One distinguished historian spoke of them as introducing 'The Age of Intransigence'.[vi]

Therefore in 1962 the fear that a new Council might bring in measures to yet further restrict scholarship was reasonable. That might have made the Church even more remote from a fast-changing world and have fixed more firmly in place the divisions of the sixteenth century. Beyond that, the great schism between Latin West and Orthodox Eastern Churches might also be reinforced rather than healed. But Archbishop Angelo Roncalli had served as a Vatican diplomat in Orthodox Bulgaria, and had both a practical and a historian's understanding of the East, so that Christian Unity, however vaguely conceived, was one of John's principal aspirations.

Abbot Butler's Focus

A mainspring of Basil Butler's life was to seek and understand the truth of things. He was a student of Newman, of his emphasis on patristics and on the development of doctrine; and he valued von Hügel's melding of institution, intellect and prayer. Butler was disposed to support any move to bring the Church into the twentieth century, but always with a foundation of Scripture, tradition and dogmatic orthodoxy.

A bonus for this present account is the as yet unpublished letters written to his community during the Council, and for the Downside community's assistance generally. Another vast bonus is the invaluable collection of private family letters, and we are indebted to Butler's sister Mary, and to his brother, Archdeacon Hilary Butler, then in the Anglican ministry in Canada.

The 1962 'Christmas letter' to Hilary contained not only the usual family greetings; knowing his brother's deep interest Dom Christopher describes the beginnings of the Council, revealing a growing satisfaction:

I went to Rome with considerable foreboding. I knew there was much promising new life in the church, but I feared that the tender growths would be crushed by the conservatism of a Council of elderly prelates. But to my surprise and delight I found that the new life was immensely stronger than I had supposed, and had penetrated into the ranks, not only of the younger bishops but of the college of Cardinals. I expect the papers have given you a pretty fair account of the Council. Every major act in the drama was satisfactory. First, there was the refusal to be hurried into voting members for the conciliar commissions before we had got our bearings and made some contacts. [He refers to another procedural difficulty and continues:]'but the Pope intervened here on the side of common sense.[vii]

That letter referred to other possible Council issues — still in the future at that time — in which Butler was particularly interested. A key factor about Vatican II which cannot be emphasized too strongly is the interweaving of themes between the various documents. Virtually no single document, let alone no single text, can be taken in isolation. That theme derives from Butler's seminal The Theology of Vatican II of 1967, which drew this comment from one reviewer, Fr James Quinn sj:

The depth of change 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.

After giving his approval to Butler's treatment of the Council's 'loose ends' the reviewer continues:

These loose ends are in fact an important part of the book: signposts to the future shape of theology. 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.[viii]

Ever concerned to have non-dogmatic matters left as open as possible to scholarship or development, Butler was no doubt interested that Fr Quinn should have picked up the 'loose ends'.

That Abbot Butler was the significant Anglophone member is beyond doubt, and the evidence that he may well have succeeded William Godfrey as Archbishop of Westminster is impressive. Butler was said to be the future Pope Paul VI's choice, when it fell to Paul to make the appointment, but perhaps the abbot was considered insufficiently 'Roman'. But by the end of the third session Christopher Hollis (Member of Parliament, distinguished Catholic in public life and the father of the present Bishop of Portsmouth) wrote home from the United States:

Of English ecclesiastics the man with incomparably the highest reputation in America is Abbot Butler. I do not remember a single American bishop who did not mention his name first among English ecclesiastics.[ix]

Westminster and a Vatican II Apostolate

After the Council Butler was ordained auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Westminster. Abroad he was in demand for conferences and lectures; everywhere he continued his apostolate of Vatican II. In recording something of Bishop Butler's life, it is impossible not to conclude that he was a holy and a great man. The exploration of these conclusions is cursory and inadequate here, but we may note again from the Dictionary of National Biography an indication of special qualities: 'his was chiefly an intellectual genius.' Also: 'He remained a true Benedictine, one whose central vocation is seeking God.'[x] That vocation produced a remarkable man who may come to be numbered among modern prophetic figures.

Within its narrow focus, this article is concerned to indicate the significance of Butler at Vatican II, and his emergence after; regretta­bly we must pass over the vital formative years and move immediately to Rome for the Second Vatican Council.

Rome – October 1962

Setting the Scene

Butler did not hesitate to write that he did not find Rome congenial:

I did not like Rome or my visits there. I could have echoed Ronald Knox's explanation of his avoidance of that city: that a bad sailor keeps clear of the engine room. After all the Vatican bestrode the narrow Catholic world like a colossus.[xi]

In Rome, however, as a Benedictine, he had the great advantage of being housed at the Abbey of Sant'Anselmo, where, during the Council sessions, he was able to pursue his monastic life to a surprising extent. This was noted:

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

The English and Welsh contingent generally was lodged at the Venerable English College. An excellent account of the English at Vatican II is available, based on the diaries of Mgr Worlock,[xiii] but the diary is extraordinarily unperceptive of the real Council issues. Another, more analytical account is given by Adrian Hastings.[xiv] Both should be supplemented by Butler's diaries, particularly as to hierarchy meetings. Encountered by a student he knew after one 'planning' meeting, and asked how it had gone, Butler — a mite uncharacteristically — replied: 'I could have thrown the furniture!' However, it was in the Venerabile that the then Archbishop of Liverpool, John C. Heenan — to his credit — stunned his brothers by announcing that Abbot Butler must be proposed for the Faith and Morals Commission, because 'he is the only theologian among us!' Of course Heenan was right, but not popular.

The Purpose of the Council: Aggiornamento

Pope John opened the Council with a speech — 'Gaudet Mater Ecclesia' — which would remain inspirational for many Fathers during dark days, and there were many. So what would be the purpose of the bishops in Council in Rome? Bishop Butler:

Nothing in particular, it would appear; or perhaps it would be truer to say: everything. The Pope soon found it necessary to explain that he did not suppose that one short Roman Council could bring to an end the age-old divisions of Christendom. A fresh emphasis began to come into the forefront. Christian Unity was the pope's distant goal, no doubt, but his immediate aim was to let some fresh air into the Church and to promote within her an aggiornamento.[xv]

Part way through the Council Abbot Butler amplified what he understood to be the meaning of aggiornamento when, in a letter to his sister, he reported a press conference he had given:

At the press conference on Thursday I gave some idea of what I mean by 'renewal' (aggiornamento) in the Church. I said that ever since the second century, the Church has been adapting herself to her age. In the second century she Europeanised herself having started as a Jewish thing. She learnt to think and express herself according to Greek philosophy. Then she Romanised herself (I might have added that, later still, she feudalised herself). She trails along with her remnants of these past adaptations. (I might have added that, since the Reformation she has frozen herself into the decadent medieval attitudes which she took up against the Reformers). For me renewal means not just a few changes in window dressing, but a radical return to her origins – not so that we become first century Palestinian Jews, but so that we may then 'translate' the fullness of the Gospel into terms relevant to our own age. (The Council can of course take only one or two tentative steps in the required direction; it will be for the Church to explore it further.)[xvi]

Among other things, that quotation underlines the discretion which Butler invariably exercised about what can be said in private but not in public. On aggiornamento he later wrote:

'the Council Fathers opted for an aggiornamento not of the surface, but in depth, and even in the fields of biblical scholarship and dogmatic theology. There were many vicissitudes in the subsequent history of the Council, but it never looked back from this fundamental option, though of course, its realisation of its own intentions was only partial. This option, however, raised implicitly some important questions. It meant that the Council would not take as its un-criticised starting-point, the Catholic Church and religion as they actually existed in 1962, merely seeking ways of further advance in an already determined direction. It meant accepting a distinction between the Church as she ought to be, or ideally is, and the Church as she actually exists. And it meant, in consequence, some at least implicit attempt to discover the right basis or standpoint from which to pursue a critique of the Church as she exists.  The nearest the council ever came to the defining of aggiornamento was perhaps its acceptance of the of the decree on the Religious Life: 'On the Accommodated Renewal of Religious Life'. 'I take it that 'accommodated renewal' is here offered as a Latin translation of aggiornamento. The decree states (n.2) that accommodated renewal (of Religious Life) involves two simultaneous processes: 1. 'a continuous return to the source of all Christian life' (i.e. the Gospel) 'and to the original inspiration of the religious institutes'; 2. 'the adjustment of these institutes to the changed conditions of the times'. The Church has only one source: the Gospel; so that aggiornamento for the Church as a whole will mean: a recovery of the original Gospel, its spirit and purposes, and an adaptation of it which will be at once faithful to the same Gospel as originally given, and suited to 'the changed conditions of the times.'[xvii]

The focus of this article now narrows somewhat further, within the four years of the Council, to view Abbot Butler's involvement in Dei Verbum. It is necessary to consider the circumstances and climate in which that document evolved.

Revelation: Differing Views – 'Forward' And 'Backward'

Forward to the Final Constitution

Forty years have elapsed since the seminal subject of Revelation was first discussed at Vatican II. In the interim following the close of the Council there has been a relative lack of understanding, or ignorance of many teachings; inevitably, therefore, reception has been mixed. Pope John Paul II is clearly concerned about this and wrote of Vatican II that 'the Council documents have lost nothing of their value'; they remain 'a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning'.[xviii] Because of these factors it seems useful to start with a little of the final form of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, and only then to view something of the rocky path trod by the Fathers to reach their conclusion. This method will inevitably result in a discontinuous chronology. The final voting on the Constitution was on 29 October 1965 with 2,240 Fathers present. The total votes cast on the schema as a whole were 2,115, with 2,081 in favour.[xix] Again — briefly for the present — all the commentaries show that Abbot Butler was prominent throughout the debate. Like most of the sixteen documents, Dei Verbum was carefully, even hotly, ­considered, but in many ways the subject of Revelation was exceptional, being fundamental to Vatican II in several respects. The most theological of all the decrees, it was relatively short compared with Lumen Gentium – the other twin pillar of the Council. Dei Verbum contained a preface and six chapters: Revelation itself; the Transmission of Revelation; Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture; the Old Testament; the New Testament; and Scripture in the Life of the Church. Apart from the significance of the subject itself, one other important aspect was that at an early date, after an indecisive vote, the 'preparatory' schema: De fontibus Revelationis, as presented to the Fathers, was withdrawn on the instruction of Pope John. This set a precedent in confirming the importance of the mind of the Council Fathers as a whole. Revelation was one of Butler's major interests and his account of the progress of the document, interwoven with comment from other participants or later historians, is the main part of this narrative.

Butler had written to his sister in the second week of the Council about his nervousness – 'as a mere abbot' – at making his 'maiden' speech:

I spoke again yesterday. On Wednesday we started on a new subject: Tradition and Scripture. This is of course intensely interesting to me, and indeed the whole Council has 'brightened up' now that we have got off Liturgy and are onto questions of immutable truth. We are at present discussing the scheme in general on this subject that has been prepared for us, and it isn't yet clear (to me) whether we shall reject it without descending to consideration of its parts in detail. If we do [reject it] presumably another scheme on the same subject will be prepared, while we get on with something else' If we do take this scheme for detailed discussion, I may speak on several more occasions, as there is much in it that I feel very strongly about – but I must have some care not to 'bore' the Council by too frequent speeches.[xx]

Backward: the Preparatory Commission Schema: De Fontibus Revelationis

Abbot Butler was not alone in his discomfort with the original schema: a majority of the Fathers wished to reject it tout court. He summarized the first session to his family in Canada; knowing his brother's interest, Scripture features strongly:

I expect the papers have given you a pretty fair account of the Council. Every act of the drama was satisfactory. [ He details the relief about the Fathers' refusal to be hurried into voting for membership of the commissions, and the avoidance of premature commitment to some critical issues.] As it is, we have no concrete results at all to show to the world so far. But what has really been accomplished is tremendous. We have seen that the forward-looking forces in the Council are stronger than those that look defensively backwards; and a large number of bishops have had an education which they can hardly entirely forget for the rest of their working lives. I spoke on four occasions (and accidentally, I was the last speaker last week before the Pope's two closing addresses.) My general aim, so far as my influence goes, is to avoid all dogmatic definitions, and all non-infallible, but in fact scarcely reformable declarations about 'open' theological questions; and I have been specially watching the subject of Scripture; during the last two years, there has been a discreditable unofficial campaign going on in Rome against the 'liberal' Biblical Institute. There have been some anxious moments, and of course, few bishops came with up-to-date information about NT scholarship.[xxi]

It may be noted that Butler preferred 'forward-' or 'backward- looking' to the more usual shorthand: 'progressive' or 'liberal' versus 'traditional' or 'conservative'. (He felt himself progressive in some things and conservative in others).

Further mention is needed about the 'discreditable unofficial campaign going on in Rome' against the Biblical Institute. Abbot Butler was reserved about the scandal, the possibility being that he may not have known much detail. It is unlikely that he would have 'held back' if there were a truth to be told to his equally informed and professional brother! The scandal was a long-running affair and had drawn the censure of Pope Pius XII. In brief, a 'hard core of opposition', which Butler refers to later, continued to oppose many modern methods of biblical study. A fear of the critics was that the historicity of the Scriptures might be undermined by Form (or other) Criticism. Butler saw that some tools in the hands of an unbeliever could be misused, but he shared the view of the 'new scholarship' that truth must be served and that no harm could come from honest investiga­tion by a believer. Evidence of the 'campaign' appears in various documentation, and Robert Kaiser, for example, formerly a Jesuit, and subsequently a respected writer and commentator, spells out the matter:

In spite of the obvious contributions made by the Biblical scholars, however, and the great promise of more to come [post Divino Afflante Spiritu – and noting most biblical scholars are young men trained since World War II]... curialists and other reactionaries united for the separation of action and intelligence soon busied themselves in a campaign to blunt the scientific thrust that was launched, in a burst of inspiration, by Pius XII. Overt rumours were started in Rome that the Biblical Institute was teaching heresy. They were traced to two curial monsignori; [Over seven pages Kaiser describes the matter in Rome and its spread to the USA] the American Ecclesiastical Review, ever eager for action at the sniff of heresy seized upon fresh material in its standing campaign against the Biblical innovators.[xxii]

Another view of that element of Roman conservatism confirms that anti-Biblical Institute activity was not dead until Dei Verbum was promulgated:

That the minority would stop at nothing became evident when an American professor at the Biblical Institute discovered that a principal passage had been astutely mistranslated. [The narrative explains some subsequent developments and notes:]... Abbot Butler had the final say on the matter. He brought up the question of the translation at a meeting of the Theological Commission and offered four reasons why the translation : 'God the cause of our salvation' was untenable theologically.[xxiii]

Concluded on Next Page

Footnotes To First Page

(Click on the footnote number to return to your place in the text.)

[i]   Dictionary of National Biography, 1986-1990, ed. C.S. Nicholls (Oxford, 1996), pp.55-6; the entry is written by Dom Aidan Bellenger, osb.

[ii]   V. Rice, pamphlet: 'Bishop Christopher Butler' in the series Men Who Made the Council (South Bend, Indiana, 1965).

[iii] P. Hebblethwaite, John XXIII, Pope of the Council (London, 1984), p.324.

[iv]  From Without the Flaminian Gate: 150 Years of Roman Catholicism in England and Wales, 1850-2000, eds. V. Alan McClelland and Michael Hodgetts (London, 1999), p.23.

[v]   A Time to Speak (Southend on Sea, 1972).

[vi]  E. Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, (Yale, 1997), p.245.

[vii]  Letter to Canon Hilary Butler, 13 December 1962.

[viii] James Quinn SJ, Clergy Review, vol. LIII (1968), pp.323-5.

[ix]  The Tablet, 26 December 1964, p.1459.

[x]   D.A. Bellenger, OSB, Dictionary of National Biography, p.56.

[xi]  A Time to Speak, p.14.

[xii]  Recent letter to the author from Dom Daniel Rees osb.

[xiii] C. Longley, The Worlock Archive, (London, 2000).

[xiv] A. Hastings, A History of English Christianity 1920 -1985 (London, 1986).

[xv]  The Theology of Vatican II (London, 1967), p.6.

[xvi] Letter to Miss Mary Butler, 3 October 1964.

[xvii] The Theology of Vatican II, pp.19-21.

[xviii]  Novo Millennio Ineunte, para.57 (2001).

[xix] Xavier Rynne, The Fourth Session: Debates and Decrees of Vatican Council II, (London, 1965), p.239.

[xx]  Letter to Miss Mary Butler, 17 January 1962.

[xxi] Letter to Canon & Mrs Butler (in Canada), 13 December 1962.

[xxii] R. Kaiser, Inside the Council: The Story of Vatican II, (London, 1963), pp.149-57.

[xxiii]  The Fourth Session, pp.195-6.