Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Fortieth Anniversary of Vatican II Symposium (2002)

Experiences of a Council Father

By Bishop Remi J. De Roo

Forty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, in retrospect, I would describe that providential event as a prolonged exercise in communal spiritual discernment. While at times perplexing, its ultimate results were definitely positive. It remains for me a superb illustration of how the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Pilgrim People of God throughout the course of history. I consider it the single most impressive experience of my entire life. The focus of Vatican II was pastoral and liturgical as well as theological. Each day began with Eucharist celebrated in a variety of rites. I will never forget how moved I was to see the Gospel solemnly enthroned, a living symbol of the Word of God, present in our midst throughout all the sessions.

All the Bishops in communion with Rome were expected to attend. They were joined by an impressive array of major religious superiors, observers from other Churches, theologians, canon lawyers and other scholars, generally known as experts (periti), and a large support staff. The attendance was almost entirely male. Women were not invited until the Third Session and then only as listeners (auditrices). Our entire Church was thus deprived of a very important voice, since the contribution of more than half the membership was muted or heard only indirectly.

The Second Vatican Council did not appear suddenly on the horizon, like a cloud in a clear blue sky. Time does not permit me to recall the valiant pioneers who prayed, struggled and suffered to awaken Church leaders to the need for reform and adaptation in a world where religion appeared increasingly irrelevant. I salute the memory of these dedicated people who prepared the ground so that Pope John XXIII could surprise the world with his announcement. It certainly was an inspired initiative. This lovable and charismatic Pope deserves most of the credit for its success.

My own initiation into Vatican II began in the summer of 1959. Pope John XXIII, a few months after his election, had instructed Cardinal Tardini to write in his name to all the Bishops. They were asked to provide suggestions as to topics the Council should deal with. My own Archbishop at the time, Maurice Baudoux, of Saint Boniface, Manitoba, immediately assembled a team of nineteen priests; I was one.

We assisted our leader in formulating a list of over sixty proposals or comments, which were then transmitted to the Pre-preparatory Vatican Commission. These observations were patterned after the 1917 Code of Canon Law, with its sections divided into Doctrine, Ecclesiastical Discipline and Pastoral Liturgy. By way of introduction or preface, my Archbishop proposed that the Council place its primary focus on that essential unity modelled by the 'multiform unity' manifest in the Holy Trinity and in creation. Later, as President of the Conference of Canadian Catholic Bishops, he played a leading role in coordinating relationships with many other Conferences of Bishops which were gradually being organized for more effective participation in the Council.

With this vision as my horizon, I began a voyage of discovery that would radically alter my whole outlook on reality. When my nomination as Bishop of Victoria was made public on 31 October 1962, I was immediately called to Rome. Thus I attended part of the First Session as a bishop-elect. For the remainder of the Council sessions, I continued to work with a team of Canadian bishops and with other groups of participants. This work helped me to deepen my understanding of my new episcopal mission. For myself as for many others, it was indeed a time of euphoria, of immense hope in the midst of struggle.

Vatican II furthered my theological formation like no other experience I have ever had. My previous academic training in the then prevailing scholastic mode left little room for the imagination. Interaction at the Council with the widely divergent schools of thought opened my eyes to the various influences that have shaped our Church over the centuries. Overcoming my initial shock, I came to see how creative and life-giving these internal ecclesial tensions could become. I grew to welcome the healthy diversity that is innate to authentic catholicity, as ongoing dialogue with outstanding pastors and scholars from many countries and cultures broadened and enriched my vision.

The theological focus shifted in several areas. The image of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, promoted by Pope Pius XII, became accompanied by broadening visions, most notably the more biblical image of the pilgrim People of God. The vertical hierarchical development which through the centuries had shaped the governing Church institutions into a pyramid of power was cautiously redirected toward the more primitive and traditional image of the circle. As a result, terms like councils and synods, collegiality and co-responsibility have become common in our ecclesial vocabulary. That does not mean that all tensions have been overcome in these spheres: much remains to be achieved in applying the ideals proposed by Vatican II. However, I choose here to dwell principally on the positive aspects of the renewal process begun through the inspired leadership of Pope John XXIII. I am convinced that his beatification on 3 September 2000 by Pope John Paul II put the official stamp of approval on his prophetic initiative. It was particularly meaningful for me that day to wear the ring which John XXIII gave me after my first audience with him in November 1962.

The major shifts which occurred during the Council did not come without pain and travail. Divergent perspectives on substantial issues brought about fierce clashes.  At times there was emotional reaction to some of the developments. As one example, I well remember the impassioned declaration of Cardinal Ottaviani during one of the debates around collegiality. He interrupted his fluent Latin to shout in his native Italian, 'Il Papa parla da solo!' the Pope speaks alone! The leader of the Vatican Curia, like some other Vatican officials, perhaps felt threatened at the thought of taking any guidance whatsoever from a proposed College of Bishops. I have since come to realize that intelligent people can unconsciously remain slaves to defunct theories when they do not know the source of the ideas they hold as traditional and beyond questioning. I myself underwent a conversion in my thinking and my attitudes on a significant number of issues. It is reassuring to have learned later that Bishop Butler also recorded his experience of Vatican II as a second conversion.

The Council lived through many ups and downs which punctuated the wearying routine of seemingly endless speeches, often delivered in less than perfectly classical Latin. We were sustained however, by moments of exhilaration: one such followed the massive indicative vote on 30 October 1963 favouring the recognition of the sacramentality of episcopal consecration and the authority by divine right of the College of Bishops. Previous fears that the vote would split the Council proved groundless. Another exhilarating experience was the standing ovation with which our entire Assembly acclaimed Pope Paul VI on his return from addressing the United Nations in New York in 1965, of which more later.

But there were also times of depression and near-discouragement. Concerning what came to be known as the 'black week' in November 1964, I may be permitted to note here a real contrast between the personalities and leadership styles of the two pontiffs. Pope Paul VI unilaterally reserved some topics to himself, and many accounts— both contemporary and by subsequent historians— note an uncertainty which Pope Paul himself injected into some Council proceedings. Bishop Butler recalled aspects of his experience of the matter after the Council:

Paul ... had spent most of his working life within the Curia ... [and] was thus a man who knew the Curia from the inside and had both admired it and suffered in it. ... [Having assimilated neo-Thomism, he] was less at home with the new wave of Catholic philosophy and theology that sprang from the work of the Belgian Jesuit Maréchal. Of this 'new' but deeply orthodox thinking, there are two outstanding spokesmen, the great German Jesuit, Karl Rahner, and the great Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan. ... Whether or not Paul VI either understood or sympathised with this inspiration [the new theology], he was genuinely a man of Vatican II, and there can be no doubt that he saw it as one of his duties to make that Council effective in the remaining years of his own life. He was also determined to hold the Church together in a communion of charity, and to maintain the privileges of the Petrine office to which he had been elected. During the Council itself, he did not relax his attention to the efforts of the 'progressive' elements, and more than once he seems to have tried to stem the tide that was flowing.[i]

These uncertainties and other difficulties all contributed to delays in the proceedings, eventually requiring a fourth session in 1965. A contributing factor was that by contemporary standards, the technical apparatus and method of procedure in the Council left much to be desired. However, considering the complexities involved, our rather tortuous path eventually led to a generally positive outcome. The world at large certainly received the results of the Council with heart-warming approval and fifteen years afterwards Butler still recorded: 'The “victory” of the progressives still seems to me to be an astonish­ing historical occurrence.'[ii] But by common consent the Holy Spirit had been at work, and Pope Paul said as much and very clearly.[iii]

The Council Develops and Abbot Butler Emerges

Various expressions or 'confessions' of fault in the Church were made quite early in the Council. The remarkable speech by Bishop de Smedt of Bruges identified three big problems in the Church, citing the sins of 'triumphalism, clericalism and juridicism'.[iv] Archbishop Hurley—himself early appointed to the Preparatory Commission—has said that the early work of the Commission was a cause of 'deep trial and suffering to him', and he spoke in the Aula to the effect that the original sin of the Council lay in the defective work of the Preparatory Commission. He has also recalled the Australian bishop who complained of the breast-beating for the Roman Catholic share of fault, and the response from Abbot Butler the next day that perhaps news of the Reformation had not yet reached Australia! But the abbot had also made some extended and more serious points about Christian divisions, reminding the assembly of 'the sins committed by Catholics or the separated brethren, which have caused or which even now continue to prolong the evil of separation'; he concluded by observing that 'history teaches that the public confession of sins of members of the Church is the first step towards spiritual emulation.'[v]

Those exchanges were in the early discussions on the Church and on Ecumenism. As the Council proceeded we were faced with an overwhelming variety of issues. I experienced repeatedly—as, I'm sure, did many others—the arduous task of shifting from one complex question to another. In an attempt to reduce repetition, speakers representing groups of bishops were given priority. It was my privilege to address the assembly on four occasions and to submit a number of written documents or 'animadversions'. One of my oral interventions addressed the two-fold mission and role of the laity: lay people have as their mission the expression of their faith in the world arena as well as in the internal life of the Church. Another urged that we seek to overcome the unhealthy dichotomy between the spiritual and temporal realms: it has for too long been a custom to oppose them, as if there were two levels in creation, a higher and a lesser. One should never forget that in the Reign of God all is grace. In the divine saving purpose, there is but one loving, divine plan of creation and redemption. My third address requested that the Council recognize the sacramental character of family life and particularly of conjugal intimacy. The last one suggested that diocesan priests might develop their spirituality through the very exercise of their pastoral ministry, no less effectively than through a routine of monastic exercises.

Looking back, I express my profound gratitude for the lasting influence Basil Christopher Butler had on my personal theological and spiritual development. He was certainly an outstanding leader among the many great minds and hearts who served as our guides and mentors on this extended pilgrimage. With their help we rediscovered some of the treasures stored with the 'old and the new' in our rich Hebrew and Christian heritage, while facing the future with renewed confidence. I admired Christopher Butler for his brilliant intellect, his honesty and his willingness to speak the truth as he saw it. He also had an exceptional ability to present startling ideas in a very balanced and thoughtful way. He was particularly enlightening about Scripture scholarship, which was one of his major interests; it is an area I would like to refer to later.

Listening to a seemingly endless flow of speeches in Latin was for most of us a tedious exercise. It will surprise no one that the Benedictine monk earned the reputation of being one of the few orators who could keep weary listeners in their seats even when the signal was given that refreshments were now available in the 'bars'. These 'bars', placed at the disposal of the Fathers, were particularly valuable in facilitating informal or casual encounters and the sharing of views between participants. Undoubtedly, this contributed in a significant manner to preserving a fraternal and supportive atmosphere under the pressures occasioned by such serious and prolonged deliberations.

My first direct personal contact with Abbot Butler occurred during the Second Council Session in 1963. I also came to know him better through my association with his youngest brother Hilary, who lived in Victoria, British Columbia, and served as an Anglican Archdeacon and Christ Church Cathedral Lecturer. We worked together on several ecumenical projects. Christopher Butler, as Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation, paid an official visit to the Benedictine Abbey at Mission City in British Columbia. On that occasion he visited Hilary's family. This provided another opportunity for me to share more experiences with both Christopher and Hilary as scholars and friends. It was indeed a deep pleasure this morning to hear the joint message to the symposium from Archdeacon Hilary and Miss Mary Butler.

Reviewing Abbot Butler's various presentations at the Council, I was greatly encouraged to realize how his insights often paralleled my own personal concerns. The substantial contributions he made have greatly deepened and enriched my perception of the Church in its mysterious depths. Hence I am encouraged today to continue the review of my experience of Vatican II in the context of his remarkable interventions. It has been both a rewarding and a humbling experience for me to have been associated with a person of his stature.

While preparing for today's event, I consulted a copy of the official Vatican record of the Council deliberations and documentation. Perusing eighteen submissions contributed by Christopher Butler, and two others to which he attached his signature, I was amazed at the scope and depth of his scholarship. As I recall, very few speakers addressed themselves as consistently to the very heart of the issues the Council was dealing with as did Butler. He was forthright and fearless in his comments; his maiden speech in 1962 sounded a warning note against rash and unwarranted interventions by the official magisterium in unsettled issues. These should be left to the free investigation of competent scholars.[vi] Brave words indeed for one who was not a bishop at the time and who first introduced himself to the Council Fathers as their disciple in faith. But his competence was soon recognized by the Assembly. As the Council proceeded, Christopher Butler was nominated for and served on several important commissions, notably the all-important and central Theology Commission. As is well known, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop in the Westminster Archdiocese in 1966. Credit is due to the late Cardinal Heenan for recognizing the giftedness of a great churchman, but there is also strong evidence that both men knew that Butler himself could well have been Archbishop of Westminster. Their fruitful working relationship during and after the Council reflects no little credit on both men.

Abbot Butler's Interventions in The Council

By way of this brief review of Vatican II, and in particular of the part played by Abbot Butler, I will note in chronological order some of the main points to which Butler addressed himself. Several of them touch the very core of the major developments or 'shifts' that resulted from the Council deliberations.

1. From the very beginning, Christopher Butler urged the Council Fathers to respect the expressed intention of Pope John XXIII (later again affirmed by Pope Paul VI) not to proclaim new dogmas unless absolutely required. With many others, he feared that they would provide a serious obstacle to ecumenical progress.

2. His concern for catholic inclusiveness led him to manifest repeatedly his sensitivity towards the other Churches, whether Oriental, Protestant or Anglican. The latter he wanted clearly distinguished from other Western non-Catholic communions which have a less definite historical tradition.[vii] He deemed a change of attitude to be essential for further ecumenical progress. He also reminded his hearers that what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation was initially a movement by sincere Catholic believers who were pressing for purification from within. It was mostly because of the unwillingness of the Roman authorities to listen or respond to the legitimate calls for reform that events developed the way they did and resulted in growing animosity leading to separation. This recalls Abbot Butler's exchange with the Australian Bishop.

Vatican II moved the Catholic Church to modify its previous exclusive claim to the monopoly of truth. We still—and essentially—maintain that the fullness of Revelation 'subsists' in the Roman Catholic Church, but the Council recognized other Christian churches as sacramental instruments of grace and salvation for their own members. And we have come to appreciate that traces of the divine, likened to seeds of the Word (semina verbi), can be found in the other major world religions as well. This had and continues to have tremendous implications for ecumenism and for inter-faith dialogue.

In the Second Session Butler again stressed this theme.[viii] He reminded his hearers that we cannot put strict boundaries on that mysterious reality we call the Church. The true Church, the family or People of God, includes not only single individuals, but is manifest in social groups as well, and somehow embraces or is present in other Christian communities or churches. These bodies also have their roots in evangelical and therefore supernatural principles, even if they appear less than complete to us. He hoped that we would take great care in presenting this teaching correctly. He knew this section would be examined very carefully by our separated brethren. He also suggested that some people who through invincible ignorance are not Christians still somehow come under the economy of grace. They may have a limited but nonetheless salutary knowledge of supernatural law.

3. When it came to matters of the intellect, Butler had limited tolerance for slack thinking. He did not hesitate to criticize inadequate scholarship on the part of the drafters of Council documents. Most importantly, he called for nothing less than total intellectual honesty and integrity. Later in the proceedings he drew attention to an anonymous translator who had attempted to impose a particular and disputed theological opinion on the Assembly by 'sleight of hand'. This involved a subtle mistranslation which would have misrepresented a significant matter in the official Latin version.[ix] That it did not succeed was largely due to Abbot Butler.

At a fairly early stage, he had astonished the assembly by criticizing the draft schema on 'The Two Sources of Revelation' as 'unacceptable' (an expression he used on several occasions). He maintained that it lacked the spirit of optimism which should prevail at this Council. He found that the authors had taken sides rashly in some disputed matters, thus not leaving the document open to already foreseen scholarly developments. In his opinion, it would not obtain the desired unanimity so vital for a Council teaching. I believe that he was one of the first Council Fathers to stress the importance of reaching at least a moral unanimity in the assembly's decisions.

His lengthy written notes also reflect a consistently high calibre of scholarship. There are several examples of the role Butler played as a 'watch-dog', always alert to potential misunderstandings.[x] He constantly sought to hone the proposed texts so that they would speak with greater precision. Thus he reminded us that there can be no opposition between grace which gives rise to faith and the Holy Spirit who brings faith to its perfection; that the Word of God is not only 'revealed' but 'revealing' as well; that God does not personally do any direct 'writing'; that the apostolic tradition does not find its source in the early writers, 'viris apostolicis', but rather in God. He rejected the practice of scriptural proof-texting as a misuse of the Bible. Holy Scripture, he affirmed, is not meant to be the source of arguments used to prove theses. Rather, Scripture itself provides the very source of the theses.

I have referred to Butler's maiden speech regarding official intervention in scholarly matters that have not yet matured. He proposed generally that the correction of errors be left to the progress of science itself, to the consensus of competent scholars and scientists, or to the ordinary magisterium, as and when required and depending on the issues. He frequently returned to the theme that, in complex research, errors cannot be avoided in the search for truth and that sometimes truth is reached by trial and error. He warned of the danger that all catholic scholarship may be discredited if it is perceived as being controlled by the dictates of authority rather than governed by intellectual honesty. Another constant theme was to ask why we should fear that truth might endanger truth! Why would Catholic scientists be less faithful to the Church and to traditional doctrine than would other believers, when many of our scholars have repeatedly proven their professional integrity and their devotion to the Church they love and serve with such dedication? In his written text, he directly criticized the much feared Holy Office, suggesting that, if anything, it is much too severe in its judgments. Given the circumstances at that time, these comments made quite an impact. He repeatedly came to the defence of Catholic Scripture scholars, commended their work and passionately rejected the slurs aimed at them, whether on the floor of the Council or elsewhere. He proposed that the official magisterium should praise and support their work, so vital for the promotion of a more mature faith.[xi]

4. At this point I wish to refer to my overall assessment of Abbot Butler: 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. To give the examples of just two of his pre-conciliar books, The Church and the Bible (1960) and The Idea of the Church (1962) is to show how they prefigure in a striking way much that was included in the respective Council documents, Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium.

In that sense I consider him a worthy successor to Cardinal Newman, whose genius he frequently reflected. I deeply appreciate Butler's academic qualifications—he was an exceptionally gifted scholar—as well as admiring his profound faith and calm courage in facing reality in all its complexity. I also came to understand more fully the daunting obstacles our exegetes face as they diligently pursue their mission exploring and ultimately bolstering the foundations of our faith. At the risk of repetition, this ongoing task is critical for the life of the Church.[xii]

5. At an early stage, Abbot Butler had already insisted that the Council should focus clearly on the central figure or person of Jesus Christ. In a lapidary formula, he described Christ as both the Announcer and the One Announced, the Proclaimer and the One Proclaimed: 'qui et annuntiat et annuntiatur'. He wanted the Council to show how all Catholic dogmas and related teachings can be based on and related to the one Source, Jesus the Word of God.[xiii] He returned to this topic shortly afterwards,[xiv] when rejecting the thesis of the 'double fount' and focussing again on the Person of Jesus Christ, sole fount and origin of Revelation: 'ut clarius eluceat Christum non modo verbum attulisse, sed ipsum “esse” Verbum revelationis'. For Christopher Butler, Jesus Christ the Word of God is not only the Messenger from the Godhead, he is also himself the Message. I deliberately repeat this assertion. Nothing is more basic or central to Vatican II than this foundational biblical insight of our Christian scriptural heritage.

6. Later on in the First Session he submitted a written note, requesting that a clear distinction be made between the Reign (or Kingdom) of God and the Reign of Christ: comparisons with the Church should only be made to the Reign of Christ.[xv] He noted that the New Testament does not customarily refer to the propagation of the Reign of God, since this is the eschatological result of divine intervention, in which no human collaboration is involved, only grace. But the Reign of Christ is promoted in history until the end of time. 'The suggestion of Abbot Butler to distinguish between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Christ seemed 'very interesting' to Congar, but remained a dead letter for others.'[xvi] It is not inappropriate to reflect that Congar is considered one of the great theologians of the twentieth century Church and therefore that we may, perhaps, see this theme further developed.

7. Concerning Church Unity, he described schism, objectively speaking, as a breach of fraternal communion in charity, even more than a sin against obedience.[xvii] I personally wish this insight were given more attention in the post-Vatican II exchanges between Catholics. We remain too readily prisoners of the shift to the intellect as constitutive of the human in our western culture. We are inclined to forget or to ignore that authentic and lasting transformation, personal and communal, requires a conversion of the heart and a commitment of the total self to the pursuit of truth and of justice with compassion.

With respect to ecumenism, Butler was quoted as declaring before a gathering of bishops that we should not say 'Peter and the Apostles, but Peter with the other Apostles' to make it clear that he is one of the Twelve. Christopher Butler was fully aware that Jesus called the Twelve as a community, symbolically replacing the twelve tribes of Israel. He established Peter as their head for the service of unity, with no intent of domination of the one by the other. As a biblical scholar, he would appreciate the fact that Christ did not teach only the Twelve. The biblical writings, particularly the Gospel attributed to Saint John, indicate that the early Christian communities were also influenced by a broader tradition based on the living testimonies of many other witnesses who had walked with Jesus and had 'seen the risen Lord' in the process of coming to genuine Easter faith.

As a scripture scholar and student of the early Church, Butler was also familiar with the history of how the five original Patriarchates evolved into our current ecclesial structures. He would probably have been made aware that Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh of Antioch had chosen to absent himself from the opening ceremonies of the Council as a symbolic protest against the perceived affront to the Eastern Patriarchs. Initially, they were ranked behind the Cardinals in the seating order at the Council; history reminds us that this was a serious error of judgment on the part of the planners. Maximos had written to Pope John in this regard in 1959. Sad to tell, it would appear that this important letter did not even receive the courtesy of a formal acknowledgement, but the unfortunate situation was subsequently corrected at the next session of the Council.

8.  He himself explains that it was accidental, but it is noteworthy that Abbot Butler made the last and very impressive speech just before Pope John closed the first session of the Council, on 7 December 1962. He again called for an unconditional acceptance of all truth, whether ancient or new, and a joyous welcoming attitude by the Church towards all positive progress. He requested that plenty of latitude be allowed for the present ferment in theology. He saw this as a sign of life and vitality in the Church, as the work of the Holy Spirit, since adaptation is a law of life, and in this case a response to the word of God in visible circumstances. He hailed current progress as a movement forward into a new 'historical' vision, unknown until today, quite in keeping with a religion that professes the Incarnation of the Word of God in the temporal sphere. He hoped that the Church, as a loving servant of humankind, would make manifest to the whole world this new and magnificent vision of Christ.[xviii]

9. Christopher Butler's reputation as a theologian had become so well established that the English hierarchy entrusted him with the task of preparing an alternative text on the Blessed Virgin Mary. He achieved this with the collaboration of another Downside monk, Dom Ralph Russell. Their work resulted in three pages of dense and yet very lucid reasoning, relying solely on sources which predate the Reformation and the Eastern separation in the Church. This written submission gathered the signatures of 102 Fathers from several countries.[xix] On another occasion he cautioned all teachers and preachers against presenting Catholic teachings about Mary in such an exaggerated way as to appear more significant than our doctrines concerning Jesus or the Holy Spirit. I believe this warning remains pertinent to this day. The eventual outcome was that the important chapter on Our Lady was included within the Constitution on the Church and not separately.

10. During General Congregation LIX, Christopher Butler hailed as unique in Church history the magisterial declaration that all members of the Church are called to sanctity. He hoped deliberate progress would be made in this direction and his thinking mirrors that of Hans Urs von Balthasar who sees Our Lady as the archetype of lay holiness within the Church. He then clarified the link with the doctrine on divine grace and suggested several clarifications in this regard. Grace is to be recognized as not only the origin and companion of virtuous acts, but also their completion or result ('consummator vel sequens'). He wanted to make sure the Council was seen as being in accord with St Paul's comments about Judaism in the Letter to the Romans.[xx]

11. Concerning the draft text on the Church, Christopher Butler was alarmed at the weakness of western pneumatology, our theology of the Holy Spirit. Whether it is underdeveloped or has been allowed to atrophy particularly in the West is an important field of future study. However, he made several suggestions to improve the draft text, since it had failed originally even to mention the cult due to the Spirit as well as to the Father and the Son, despite the fact that the Spirit is the Author of all holiness.

12.  A life-long scholar and monk may not be immediately associated with considerable sensitivity in the pastoral field, but this aspect of Butler's talents came to the fore in discussions on Gaudium et Spes. I respond with genuine admiration to his pastoral perspective. One hesitates even to attempt a summary of the dense three pages of argumentation he provided on many aspects of the complex and thorny problems affecting marriage and conjugal intimacy. At the risk of gross over-simplification, here are a few of his insights. Butler was alert to many aspects concerning the ends of marriage: prudence in determining the size of families; the real and often difficult choices spouses are called to make, not simply between chastity and concupiscence, but between prudence and marital rights and duties; the vocation to marriage, not to that form of abstinence which is not in itself a virtue of marriage; the question whether God would demand heroic virtue of spouses, to the point of denying them the exercise of their marital rights; the demographic challenge, global and unavoidable; the possibility of a healthy evolution in our understanding of natural law, similar to the development we already experience in our grasp of the deposit of faith; the need to consider scientifically the objective reality of the human being as such, avoiding the temptation simply to reason philosophically from the abstract concept of human nature; the taking into account of interpersonal conjugal relationships not exclusively between spouses but in relation to the totality of human society; the good of the human species as related also to the good of the global human family; the call to pay greater attention to human beings as persons in our search for answers to these and other complex questions.

Butler proposed that the Council would not find answers to these many unresolved matters even with a possible fourth session. He recommended setting up a special post-Council Commission to work with a Papal Commission dedicated to the same purpose. He also asked whether civil authority might not have a role to play where the demographic issues are concerned. In the meantime, where intimate marital issues are involved, Butler would have left to the informed conscience of the spouses alone the right to make decisions affecting their personal lives. He recommended great caution in advancing conciliar declarations on such delicate and complex matters.[xxi]

13. Religious liberty is another area where we find Abbot Butler sharpening his pen both as a theologian and as a Scripture scholar. He hoped the Council would not appear indifferent to people's right to pursue all truths, and in every avenue, not only the religious or spiritual. He reminded the Council Fathers that the use of force is not the only way to exercise unjust pressure, any form of which is to be rejected. The Council must truly care for the value of truth. We must respect absolutely the freedom of the informed conscience in pursuit of all truth. We were also reminded that in some cultures there are many other adults who may have the right to make religious decisions that are not, or should not be, the domain of the accustomed authority figures. Similarly, he indicated how Christ did not intend to subtract Caesar from submission to the transcendent divine authority.[xxii]

14. One of the most memorable interventions by Abbot Butler came in the Fourth Session, again in Gaudium et Spes in the chapter relating to Peace and War. He urged the Council Fathers to provide moral leadership and to raise their voices in the interests of the entire human race, since we are all meant to be members of Christ's Mystical Body.

He warned the Council that Bishops should not automatically grant a presumption in favour of temporal leaders (praesumptio juris), who have often been known to use their authority for illegitimate purposes. Humans today have a moral relationship to the whole of humankind, to a universal fraternity. Although as yet not effectively existent, a world authority is required for the good of humanity, and such an authority we are all required to obey. Nor does it suffice to respect the good intentions of our leaders. We should give serious pause before committing ourselves to the thesis that the simple possession of nuclear, biological or chemical arms might be acceptable in itself. Rather than get immersed in casuistry, would we not better refrain from pronouncing on this matter until we are prepared to think this most complex moral matter through to its conclusion? Can we really accept that there could be a simple possession of arms without any intention whatever of ever using them? Evil acts are always evil, in intention as well as in execution, and are to be condemned. ('Actus permali sive in exsecutione sive in intentione, sive in intentione simplici sive in intentione hypotetica, semper mali et damnandi sunt.') The Church is called to suffer, never to rely on arms to defend itself. Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth![xxiii]

In this respect, I here today express my appreciation for the recent declarations of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, together with the rest of the English and Welsh Catholic hierarchy, and of the bishops of the Church of England. I refer to the recent article in The Guardian (10 October 2002), where the bishops declared publicly that they were opposed to a pre-emptive war against Iraq. Mentioned earlier, I recall again Pope Paul's return from his address to the United Nations in 1965 in which he emphatically expressed his understanding of the mind of Vatican II: 'No more war; war never again'; it was one of the moments that unanimously enthused the Council Fathers.

Business Pending

I am frequently reminded of the limitations of Vatican II. It did not address itself to, and still less did it resolve a number of major contemporary issues. However, I purposely choose to focus and to dwell on the Council's positive achievements, in the hope of perceiving more clearly how the Holy Spirit is constantly at work and how the Reign of Christ is progressing in our midst.

Sociological focus on weakness and sinfulness may occasionally play a role in our education and in the call to conversion. However, a superficial or external approach can also miss the deeper issues at stake. Human frailty and repeated disappointments represent only one aspect of the divine plan unfolding in history. Pope John XXIII will be remembered for dismissing the prophets of doom and gloom and for his confidence that a developing future beckons us on. Abbot Butler would remind us that the Reign of God proceeds under its own momentum irrespective of human inadequacies. Our human task is to help transform creation and bring it into the Reign of Christ, so that ultimately God may be all in all.

Positive Achievements of Vatican II

At the risk of over-simplification, I will attempt to sum up the work of Vatican II by listing a number of significant shifts, renewals of focus or changes of emphasis. I will not seek to assess their relative importance.

i)  The Second Vatican Council was the first time ever that the official Magisterium solemnly proclaimed a body of doctrine on the Church as such. A real ecclesiology replaced the previous 'hierarchology' which had dominated our scholastic manuals of theology until recently. Noteworthy among others is the focus on the Church as sacrament, centred on Jesus Christ as the first sacrament and on the biblical notion of the People of God. We may add the solid christology with which Vatican II has enriched our official teachings, and the incipient pneumatology. Bishop Butler was at one here with the Eastern bishops who repeatedly reminded us how weak was our theology of the Holy Spirit. This refreshing pneumatology is slowly gaining ascendency again in our western world, contributing greatly to the renewal of our liturgy as well as of theology and popular piety.

ii)  The Church is a pilgrim people wending its way through a troublesome history. It is in constant need of reform. In contrast to the previous claim of the Church to be a perfect society and a world power to be contended with, a consciousness is emerging of what Cardinal Newman described as a 'project incarnate in history'. Newman's thesis concerning the development of doctrine proved to have a profound influence on the Council. He was truly a 'founding father' of Vatican II. We now appreciate that there is a normal progression in our understanding of Revelation and of the body of doctrine in constant development. This has greatly facilitated the acceptability and development of authentic ecumenism.

iii) For a long time, Christianity was inclined to identify itself uncritically with European culture, even suppressing noble attempts at 'inculturation' in other continents. But as a result of the Council, the Church gradually awakened to other dimensions, and began raising its eyes towards broader horizons. Slowly and cautiously, it started loosening its restrictive cultural anchors, to achieve a more global vision of its place in history. A wider perspective helped the Church discover deeper and richer dimensions of the mystery of catholicity.

iv) The secular world or society was now perceived as having an autonomous value of its own as part of creation, not only in relation to the Church or its mission. A postmodern and totally new question was thus raised concerning 'Revelation in the secular arena'. This calls for a renewed understanding of 'inculturation', since the Church no longer determines the evolution of society as once was the accepted practice in Europe, and even then not without grave conflicts between ecclesial and civic authorities.

v)  Here I make a brief recapitulation of some basic issues which bear on matters to follow, but which perhaps were not proclaimed as clearly as might be desired: the Church in the West became more aware of the poverty of its theology of the Holy Spirit; the Kingdom of God began to be distinguished cautiously from the Kingdom of Christ; the Church militant no longer laid claim to the monopoly of truth and we have noted that the Constitution on the Church (LG 8) used a carefully pondered expression 'subsists in' to affirm our belief that the fullness of Revelation is still preserved in the Church; 'seeds of the Word' ('semina verbi') are present throughout the globe because the work of the Holy Spirit unleashes an unconscious inner power of great potential and dynamism. All these have fruitful potential for ecumenism, for mission and particularly for dialogue with the other Abrahamic religions. Although it may not yet be sufficiently recognized, perhaps overall and in retrospect, the Constitution on Divine Revelation may prove to be the truly foundational document of Vatican II. The dilemma reflected in the long-disputed 'twin source of Revelation' theory which plagued apologetics and biblical scholarship, was identified as a false problem. Scripture, tradition and the authority of the magisterium belong to the category of instruments, however noble. Revelation finds its focus, its source and fulfilment in the Person of Jesus Christ, who is the Message as well as the Messenger of Good News. The life and actions of Jesus as well as his teaching not only present revealed truth, but are themselves revealing. Jesus himself makes manifest the Reign of God in history (cf. Isaiah 61 & Luke 4:6). The Cross and Resurrection, and then, as Jesus promised, the power of the Holy Spirit, are constitutive of the mystery of the Church incarnate. Faith is pure grace, a gift of the Spirit, a personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. Submission of the will to the teaching authority of Christ's Church— and much else— flows naturally from this.

vi)  Pastoral theology, once relegated by some to the practical field of ordinary local ministry, now emerged as in effect truly doctrinal, since faith is constituted by and expressed equally in Christian life and discipleship, along with doctrine and discipline. 

vii)  As already noted, all the baptized faithful are called to the fullness of sanctity in the midst of daily life. Through clarification and deeper, fuller understanding of an ancient doctrine, all members of the Church are recognized as equal in dignity and in their capacity to serve. Implicit in these declarations lies an exciting new vision of the role of the laity who constitute the overwhelming majority of the People of God. Since all believers receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Church leaders are challenged to recognize more effectively the gifts of discernment with which the membership is endowed. They share responsibility for proclaiming and facilitating the Reign of Christ both in the world at large and in the internal institutional life of the Church.

Important and challenging questions emerge from this developmment. Can we continue to maintain a 'two-class' system, where a minority of Church leadership is considered to be the 'teaching Church' and the vast majority simply the 'learning Church'? Are not all members of the People of God in need of being taught by the Holy Spirit? Should we continue to use separate categories for clerics and laity? How will the talents of the latter be more effectively applied to the proclamation of the Gospel – the need for evangelization of which we are so aware? Are we prepared to face honestly the agonizing situations where large numbers of Catholics adopt an attitude of non-reception towards official teachings? If we raise the question 'What is a Christian?' instead of 'What is a lay person?', what model of 'church' will prevail?

viii)  No one wishes to deny that the Church, the People of God needs—and early acquired—an institutional form, but in the Council, ministry was presented repeatedly as humble service rather than as access to power and authority. The laity were reminded in two documents (LG 37 & GS 43) that the hierarchy do not have all the answers to complex current issues. Lay people can have the competence, the right and even the responsibility to take initiatives for the common good. Implicit in this is the eventual abandoning of the two classes or levels, which most people still experience in the Church. Some of our structures have crept in over long centuries and are difficult indeed to reconcile with the teachings and practice of Jesus Christ himself. In the Council a direction was set which may slowly lead us as church to recognize and collaborate with the mission of the poor and marginalized to become the subjects of their own history. Biblically, the poor are God's chosen instruments for the salvation of those who still rely on the criteria generally associated with human success. We have yet to enter fully into the spirit of the Beatitudes. The rich minority will increasingly be challenged to develop links of solidarity with the poor if global stability and world peace are to be assured for the future. God's creative and redemptive plan appears to be much more profound and all-embracing than the average Christian believers appreciate.

ix)  Further thought is perhaps needed to appreciate the implications of freedom for the informed conscience, in practice as well as in the principles proclaimed by the Council. Other unresolved or only partially resolved issues include one raised by Pope John Paul II himself. In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995) he asked the Christian world how best the office of Peter in the Church should be exercised. That in turn bears on the issue of 'unity in pluriformity' and on the relationship of the local Church to the centre of unity. The fact that all these matters are being debated in the wake of the Council represents great progress.


By way of conclusion, I would make the following suggestions. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly affirmed that Vatican II is a sure compass to guide the entire Church into the future.[xxiv] It is my conviction that in setting and verifying these bearings, Catholic leaders in our faith community will find no more reliable guide overall than Christopher Butler. His writings need to be better known and more widely disseminated.

Might I be so bold as to advance a practical suggestion at this point? I would like to see some effective follow-up from this Symposium. Could this successful experience not be seen as an invitation to all who attended to provide ongoing leadership for the English-speaking world ... recognizing the potentially global outreach of English as a new 'universal language'?

Finally, a quotation attributed to Pope John XXIII as on his deathbed (24 May 1963):

Today more than ever ... we are called to serve man as such, and not merely Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person, and not merely those of the Catholic Church. Today's world, the needs made plain in the last fifty years and a deeper understanding of doctrine have brought us to a new situation ... It is not that the Gospel has changed, it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have ... were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.[xxv]

Was it not the same Pope John who was once reported as having said that Catholics were not meant to be museum keepers, but rather gardeners whose responsibility it was to prepare a beautiful harvest for a glorious future?

While thanking you for your gracious attention, I leave these thoughts with you, hoping they may have served to deepen your own commitment to the facilitating of the Reign of Christ Jesus our Risen Lord.



[i] B.C. Butler, The Theology of Vatican II (Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1967 & 1981).

[ii] Ibid., pp. 174-5.

[iii] Paul VI, address to the Roman Curia, 23 April 1966.

[iv] Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Å’cumenici Vaticani Secundi [hereafter 'AS'] (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1970-78), I/4 (Congregatio Generalis XXXI), p. 142.

[v] X. Rynne, The Second Session, (Faber & Faber, London, 1964), p. 276.

[vi] AS, I/3 (CG XX), pp. 107-10.

[vii] AS, I/3 (animadversiones scriptæ), p. 757 on church unity, and II/6 (CG LXXIX), pp. 358-60.

[viii]   AS, II/1 (CG XXXIX), p. 462.

[ix] AS, III/3 (anim. script.), p. 814, N.8a, Linn. 13-15.

[x] AS, III/3, (anim. script.), on Revelation, p. 431 and p. 812.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] By way of further examples of BCB's views, one could refer to AS I/3 (CG XX), pp. 109-10; see also AS I/3, p. 266, where he indignantly rejects certain suggestions and suspicions: 'De his valde indignor ... omnino respuam has suggestiones et suspiciones'; and AS III/3 (CG XCV), pp. 353-4, where he again requested full freedom for exegetes to use the historical and critico-scientific approaches to biblical research, which we have no reason to fear: 'Ne timeamus ne veritas veritati noceat'.

[xiii]   AS, I/3 (CG XX), p. 110.

[xiv]   Ibid., pp. 264-6.

[xv] Ibid., p. 569. He will again deal with this in 1963; see AS, II/1 (CG XXXIX), p. 462.

[xvi]   Alberigo & Komonchak, eds., History of Vatican II (Orbis/Peeters, Maryknoll & Leuven, 2000), Vol. III, p. 50.

[xvii]   AS, I/3 (anim. script.), p. 757.

[xviii]   AS, I/4 (CG XXXVI), pp. 389-90.

[xix]   AS, II/3 (anim. script.), pp. 816 ff.

[xx] AS, II/4 (CG LIX), p. 75.

[xxi]   AS, III/7 (anim. script.), pp. 196-9.

[xxii]   AS, IV/2 (anim. script.), p. 97.

[xxiii]   AS, IV/3 (CG CXLIII), pp. 613-15.

[xxiv]   Novo Millennio Ineunte n.57.

[xxv]   P. Hebblethwaite, John XXIII - Pope of the Council (London, 1984), pp. 498-9.