As our previous discussions show, there are many things that one can say about Dei Verbum. But it cannot be said that Dei Verbum was obvious or inevitable. This can clearly be seen in some of the letters of Dom Basil Christopher Butler, OSB, an influential participant at the Council as Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation who would later serve as the Auxiliary Bishop in Westminster. I borrow these excerpts from a very useful article by Arthur Wells, “Bishop Christopher Butler OSB – His Role in Dei Verbum.”
Abbot Butler’s letters can first help us get to the heart of the Council itself:
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). (Letter to Miss Mary Butler, 3 October 1964)
Before Dei Verbum would be composed, the Preparatory Commission had prepared the schema De Fontibus Revelationis. De Fontibus Revelationis had a rather negative tone, and controversially spoke of tradition and Scripture as two distinct “sources” of revelation. Perhaps it is needless to say that the schema took no account of the findings of modern scholars, most of them holding that, in Yves Congar’s words, “There is not a single dogma which the Church holds by Scripture alone, not a single dogma which it holds by tradition alone.” And so the peritus Fr Otto Semmelroth would write to himself on November 13 of 1962, “Tomorrow the discussion of the schema De Fontibus Revelationis begins. The battles will be bitter.” The bitterness continued for a week before Pope John XXIII withdrew the schema De Fontibus Revelationis in accordance with the wishes of the majority. Writing to his brother and sister-in-law in Canada that December, Abbot Butler opined, “the Pope intervened here on the side of common sense.” In the same missive, Butler wrote
I expect the papers have given you a pretty fair account of the Council. Every act of the drama was satisfactory. 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.
Butler was worried about the repression of scholarship, the Modernist controversy having been in recent memory. He would later write of the effects of the resulting “reign of terror” in his influential 1966 Sarum Lectures, published as The Theology of Vatican II, noting that, consequently, “My own predecessor, Abbot Cuthbert Butler of Downside, redirected his scholarly attentions into the safe back-ways of monastic and mystical history.” These concerns are obvious in a letter he wrote his sister Mary in late November, 1962:
The subject of Scripture and Tradition has been sent back to a new committee headed by eight Cardinals – of whom at least half are the sort of men I should have chosen myself. The subject is indeed very vital. A lot of our ‘top people’ seem to be very worried about the lengths to which some of our own scholars have gone in accepting Protestant ‘liberal’ views about the NT. I think that the Church can legitimately limit scholars about the publication of alarming views; but I do hope that we shall avoid defining about the truth of some modern ways of tackling the NT. E.g., Form criticism may be a baneful thing when practised by an unbelieving rationalist; but that is not to say that, in itself, it is not a perfectly legitimate tool in the hands of a believing scholar. I also hold that as it is from the Church and her living voice that we learn the content of the faith, we can afford to be fairly ‘liberal’ about Scripture – whereas an old-fashioned Protestant, rejecting the authority of the Church, must be more sensitive about criticism … A great step towards meeting this point was made when the late Pope published his great encyclical on Scripture [Divino Afflante Spiritu.]. But at the moment a die-hard ‘wing’ in Rome itself is on the war-path. However, God has been very good to us in this Council so far. As I may have said before, the strength of the forward-looking wing is very much greater than I had supposed it would be.
Abbot Butler would be content with Dei Verbum, especially when the traditional term “inerrancy,” present in De Fontibus Revelationis, was dropped in the later stages of debate. Instead, we read that ” the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”
The final voting on Dei Verbum took place on October 29, 1965: 2,115 votes were cast, with 2,081 in favor. But all of this was very far from predictable. Abbot Butler had written to Mary on October 10:
One of my main anxieties at present is about the Revelation document. As it stands, it is on the whole very good … But there is a hard core of opposition to it, and on Saturday, I picked up a rumour that the Pope was going to prepare some changes in it before it goes before the Council for final solemn approval. There are three main danger spots. (1) I want the document to avoid committing us to a formal statement that there is anything in the deposit of faith that is in no sense in the Bible. (2) I want a very moderate statement of what we mean by the inerrancy of Scripture – actually, I think that a preoccupation with inerrancy has narrowed down our practical appreciation of the real significance of inspiration. (3) I, of course, do not want anything in the document which could prejudge legitimate critical questions. ‘Rome’ in the narrow sense of the authorities at the Vatican has a bad record on all these points … The ‘winding up’ process is a bit tiresome, especially for me, since the De Revelatione is almost the only open issue that I am passionately concerned about.
Hopefully, this very brief history will move us to gratitude for Dei Verbum. It might also move us to gratitude for Butler, abbot and bishop. We recently celebrated the feast day of St Benedict. After mentioning his intellectual gifts, the Dictionary of National Biography article on Basil Christopher Butler reminds us, “He remained a true Benedictine, one whose central vocation is seeking God.”