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A Missionary of theology

An interview with Sara Butler, a member of the International Theological Commission and lecturer in seminaries

"No, I never would have imagined! It was a total surprise!”. " Sister Butler is truly happy, and even more genuinely surprised, when she remembers her appointment as a member of the International Theological Commission, nine years ago. It was 2004: the choice of John Paul II to call two women to be members of the Commission willed by Pope Paul VI in 1969 - and then for a long time presided over by the then Cardinal Ratzinger - was then confirmed in 2009 for another five years by Benedict XVI (the other is the lay woman Barbara Hallensleben, who teaches theology at the Theological Faculty of Fribourg, Switzerland). Born in Toledo (Ohio) in 1938 in a Catholic family, after having studied with the Ursulines and entering the order of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity in August of 1956, Sara Butler enrolled at the Catholic University of America in Washington: "It was 1961 and women were not admitted to the faculty of theology. So I took my degree in religious education." A doctorate in systematic theology obtained from Fordham University in New York, will arrive in 1971. Exactly twenty years later, a licentiate in theology at the University St. Mary of the Lake (Mundelein Seminary), in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Your personal and professional life is full of opportunities. In the sixties and seventies you were a supporter of women priests. But then you changed your mind, and you changed after studying the issue seriously and in depth.

In those years it was discussed a lot. Many believed that it was simply a matter of male chauvinism, a prohibition devoid, that is, of intrinsic justification. I had been working with Church Women United, an ecumenical group. Then, in 1975, The Catholic Theological Society of America asked me to do research on the status of women in the Church and in society - and to coordinate a task force on the subject - even if in reality the thing that interested it was the ordination of women. So when in 1976 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the Declaration Inter insigniores , explaining and confirming the Church's teaching on the subject, it was a bitter blow. Without having really studied it, we decided that the text did not convince us: we considered only one of the many writings, concerned as we were by the desire to have our say. When I went to the second meeting on women’s ordination in 1979, I discovered that there were two opposing factions: those who wanted women priests and those who wanted a Catholic Church without priests at all, that is, regardless of sex. The Catholic bishops of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission gave me the task of preparing a report on Inter insigniores to explain to the Anglican members of the Committee why the Catholic Church continued to uphold the exclusion of the ordination of women. That assignment forced me to do something that until then none of us had done: really study that document. I did and I was shocked: I realized that the centuries-old teaching of the Church was right. I remember very well that, sitting at my desk, I thought, "Lord, now I have to say publicly that I have changed my mind."

And you said ...

Oh, yes! [She smiles, and her eyes sparkle with amusement] My colleagues were not very happy with what they heard! I thought it was my duty seriously to shed light on the subject, and in 1987 I wrote an article, Second Thoughts on Inter Insigniores : I tried to publish it in a Catholic magazine, but to no avail. For two years there was no way. In 1988-89 I took a gap year and then went to St. John's in Collegeville (Minnesota): I wanted to try to study and investigate the matter, which would soon return to centre stage as the Church of England had allowed it. I remember very well when, in 1994, I heard the news: John Paul II had issued the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis , in which the exclusively male priesthood was reasserted. It was an earthquake! Still, it's all so clear: Jesus instituted the sacrament of ordination as an extension of his own authority. Moreover, as the Pope repeated, the feminine genius does not need to have hierarchical positions to affirm itself in the Church! But I'm very sympathetic with those who do not understand this, since at first, I did not understand it myself. So, every time they ask me, I'm open to dialogue. I have published several articles in theological journals to give my contribution and in 2007 I wrote a book, The Catholic Priesthood and Women, A Guide to the Church's Teaching , in which not only do I try to explain and make known the position of the Church, but I try to understand why so many find it hard to accept a tradition that is not the result of a choice of the ecclesiastical institution, but is instead connected directly to the will of Christ.

A perfect mission for a woman of your religious order ...

In fact! I am a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, an Order canonically approved in 1932, whose specific charism is the preservation of the Faith. That means we must continually seek to deepen our personal faith, so that it can be converted into proper and just conduct. The new evangelization is therefore our daily work! (among other things, Sister Sara Butler is also consultant to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization).

For twenty-four years, you have performed another very important task: teaching dogmatic theology in seminaries. How did it come about?

As often happens in life, a little by chance. After two terms in the General Council of my community (1978 to 1988), I was invited to teach theology in a seminary, a place had become vacant at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois. It’s now been twenty years that I have been teaching theology to men who are preparing for the diocesan priesthood. First at Mundelein Seminary from 1989 to 2003, then between 2003 and 2010, at the seminary of St. Joseph (in the Archdiocese of New York) and now once again in Mundelein. This certainly is not what I expected when I left Toledo, Ohio, to enter my religious missionary community! But I have discovered that the seminary too has a missionary dimension.

In the fall of 2009, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars has honoured you with the Cardinal Wright Award for "outstanding scholarly service to the Church." Do you believe that it is important for women to teach future priests in seminaries?

Extremely important, really very important indeed. It is an enrichment for all, for individuals and for the Church as a whole. I think it helps the students, future priests, a lot to know women and relate to them: let us not forget that women are a substantial part of humanity! I've always had fruitful often long-term and constructive relations with my students and colleagues. Despite the differences between the two seminaries in which I taught, the balance is decidedly positive. I also have several non-religious colleagues who teach with me.

But are these exceptions or is this norm in your country?

In the United States each seminary has at least one or two women who teach you. Luckily, then, there is no question of a rarity. And of course, this should never be the case.

Sara Butler taught theology at Mundelein Seminary first (in the Archdiocese of Chicago, 1989-2003) and then, until 2010, at St. Joseph Seminary (in the Archdiocese of New York). She is currently back at Mundelein Seminary, where she is professor emeritus of systematic theology. She has been a theological consultant for the American bishops' conference, being part of various committees since 1973. For the Holy See, on the other hand, she was a member of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission (1991-2004) and of the International Conversation between Catholics and Baptists (2008-2011). She has been, since 2004, a part of the International Theological Commission.

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