Interview with Sister Sara Butler M.S.B.T.


This interview was conducted by Meghan Cokeley, Director of the Office for the New Evangelization in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in April, 2014 as part of the Archbishop’s Lecture Series. 

At the Archbishop’s own Year of Faith Lecture on October 1, 2013, Archbishop Chaput introduced you to the audience as a “world-class theologian.” How would you introduce yourself to your audience?

I’m from Toledo, Ohio, and I belong to the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity (“Trinitarians”), whose motherhouse is here in Philadelphia. My community sent me to study theology, and I have been able to put my education to use in many different settings, and for the past 25 years as professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary (archdiocese of Chicago) and St. Joseph’s Seminary – “Dunwoodie” (archdiocese of New York). I have also represented the Church in ecumenical dialogues at the national and international level, and have served as a consultant to various committees of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. In the past ten years, I’ve had papal appointments to the International Theological Commission, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, and the world Synods on the Word of God and the New Evangelization. My published articles appear in the major scholarly journals and as book chapters; they generally have to do with questions raised in ecumenical dialogue and in feminist theology, e.g., authority in the Church, the place of women in the Church, Mariology, and Christian Anthropology. In 2007 I published a book, The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Church’s Teaching, and I’m hoping to produce another, this time dealing at greater length with questions raised by feminist theology.

Recently, Pope Francis has been calling women to play a more direct and decisive role in the life of the Church. In the Church in the U.S., women make a large contribution already. For example, it is often women who run parish ministries, activities and events, lead prayer groups and most importantly, nurture and care for the faith of their children. Where do you see room for expansion, or new spheres of influence for women?

One new sphere of influence is the internet. Catholic women today contribute to the mission of the Church by publishing blogs, offering leadership on cultural issues (including issues affecting marriage and family and human rights advocacy), doing spiritual direction, and contributing as theologians and biblical scholars. I am impressed with the Catholic women who organize ministries to women and families, take bold initiatives in service to the poor, and defend the unborn, the victims of human trafficking, religious liberty, marriage, and the earth’s resources. Women around the world take corporate action as members of religious congregations, in other forms of consecrated life, and in the new ecclesial movements. Still, many women ask for opportunities to share more directly, that is, as decision-makers, not only as consultants, in matters related to Church teaching and governance. This is a real possibility for women who have theological and canonical training. A Catholic theologian has an ecclesial vocation, and participation—through independent scholarship or committee work—provides a very substantial opportunity for sharing in decision-making. Women who are canon lawyers can contribute at the diocesan level to the administration of justice or as a member of a bishop’s cabinet. Only in the past generation or two have women had access to the training that would prepare them for this kind of service. Catholic women trained as civil lawyers also have access to formal responsibilities, e.g., Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor, was a papal legate to the U.N.’s Beijing Conference on Women, was appointed president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and just recently also to the commission studying the affairs of the Vatican Bank. Many other women hold responsible positions in the Holy See.

What unique set of gifts do men have to bring to the life of the Church? Outside of Holy Orders, is there a unique role that men have to play?

Actually, this important question is just beginning to be investigated in Church circles. To date, attention has been riveted mostly on the equality and dignity of women. Pope John Paul’s addresses on the “feminine genius” demonstrate a serious effort to explore and identify women’s contributions, but since there is no comparable set of papal lectures on the “masculine genius,” that leaves the unfortunate impression that men constitute “normative humanity,” and women are the “other.” Conversion from this perspective is hard to achieve! Also, controversy over the ordination of women has contributed to the impression that priesthood is the vocation for men, leaving Catholic lay men without a clear positive indication of their vocation. Some theologians have been working on remedying that. I’ll say something about the results in my lecture, but I don’t presume to have the answer.

A very important moment in your own intellectual life was your change of position on the issue of women’s ordination. Would you please share with us a little bit about what happened?

In the 1970’s I fully expected the Church’s practice to change. According to many leading theologians of the day (e.g., Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Küng, and George Tavard), there were no theological objections to this. I came to look at the question differently over a period of years, chiefly through my participation in the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, in the Bishops’ Committee for a Pastoral Letter in Response to Women’s Concerns, and in a study requested by the late Cardinal Bernadin. I had assumed the question turned on the correct estimate of women’s equality with men, but gradually came to see how it also involved a correct understanding of the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood. I became increasingly critical of certain feminist arguments related to theological anthropology when I was writing a thesis for my licentiate in sacred theology. I studied the pertinent documents from the Holy See and wrote many position papers along the way. Debate with my dialogue partners from the Church of England as they prepared to vote on the ordination of women (1992) convinced me that the question touches on the constitution of the Church, as Pope John Paul II said in his apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis §4 (1994). I could see that this topic involves the most fundamental questions: the sacraments, the nature of the human person, the structure of the Church and the way we carry out theology.   It is not easy to summarize! My motivation for studying this was not simply academic. My community’s charism is the “preservation of the faith,” and it is obvious that the faith of many Catholic women is challenged by this topic.

Your lecture title is “Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church”. What topics will you be covering in this lecture? Why is it important for Catholics to reflect on this topic?

Let me say that it will not be a practical, pastoral talk! I leave that to someone else. My interest lies in how feminist arguments on this topic have forced the clarification of important questions concerning the equality and complementarity of men and women. In my lecture, I hope to review the state of the question today, point out where progress has been made, and identify the contemporary theories about sexual difference that continue to pose obstacles to authentic collaboration. I will then consider the two sacraments “at the service of communion” (CCC 1534), Marriage and Holy Orders, to see how they offer a vision of complementarity that encourages life-giving collaboration between men and women in the communion of the Church.