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.

Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy



When: Thursday, February 5th, 2015; 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Where: Shotel Dubin Auditorium (2nd floor, Steinhardt Hall, Penn Hillel Center)

The Collegium Institute welcomes Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, the Ross-Cooperman Professor of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University.  Dr. Brill will be lecturing on his current book-project, Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy, which explores the differences among orthodox religious groups entering modernity and assesses the wide variety of possible interactions between modernity and traditional religion.  He situates this investigation within the broader question of “What is ‘Modern” about Modern Orthodoxy?” By comparing the trajectory of Jewish Orthodoxy over the last two hundred years with that of Catholicism and Protestantism, in its many varieties, Dr. Brill will attempt to identify multiple modernities and reflect upon their implications.

Following Dr. Brill will be two discussants, Dr. Anna Bonta Moreland (Villanova) and Professor Cheikh Babou (Penn) who will extend the conversation by considering the relationship between modernity and orthodox religious movements within Christianity and Islam, respectively.

The discussion will be moderated by Professor Talya Fishman (Penn), Director of the Jewish Studies Program, which is cosponsoring this special event.

Cosponsors: Department of Religious Studies, the Jewish Studies Program, and the Program for Research on Religion & Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Light kosher refreshments will be served.

Please RSVP by clicking here. Admission is free and no ticket is required.

Note: Photo Credit for the hiker image on the homepage slider comes from this Telegraph article. Their picture attribution is to REUTERS/Imelda Medina

Feminism and Christian Anthropology

On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church

When: Thursday, January 22, 2015; 7:00 p.m.
Where: The Penn Newman Center, Upper Level (located at 3720 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia)

Join us for a discussion with Sister Sara Butler, M.S.B.T, a Professor Emerita of Dogmatic Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.


Pope Francis has called for a “more incisive female presence in the Church,” but he supports a view of the complementarity of the sexes that many Catholic feminists find outdated. How can the equality of the sexes be reconciled with their complementarity? What issues need to be addressed in order to respond to the feminist critique? Does this problem involve the formal teaching of the Church in some way, or is it open to further investigation?

Sister Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., is professor emerita of dogmatic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. She has served on the International Theological Commission and is a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and the U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee. A former seminary teacher, she has published extensively on issues related to women and the Church.

This event is co-sponsored by the Penn Newman Center.

Admission to this event is free. RSVP Requested. No tickets necessary. Light reception to follow.
To RSVP, please click here.

For a PDF of our event poster, please click here.

The Importance of Being Catholic?

A Lecture and Conversation about the Faith of Oscar Wilde

When: November 25th, 2014; 8:00 a.m.
Where: Penn Newman Center, Lower Level (3720 Chestnut St, Philadelphia)

Paul Fortunato, Associate Professor of English, University of Houston – Downtown, and author of Modernist Aesthetics and Consumer Culture in the Writings of Oscar Wilde (Routledge, 2007).

Oscar Wilde was received into the Catholic Church on his death bed, but critics are divided as to how sincere his conversion was. We will discuss Wilde’s faith journey, from his days at Oxford, when he first thought of becoming Catholic, through his fast and furious days of success as a London playwright, through his time in prison for his homosexuality, and beyond.

Drawing for Wilde’s short story, “The Selfish Giant” by Walter Crane.
Drawing for Wilde’s short story, “The Selfish Giant” by Walter Crane.


For those interested, the lecture is preceded by Mass at 7:30 a.m.

To register for the event, please visit our Eventbrite page at:

For a PDF of our poster, please click here.

Please click here for a PDF if you are interested in reading Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Selfish Giant”.


Why Biology Still Needs Teleology

A Modern Aristotelian Account of Life, Knowledge, and Health


When: Thursday, November 13th, 2014; 5:00 p.m.
Where: College Hall 209, Penn Campus, Philadelphia

Featuring: Dr. Robert C. Koons, Professor of Philosophy at University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in philosophical logic and in the application of logic to long-standing philosophical problems, including metaphysics, philosophy of mind and intentionality, semantics, political philosophy and metaethics, and philosophy of religion.

With Comment By: Dr. Harun Küçük, Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at Penn, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He has written extensively on issues relating to History of Early Modern Science, Science and Religion, and the Enlightenment.

Moderated By: Dr. Peter Dodson, Professor of Anatomy and Paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-editor of The Dinosauria, a definitive scholarly resource, and the author or co-author of more than one hundred academic papers and books, including The Horned Dinosaurs (Princeton, 1996). He is a Senior Fellow at the Collegium Institute.

The Aristotelean notion of teleology explains the existence or functions of purposes in nature. This was a predominant view until the Galilean Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, and especially the death of vitalism and the rise of Darwinian evolutionary theory (in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively), when biologists started treating teleology as an outdated notion. At best, they have considered it a heuristic device or useful fiction.
Professor Robert C. Koons believes that this position is untenable, for biological inquiry exists primarily for the sake of biological knowledge, and biological knowledge is inextricably bound up with teleological concepts, like that of gene or enzyme. During the event, Professor Koons will explain his view that the very possibility of rational thought and knowledge depends upon a teleological foundation. Through this interesting discussion, he will ultimately explain how this proposition has great implications for biomedical ethics and the vocation of the physician. 
Cosponsored by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.To RSVP for this event, please click here.

Click here for a PDF of our event poster.

Can a Secular Society Last?

A Luncheon Lecture with Rémi Brague

When: Thursday, October 30, 2014; 12 Noon

Where: McNeil Center, Wolf Auditorium (Located at 3355 Woodland Walk, Philadelphia)

Rémi Brague, Emeritus Professor of Arabic and Religious Philosophy at the Sorbonne & Romano Guardini Chair of Philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

With comment by:
Eric GregoryProfessor of Religion, Princeton University
Jeffrey GreenAssociate Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

Moderated by:
Mark ShiffmanAssociate Professor of Humanities and Classical Studies, Villanova University

Cosponsored by:
The Department of Political Science, The Program of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), The Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (PRRUCS), and The Penn Secular Society at the University of Pennsylvania

To RSVP for the luncheon and lecture, please visit the following short link:

For a PDF of our event poster, please click here.

Syria’s ‘Blood Diamonds’

A Preview of “What Happened to Syria?” with Christian Sahner on October 16, 2014

While the wanton destruction of Syria’s historical patrimony—from Roman temples to Byzantine churches, Umayyad mosques to Crusader castles and Ottoman palaces—has received a lot of attention, the real purpose behind that destruction hasn’t always been clear. These aren’t necessarily isolated acts of vandalism or profiteering. They are an intrinsic part of the battle in Syria over identity, values and history that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives over the past three years. The nation’s heritage has been used as a weapon to finance bloodshed, to settle sectarian scores and to erase entire chapters of the country’s past in the expectation of radically reshaping its future.

The most pronounced manifestation of Syria’s war on cultural heritage has been the sale of treasures looted from archaeological sites and museums for guns and cash, much like blood diamonds. The most prized commodities on the black market include Roman mosaics, Palmyrene statues, ancient jewelry, medieval manuscripts and prehistoric religious artifacts, which are slowly making their way into private collections across the Middle East, Europe and North America. Many groups in Syria’s civil war profit from trade in such objects, including regime-affiliated militias and rebel battalions. Among the most notorious is the Islamic State, or ISIS, the hardline Islamist group that controls a “caliphate” stretching from Raqqa, its capital in eastern Syria to the suburbs of Baghdad. According to scholars Salam Al Kuntar, Amr Al Azm and Brian Daniels, ISIS derives a steady income from stolen antiquities, especially the taxes it imposes on looters and smugglers operating inside its territory. While income from antiquities may not match the cash ISIS derives from plundering banks or selling oil, it still accounts for millions of dollars a year, which go to pay for bullets, terrorist training and other war-related expenses.

To read the full article, which appeared on September 8, 2014 in the Wall Street Journal, please click here.

Holy Ghosts

Presented by the Penn Newman Club for Newman Night

When: October 23, 2014; 7:00 p.m.
Where: Penn Newman Center

Matt Chominski, Theology teacher at Archmere Academy, regular contributor to Crisis and The Distributist Review.


The topic of ghosts is at once exhilarating, exciting, challenging, and perhaps frightening. Seemingly every town and region has some ghost lore, stories of some frightening or friendly spectre awaiting aid, sympathy, or the opportunity to terrorize. Philadelphia is certainly not lacking in this regard.

While ghosts lurk on the periphery of modern life, in the 16th-century the possibility and nature of ghostly activity was hotly debated by Protestants and Catholics. This talk will address fundamental concerns and questions elicited by this debate. It will further be seen that despite the historical distance of over four centuries, this early-Modern debate has much to suggest to present-day Catholics, aiding the formulation of answers to the question: “In what ways should a Catholic understand and interpret potentially ghostly phenomena?” In other words, “what does the Catholic have to say about the spooky and spectral?”

Tentative Outline:

  1. Introduction and Talk (25 minutes)
  2. Small Group Discussion (10 minutes)
  3. Large Group Discussion, Question & Answer (10 minutes)
Cosponsored by the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture.

Is Justice Possible?

A professional and personal conversation

with David Skeel (S. Samuel Arscht Professor of Corporate Law) and Rogers Smith (Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Associate Dean for Social Science) and moderated by John DiIulio (Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society).

When: October 22nd, 2014; 7:00 p.m.
Where: Cohen Hall Auditorium G-17 (249 South 36th Street)

Reception to follow

Hosted by the Veritas Forum and the Collegium Institute at Penn.

Graduate Fellows Colloquia: Spring 2016

Collegium Institute invites all graduate students and other interested individuals from the University of Pennsylvania and Greater Philadelphia Area to join its graduate fellows for the spring colloquia series focusing on John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University.  Fellows will explore excerpts of Newman’s book paired with various snapshots of the modern academy.

All readings are provided free of charge and refreshments are served!

Thursday, March 17 at 7p.m. in Arch 107. We will read Discourses 1-4 of Part I which, following an introduction to the university as a whole, argue for the place of theology in the university.  We will juxtapose that to the mission statement of Penn’s Religious Studies Department as well as with the video welcome to Trump University.

Thursday, March 31 at 7 p.m. in Arch 106. We will read Discourses 5-8 of Part I on the pursuit of knowledge in the university along with David Brooks’ seminal article on the over-professionalization of elite liberal arts students, in preparation for a lecture by Anthony Grafton on Friday, April 8.

Thursday, April 14 at 7 p.m. in Arch 107. We will read Discourses 1-3 of Part II on Christianity and Literature in preparation for a lecture by Joseph Bottom on Thursday, April 27 on the same topic.

For more information or to receive reading materials, contact Katie Becker: