Change of Heart

NEW YORK — Sister Sara Butler, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity, is a theologian who in the 1960s and 1970s was one of the leading proponents for women's ordination. But she now embraces and defends the teachings of the magisterium on the priesthood with conviction and expertise.

In March, Pope John Paul II named Sister Butler to the International Theological Commission, one of the first two women to serve on this influential commission.

She spoke recently with Register correspondent Sheila Gribben Liaugminas from her office at St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y., where she teaches systematic theology.

How did you get into the world of academia and theology?

I studied for my master's degree at the Catholic University of America. This was 1961, and women weren't admitted to theology, so I got a degree in religious education. I never felt anything like resentment over that at all, but I do remember thinking it was really quite, I don't know, remarkable.

I finished graduate school and made my final vows in 1963. I returned to Fordham University for doctoral studies, and it took me a while to write my doctoral thesis.

Those were heady days. Activism was gaining momentum. Women's ordination was becoming a big issue for Anglicans. Anglican-Roman Catholic U.S.A. invited me to join in 1973. Everyone at the time worked from a major published study with the thesis that women weren't ordained because of faulty anthropology. It grounded this argument in the patristic tradition and made a strong case that women were regarded as inferior.

Women's-ordination proponents were driven by this thesis that some inadequacy of women seemed to be the only obstacle to the ordained priesthood. And since that reason didn't hold, the discipline should be changed.

What was your position at that point?

That study and its conclusions seemed solid to me. I was working with the Church Women United ecumenical commission at the time. The Catholic Theological Society of America asked me to study the status of women in the Church and society and to head a committee on that. But everyone only wanted to talk about women's ordination.

That thinking had been going ahead full steam for some time. The council reconfirmed the equal dignity of women. Most leading liberal theologians were leaning this way. So when Pope Paul VI released [the 1976 declaration] Inter Insigniores explaining and upholding the Church's teaching against women's ordination, it hit hard.

I will say that we read that document at the time not to understand it but to refute it. We decided to give our opinion and just treat Inter Insigniores as one more report. I feel really bad about that, but at the time, that's the way we thought.

At the second women's ordination conference, I discovered that two different groups had formed: those who wanted to have women priests and those who wanted a Catholic Church without a priest-hood at all. I didn't like how things were going and felt myself pulling back more.

What actually convinced you to reconsider Church teaching?

Anglican-Roman Catholic U.S.A. asked me to do a report for them on Inter Insigniores and explain why Catholics thought women's ordination was impossible. It forced me to really read the document for the first time. What I read convinced me that the Church's teaching on this unbroken tradition is true and that we had forgotten the whole thing here.

I was sitting at my little desk reading this document and thinking, “Oh, my God. I'm going to have to change my views on this and say this in public.” It was very traumatic. I had sort of defined the crowd, and now I had second thoughts. But it ultimately meant having the grace to pursue truth or not.

What was the obstacle to communicating what you had come to understand with those who didn't yet see it?

So much of this issue was theological. I was chiefly trying to respond to faulty feminist arguments. In 1987 I tried to get an article published in a Catholic journal, which I titled “Second Thoughts on Inter Insigniores.” I was trying to announce to the world that I'd changed my thoughts on this issue. This was my witness and I wanted to get it out. But they wouldn't publish it.

I took a sabbatical from 1988-89, went to St. John's in Collegeville, Minn., and tried to understand what was the actual tradition about this issue, what fits and what doesn't. I gave a talk on my unpublished paper at St. John's, but it was not popular.

What support were you getting at the time?

I felt as if the Lord was giving me things I needed along the way — a book, a letter, whatever I needed. Then, a position opened up at Mundelein Seminary [in Illinois] for a staff theologian. I recall going to an event held by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to celebrate the release of [the 1988 apostolic letter] Mulieris Dignitatum, the Pope's response to feminists. I met [Chicago] Cardinal [Francis] George there. He helped me understand the philosophy behind the Pope's thought.

Also, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission got me involved in the “Gift of Authority” study in 1992 with a complete review again of the issues involving authority. The Anglican Church was ordaining women, and all possible arguments were brought forward.

I remember the moment in 1994 when I heard the news that the Pope had issued the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone). It came like a thunderbolt! We hadn't expected it. I was overwhelmed with joy.

After that, somebody from Collegeville said to me grudgingly, “I guess you're glad you were right.” It wasn't like that. It was not vindication that I felt, just a joyful response. We don't need women's ordination to prove women's equality. Jesus instituted the sacrament of holy orders as an extension of the authority of Christ. It has symbolic value.

But I am sympathetic to people who don't see it. That's why I want to keep my relationships open and speak whenever asked. I do the best I can to return to the dialogue from deeper theological investigation. How are you going to reform a group of people if all the speakers they're hearing have dissenting opinions? You look for any opportunities you get.

Could you have imagined one as huge as a seat on the International Theological Commission?

Never! I never saw it coming! It was a total surprise. My first reaction was, “Oh, my God! This is really out of my league!” The only requirements for this that I meet are being competent and faithful to the magisterium. I've survived commissions up until now without messing up.

But this is a new commission; here's a chance to involve women with more of a voice in decision making. Now a couple of women will be at the table where the discussions will be held that will influence decisions.

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas writes from Chicago.