Action Alert!

Louis Bouyer’s Memoirs: A portrait of the twentieth-century Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 14, 2015

Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) was another one of those fine French minds of the mid-twentieth century who were relegated to the outer darkness by the secularism that overtook the Church in the West in the 1960s. In this he joined such men as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. Their quest for an authentic Catholic renewal might have seemed dangerously liberal to the old guard in the 1940s and 1950s, but they knew what renewal was and so were deemed archaic when the new secularist broom began its dirty sweep.

As a Lutheran, Bouyer saw early on that the admirable evangelicalism of Protestantism could not develop properly without being rooted in the body of the church which made Christ present to the world through its body and its liturgy. Eventually, he understood that this “church” was the Catholic Church; he converted in 1939 just three years after having become a Lutheran minister. In the development of his ideas he was deeply influenced by Blessed John Henry Newman, whose example he followed when he became an Oratorian priest.

The great academic commitments of his life naturally included the relationship of Protestantism to Catholicism and the nature of the Liturgy. Works such as Life and Liturgy (1955) and The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (1956) are still valuable today, as are his later studies, including The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers (1982) and Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer (1989).

Bouyer was a peritus for the liturgy at Vatican II (but did not like the actual transformation of the liturgy after the Council), and he also served as a consultant to both the Congregation of Sacred Rites and the Secretariat for Christian Unity. His horror at how the “spirit of the Council” was used to destroy so much good led him in 1969 to write The Decomposition of Catholicism. In this he followed the lead of Jacques Maritain, who had already discharged both barrels in The Peasant of the Garonne in 1966.

It is fortunate that while teaching at the University of San Francisco in his later years, Bouyer completed his memoirs and left them with Ignatius Press to publish when the time was ripe. Apparently that time is at hand: Ignatius will release the Memoirs (in English) in late October. I’ve had the good fortune of reading a galley proof. The text covers all those influences, from childhood forward, which helped to form Bouyer’s mature Catholic Faith; it also offers penetrating insights into the resistance Bouyer felt from the “right” in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was often distrusted as a convert, and from the “left” in the 1960s and beyond, when the neo-Modernists took over the academy.

Caught between the pre- and post-conciliar moods

Bouyer often experienced the pre-conciliar obscurantism which so plagued the Church, such as when he joined the Oratorians. The novices were obliged to keep busy to the exclusion of prayer. They had to give up the recitation of the Divine Office (which he had said for years while still a Protestant) and were given spiritual conferences which did little but impose basic doctrine by rote. “But I had there a first view,” Bouyer remarks, “of the inconceivable negligence with which the Catholic Church even at that period could prepare (?) for their religious life or their ministry those who had or seemed to have some vocation to it” (p. 160).

Bouyer and his follow novices survived largely through their sense of humor. Indeed, some of this would be funny were it not so sad. Similarly, while working toward Catholic renewal prior to the Council, Bouyer stressed the importance of both a renewal of the liturgy and a fresh appreciation of Sacred Scripture. But this got him into trouble with Catholic leaders who distrusted such interests as essentially Protestant:

This deplorable interest (in the eyes of “true Catholics”, as Father Lamblin used to say) in the liturgy and, worse still, in the Bible! not only ruined my career at Juilly [a French Oratorian school]; it was also going to earn me other missed experiences farther afield. [p. 185]

Yet just a few years later:

…the majority of the priests interested in the new movement were coming to it, not at all in the perspective of giving back to the traditional liturgy all of its obscured meaning, all of its living reality, but in order gradually to substitute another liturgy for it, a “paraliturgy”, as they said at the time, more conformed to the tastes and attitudes of what those good people called “the man of today”, but who actually represented above all a “homo clericalis” more or less cut off from his own sources, long before what would be called “openness to the world” had been set in opposition to conversion to the Gospel. [p. 191]

Close and surprising encounters

Some of the strange encounters Bouyer had in academic life were less historically significant but even more humorous, especially his encounters with the future Cardinal Jean Daniélou (whose work I also respect). Apparently, Daniélou seriously disliked Bouyer, so much so that Bouyer could not even serve as the advisor for a student’s thesis and expect that thesis to be approved by Daniélou when they were professors at the same school.

On one occasion, Bouyer warned a student that it was a bad combination to take himself as an advisor on a thesis for which Daniélou would be the second reader, but the student persisted. Sure enough, Daniélou declared the paper to be absolutely worthless, with no hope of being amended. But since Daniélou had the reputation of seldom looking closely at student papers, Bouyer advised the distressed student to (a) drop him as his advisor; and (b) resubmit the same paper under a new title to Daniélou, who would assume it was a brand new paper. Thus the student received his doctorate, with honors!

Among other important factors which shaped Bouyer’s spirituality was his love of literature, from which he discovered the importance of the literary imagination as a key to a deeper and, indeed, more pregnant vision of reality. His appreciation of such figures as T. S. Eliot and J. R. R. Tolkien, whom he regarded as friends, illustrates the role of literature in the formation of his spirituality. In fact, in addition to his academic work, Bouyer also wrote three pseudonymous novels.

While weak in chronology, so that the reader does not always know the precise timing of things, Bouyer’s memoirs provide rich insight into not only the author’s own spirituality but also the challenges faced by the Church during his lifetime. Above all, they communicate that profound sense of the Church which both drew him out of Protestantism and stimulated his profound insights into the liturgy. The following extract is a fitting conclusion, not only to this essay, but to a life well-lived:

…it still seems to me, and increasingly so, that one has not truly joined the Church in her catholicity as long as one confuses her with what can be expressed and, with even more reason, realized by merely one part, in time and space, of the people of God which is the Church. All that can be asked of that portion is that it not separate itself, remove itself, actually and deliberately, from the Una sancta, which is to say from the faith structure and from the organic, sacramental common life of the Body of Christ. But it is the duty of each and all, beginning with “those who seem to be something” [cf. Gal 6:3], to work with all their strength to bind themselves to it and to bind it to the fullness and the purity of the tradition once and for all entrusted to the apostles and their successors. How well they do this is their own business, but it will also be the primary object of God’s judgment on one and all. [p. 176]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 15, 2015 9:54 AM ET USA

    To jasoncpetty3446: Yes, that conversation, which is definitely not apocryphal, is recounted in the Memoirs. Pope Paul VI asked why the Liturgical Commission (including Bouyer) voted in favor of some of Bugnini's proposals (which Bouyer thought very bad). Bouyer said it was because Bugnini insisted this was what the Pope wanted. Paul VI replied that this was not true. Not long after, Bugnini was FINALLY cashiered.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Sep. 14, 2015 10:17 PM ET USA

    Does the book include the famous, perhaps apocryphal, conversation between Bouyer and Paul VI when Bouyer tendered his resignation from the Commission? The one where Bouyer says he disagrees with the Holy Father's impositions so he's resigning, but the Holy Father, shocked, says he never did anything but accept Bugnini's recommendations--actually Bugnini's own ideas presented as the recommendation of the experts?