Reviewing Louis Bouyer Ten Years Later

A week ago I benefited from my host-professor here at KU Leuven, Joris Geldhof, inviting me to accompany him to a two-day conference (Oct. 10 – 11) on Louis Bouyer being jointly presented by the Institut Catholic de Paris and the College des Bernardins: “ACTUALITÉ ET FÉCONDITÉ D’UN MAÎTRE. LOUIS BOUYER (1913-2004).”

The joint venture of these two faculties, which can fairly be characterized as  academically and ecclesially centrist-left (the Catho) and right (des Bernardins) was itself a sign of intra-ecumenism on the French Catholic terrain. Both days were simply loaded with thirty minute talks, such that there was precious little time for open discussion from the floor (just three comments during seven minutes at the end of the first morning, the most penetrating coming from an African priest-graduate student questioning the pastoral usefulness of Bouyer’s highly speculative work in ecclesiology, eschatology, etc.). The number attending various halves of the two days ranged from about 75 to 150, as best I  could estimate. And my sense of the coffee breaks was that like-minded colleagues, as might be expected, clustered together. I hasten to acknowledge that Parisian (and French Catholic) culture has its proper characteristics, just so as to say that I did not witness (or expect) much if any lively debate across ideological and ecclesial lines.

For Bouyer, of course, was a controversial figure, given to explosive anger and sharp-tongued criticisms of not only theological and pastoral-liturgical positions but also persons themselves. The evidence for those of us whose studies and adulthood post-date his heyday in the 1960s and 70s comes in the recently published, unedited memoir he left for a friend-colleague to release a decade after his death (thus, summer 2014). To prepare for my two days of taking in (all in French, of course) the 18 presentations at the conference, I consulted more recent scholarly journal articles engaging Bouyer, as well as reviews of the memoir, among which the offering in La Croix struck me as the most fair, without sugar-coating the character that emerges through the pages. But others may be found not only in Catholic journals and reviews but in such secular-press venues as La Figaro — a testimony to Bouyer’s status as a public intellectual and churchman.

Bouyer was a prolific writer, among whose dozens of books are numbered three large trilogies spanning a few decades of his career. While students of academic liturgical theology would most likely be acquainted with his earlier works on the paschal mystery, the bible and spirituality, and the eucharist, the trilogies unfold increasing speculative work in sophiology, a sub-discipline he advanced via great appreciation for Serge Bulgakov and other Russian Orthodox thinkers and, in concert with them, close reading of patristic sources. My own impression of the purpose of the abstract, speculative development in his work was that it served to support the practical, clerical, highly conservative ecclesiology he promoted in his writings, lectures, and not least through his formative influence on an inner circle of students he nurtured in 1970s Paris, including (the later cardinals) Lustiger (Paris) and Shoenborn (Vienna), as well as some of last weekend’s older presenters from the faculty des Bernadins.

Bouyer never stayed very long on any one faculty; it seems his personality prevented that. Presenters at the conference, during talks but also over a lunch I enjoyed with some, acknowledged his brittleness but also his having often been a target in the battles — academic and practical, theological and liturgical — that followed Vatican II in the French and European church. Younger generations would meet Bouyer’s thought through Hans Urs van Balthasar’s appreciation of his work, but also by his influence on Josef Ratzinger (not to mention on Paul VI and John Paul II, as well).

Perhaps the best way to summarize the outcome of last weekend’s colloquy on Louis Bouyer is for me to paraphrase my colleague Dr. Geldhof who, as we enjoyed our conversation on the bullet train careening north back to Brussels, expressed satisfaction at the luxury of being fully immersed in the corpus of a particular theologian’s work for a couple days. Speaking for myself, the result will be greater nuance when touching on Bouyer’s contributions, character, and career in teaching and writing about the history and appropriation of the Liturgical Movement, the reception of Sacrosanctum Concilium through the work of the rites-reforming Consilium (on which he served), the reaction that followed through the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the male-female complementarity at the heart of an ecclesiology, sacramental-liturgical theology, and ideology of the priesthood enmeshed with the “theology of the body.”

Despite the magnitude of Bouyer’s body of writings, as well as the ambitious coverage of so much of his principle ideas and concerns at the recent Paris conference, I can only offer these present brief remarks. Perhaps Pray Tell participants would like to discuss something of their own engagement with this significant theological figure and his legacy.

3 comments

  1. Bruce, thanks for opening this conversation about Bouyer. If I had been at the conference, I would have asked the African priest-graduate student more about his questioning the pastoral usefulness of Bouyer’s highly speculative work in ecclesiology. The second half of his book, The Church of God, has been one of my most helpful guides to the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, especially to his eucharistic ecclesiology. Bouyer’s list of the nine deficiencies in this ecclesiology of Vatican II are, to my mind, measured and pastoral (although his stern criticism of the curia won him no friends there). I wonder if Massimo Faggioli has ever offered an opinion about Bouyer’s eucharistic ecclesiology? In this matter he was not speculative but visionary.

    1. @Paul F. Ford – comment #1:
      Thank you, Paul, for the reference to that particular book on the church by Bouyer. I must confess to being unfamiliar with it, and it seemed that the presenters during the second morning of the conference were preoccupied with the overall theme of “mystery” and turned so much to the sophiological work in the third and final trilogy. There was no opportunity afforded for questions and discussion that morning, and I’m not sure whether the young man who’d posed the question the day before found much in those subsequent talks that met his concerns. But I could be wrong. In any event, thanks for the comment. I’ll drop a line to Massimo F. to ask him if he’d like to comment on Bouyer’s ecclesiology (fine suggestion!).

  2. Thank you, Bruce, for this report on the conference in Paris; you will have seen Jean Duchense, Bouyer’s dear friend and literary executor there; he had written “Qui a encore peur de Louis Bouyer” back in 2004, after Bouyer’s death.
    I am resurrecting this thread, really, to point out that Louis Bouyer’s Memoirs are now available in English. A must-read for any one interested in the Liturgical Movement, Ecumenism, or simply the different theological trajectories in the Church in the twentieth century. A plain good read, too.
    You can get it here:
    http://www.amazon.com/Memoirs-Louis-Bouyer-Conversion-Liturgical/dp/1621381420/ref=sr_1_8/191-0385726-5357428?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1439240762&sr=1-8&keywords=Bouyer

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