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Rev. Louis Bouyer: A Theological Giant | An Interview with Dr. Keith Lemna | Ignatius Insight | November 12, 2010

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One of the first two books published by Ignatius Press in 1979 was Woman In the Church by Rev. Louis Bouyer (1913-2004), a highly respected French theologian (the other book was Heart of the World by Hans Urs von Balthasar). But while fellow European theologians such as von Balthasar (1905-88) and Henri Cardinal de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991), have become more well-known and widely read since the Second Vatican Council, Bouyer is still largely unknown to the average Catholic.

Dr. Keith Lemna, Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, has studied the life and thought of Bouyer for many years, and has written several articles about Bouyer's wide-ranging theological works. He recently spoke with Ignatius Insight about the importance of the writings of the impressive French priest and scholar.

Ignatius Insight: Who was Fr. Louis Bouyer?

Dr. Lemna: Louis Bouyer was a priest of the Oratory, a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism, which he had served as a minister, an eminent liturgiologist and historian of spirituality, an influential scholar of Newman (whose studies of Newman helped to pave the way for Newman's eventual beatification), and, perhaps most importantly of all, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century.

Ignatius Insight: What were some of Fr. Bouyer's significant contributions in the realm of Catholic theology?

Dr. Lemna: Fr. Bouyer is known most of all as a scholar of liturgy and spirituality, and it is in these areas that his work has exercised its most overt impact on the course of Catholic theology as a whole. In the area of liturgy, Bouyer, himself drawing on the work of Dom Odo Casel, is the figure who is most responsible for the emphasis that has been placed in recent decades on the theme of the "Paschal Mystery" as central for understanding the mystery of the faith, and he, as much or more than anyone, oriented sacramental theologians to a focus on the liturgical event as the basis for theological reflection on the nature and meaning of the sacraments.

Bouyer was also one of the great ecumenical theologians of the twentieth century, who was committed to dialogue with Protestants, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, although always with a firm commitment to the Catholic Church as the fullness of Christ's sacramental presence on earth. Bouyer's book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism is one of the most illuminating studies on the relationship of Protestantism to Catholicism to have ever been written.

Many converts to Catholicism have noted that this book was of inestimable value to them on their journey to the Catholic Church. Bouyer sees aspects of the Protestant Reformation in a positive light, but he notes that the positive goals of the Reformation can only be truly met if they are carried out in the communion of the Catholic Church. At the same time, he fully unmasks the problems with the nominalism adopted by Luther and the Reformers and the concomitant repudiation of analogical thinking. This leads, he shows, to a rigid either-or approach to theology and to the hardened positions of faith alone, Scripture alone, and grace alone.

Moreover, Bouyer was close friends with Sergei Bulgakov and Vladimir Lossky, the two greatest Russian Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century. Bulgakov was a "sophiologist" greatly influenced by Vladimir Soloviev (19th century). Lossky, who rejected Bulgavkov's approach to theology, was a "neo-Patristic" theologian who sought to root theology in the concepts developed by the Church Fathers. Bouyer's corpus bears the influence of both of these men. One might wonder if any Catholic theologian in the twentieth century was as deeply knowledgeable and sympathetic to the Christian East as Bouyer, while remaining firmly rooted in the Western tradition. It is no coincidence that Hans Urs von Balthasar, the eminent Swiss theologian, dedicated his famous study of the great Eastern Patristic theologian Maximus the Confessor (Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor [Ignatius Press, 2003]) to Bouyer. Bouyer travelled in the Christian East and held that the modern Western Church should seek to integrate its life with liturgy in the way that was still, at the time of Bouyer's travels, commonplace in the East. In liturgical matters, Bouyer was a proponent of what one might call "high sacrality," and he was greatly disappointed with the practical implementation of the liturgical reform after the council.

Bouyer's knowledge of the Anglican tradition was no less formidable than his knowledge of Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. More than any single influence, Bouyer was marked by his study of the theology and biography of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. Indeed, if there is such a thing as a "Newman School" in systematic theology, Bouyer would surely be its pre-eminent advocate. As early as the 1970s, Bouyer was calling for the sorts of provisions for Anglican converts that Pope Benedict XVI has given us with Anglicanorum Coetibus. Bouyer was steeped in Anglophone thought and culture. He read deeply in the tradition of English Christian Platonist theology, and he was personal friends with both J.R.R. Tolkien and T.S. Eliot. His use of the early modern English tradition of theology in his works on systematic theology is unique and worthy of further exploration and development.

It is important to note, in this regard, that Bouyer composed and published a nine-volume treatise on systematic theology, one of the most powerful syntheses (though he refused to label it or even to think of it as such) of Catholic doctrine to have appeared in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, it has been too little noticed by Catholic theologians. It is immensely stimulating for theological reflection. Bouyer writes very much in the style of Newman, that is, in a flowing, even poetic manner, basing himself, like Newman, in historical theology but, at least in Bouyer's case, without neglecting the importance of metaphysics. On the other hand, Bouyer's approach to the theological discipline in these volumes is very much influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, in that he seeks most of all only to bring to display, in the context of modern thought, the surpassing love of God revealed in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.



Ignatius Insight: What were some of his key works?

Dr. Lemna: In terms of books that have had a direct influence on Catholic theology, his book published in 1943 on the Paschal Mystery, Le Mystère Pascal, has been greatly influential. In this book, Bouyer argues that the liturgical unfolding of what he would call (on the suggestion of a colleague) the "Paschal Mystery" in Holy Week is the central key for understanding the faith. All of the events of the last days of Holy Week must be seen together, Bouyer argues, in order to grasp the Mystery of Christ as a unity. Dom Hugh Gilbert, Abbot of Pluscarden Abbey in Scottland and no mean scholar in his own right, has described this book as "epoch-making" in its influence and importance.

Similarly important is his book on the Eucharist, Eucharistie, one of three seminal studies of Christian liturgy done in the twentieth century (along with Josef A. Jungmann's The Mass of the Roman Rite, and Dom Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy). In this book, Bouyer explores the theology and historical development of the Church's Eucharistic prayer. He argues for the importance of developing a theology of the Eucharist based on attention to the act of the liturgy, rather than a theology about the Eucharist that takes its starting point in abstract metaphysical concepts that are then applied to the reality of the Eucharist. He shows the roots of the Christian Eucharist in Jewish Temple and synagogue practices, going beyond Casel's thesis that the Church had borrowed its liturgical forms from the Greco-Roman mystery cults.

Bouyer also wrote several books on spirituality that were uniquely integrative of spirituality and dogmatic theology. Two such books are his The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Church Fathers and his Introduction to Spirituality. Bouyer always argued for the need for the modern Christian West to rediscover the connection between theology and holiness, and he was particularly insistent to recover the Church's tradition of monastic theology. His book The Meaning of the Monastic Life is perhaps the most important of all in this regard. Davide Zordan, a scholar of Bouyer based in Italy, has argued that Bouyer stands out among twentieth century ressourcement theologians in bringing to light the Church's tradition of monastic theology.

Bouyer was also steeped in biblical theology, having been trained first in the methods of historical-critical scholarship and then under the tutelage of Oscar Cullmann. His capacities as a biblical scholar were on display in a translation and commentary on the Gospel of John that he did early in his career that was highly regarded.

I would also like to point to his nine volumes on systematic theology, which I have already mentioned, particularly his book Cosmos: The World and the Glory of God. This book is an immensely wide-ranging, systematic synthesis, drawing on a rich array of sources, ancient and modern. It demonstrates a profound, traditional understanding of the relationship of the world to the triune God. It has implications for the relationship of theology to science and opens paths for connecting continental Catholic theology to Anglophone thought.

Ignatius Insight: What influence did his work have on the Second Vatican Council?

Dr. Lemna: It is difficult to assess the precise influence that Bouyer's work had on the council. By the time that the council had convened, many of Bouyer's ideas had become common currency among some of the theologians who were present at the council, even if they were not influenced by Bouyer. Bouyer was a theological expert relied upon by the Church in the period surrounding the council, and he was greatly trusted by Paul VI, who appointed him to the first International Theological Commission after the council and who had wanted to name him a cardinal. Bouyer refused the offer, arguing that it would cause too much trouble for the Holy See. He had been engaged in fierce polemics with the later generation of liturgists in France, and his reputation had suffered as a result. In our own day, especially with the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, Bouyer's reputation should be restored, as his liturgical vision coheres with that of the Holy Father.

Certainly, if Dom Hugh Gilbert is right about the singular importance of Bouyer's book on the Paschal Mystery, then we might go so far as to say that Bouyer's work was a decisive influence on the council, if only indirectly so. Also, it is difficult to measure just how influential Bouyer's writings and teachings on liturgy and spirituality were in the period leading up to the council.

At any rate, there is no doubt that Bouyer's general approach to Scripture, theology, spirituality, the Church, and liturgy were canonized by the texts of the council. It would perhaps be better to say, rather than speaking in terms of influence, that Bouyer's work enables us to interpret the council through the lens of a "hermeneutic of continuity." Bouyer's work is very much in line with the theologies of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He provides further support for their joint effort to inspire the Church to read the council in terms of the meaning of the actual texts of the council rather than according to some "Spirit" that is presumed to have little connection to the texts.

Ignatius Insight: What are some aspects of Fr. Bouyer's work that are deserving of more study and consideration?

Dr. Lemna: Because there has been scant attention paid to Bouyer's work in secondary literature, I would say that every aspect of his work deserves more study and consideration. Bouyer is the least studied of the eminent Catholic theologians of the twentieth century.

Zordan published an 800 page book on Bouyer's theology in France a couple of years ago, and hopefully that will break the ice. But Bouyer's work is immense in its scope and implications, and there should be conferences and scholarly societies dedicated to promulgating his theology.

I think that the biggest obstacle to furthering his thought is that Bouyer wrote in a very polemical style at times, in a way that was off-putting to both "traditionalist" and "progressivist" camps in theology. But the old battles that fueled those polemics are largely a thing of the past by now, and most of the participants in those battles are dead. Bouyer could be equally sharp toward neo-Thomists, Rahnerians, and toward theologians influenced to a great extent by liberal Protestantism. Zordan notes an "anti-Augustinian attitude" in his writing at times. He definitely had, like Newman (as Ian Kerr, the pre-eminent Newman scholar in our day, has shown), a preference for the manner of theology practiced in the Christian East and for the Western monastic theology embodied in the works of a figure such as William of Saint Thierry (12th century). At the same time, as his Dictionary of Theology demonstrates, he saw the central importance of Saint Thomas for Catholic theology. Despite his penchant for polemics, his overall vision of the unity of Catholic doctrine, of the connection between theology and Christian life, and his unrivalled sense of the central importance of sacred liturgy for theology and for the existence of the Church stands out over and beyond all of the heated disputes. Cardinal Lustiger had said that Bouyer was perceived as "untimely" and "unwelcome" to the "very generations" to whom he was "providentially sent." But perhaps in our time we can begin to see more clearly precisely how lucid and comprehensive—and, one might even say, "forward-looking"—was Bouyer's vision of Catholic theology.

Perhaps the most fruitful terrain for future study of his thought at this point would be in comparing his work with Newman, say, or with that of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar, near the end of his life, placed his own thought in the "school" of Bouyer and the biblical scholars Heinz Schürmann and Heinrich Schlier. He distinguished this "school," all of whose adherents were rooted in biblical theology, from Henri de Lubac's ressourcement theology, with which Balthasar has generally been associated. The coherence between Bouyer's thinking and Newman's is worthy of its own special study. Moreover, only Pope Benedict XVI rivals Bouyer in being both a theologian and a scholar of liturgy. There is much that needs to be said regarding the uniquely liturgical theologies of both of these great men of the Church.

In sum, I would reiterate that Bouyer was one of the major figures in twentieth century Catholic theology. His work needs only to be first acknowledged in its depth and scope in order to be made the object of future study.



Related Ignatius Press and Ignatius Insight Links:

The Word, Church and Sacrament in Protestantism and Catholicism | Fr. Louis Bouyer
John Henry Newman: Prayers, Verses, Devotions | Introduction by Fr. Louis Bouyer
"Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick: Louis Bouyer on the Reformation" | Mark Brumley



Keith Lemna holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from The Catholic University of America. He has published several articles on Bouyer in international journals of theology. He currently holds the position of Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, in Saint Meinrad, Indiana.



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