Father Richard Neuhaus kept on his shelves several books by Louis Bouyer, a priest of the French Oratory. Like Fr. Neuhaus, Père Bouyer (1913-2004) had been a Lutheran minister before his conversion to Catholicism and ordination to the priesthood.
In the Vatican II era, Fr. Bouyer would have needed no introduction. Professor of Church History and Spiritual Theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, he published books on liturgy and patristic theology that are classics in their field. Influential at the Second Vatican Council, he was quick to express dismay at post-conciliar interpretations of the Council’s statements on liturgy.
Below is an excerpt from The Decomposition of Catholicism. First published in France in 1968, it is addressed to a French audience with its two camps: intégrisme, a strict, even extreme, conservative movement and progressisme, identified with progressive elements in the Church and left-wing politics. Despite possible unfamiliarity with Fr. Bouyer’s historical and political references, this stunning little text makes useful reading for American Catholics today.
Poverty is so important in Christianity that “religious” as they are called, have always had the acknowledged task of giving evidence of it by exemplary radicalism. But it is stating a truism to recall that their life-style in most cases . . . is in fact much less poor than that of the great majority of the so-called “secular” clergy, and reflects rather the average level of a free and easy middle class.
. . . The taste for gaudy and useless buildings (which, like Lisieux or Nazareth, are generally abominations), the life-style of high-ranking clergy, the charge-scale for acts of worship and especially for dispensations are but trifles when compared with more profound and hidden evils. . . . (for example, certain scandalous trafficking with Mass stipends).
Fr. Bouyer directs his acerbity full-throttle toward what he saw as the debasement of the liturgy in the name of a Church in solidarity with the poor:
To my knowledge, up till now this great crusade for the poor Church has accomplished little else but the impoverishment of worship. A certain bishop, whose cathedral possesses a treasury of wonderful old vestments, since his return from the Council now officiates . . . in a sack cloth. It is true that afterwards he returns home in a Citroën, while the most comfortable of his canons may not even have a tiny 2 CV.
I must confess . . . that I find these candle-stub economies particularly degrading. It is the poverty of Judas and not of Christ. Worship is a thing that belongs both to God and to the whole people of God. It is a celebration in which everyone from the poorest to the richest is at home in the house of the Father and is called to rejoice in His presence. Luxury and tawdry showiness are surely out of place, but real and even costly beauty could not find a better place in this world. . . .
Moreover, the idea that a hodgepodge worship will necessarily cost less that a splendid one is childish. Even if quality liturgical art is relatively costly (no more and often no less than the tawdriest), what would be stopping the building of churches or altars worthy of the name, or ceasing to make priestly vestments that are not niggardly or hideous, do for the poor? . . .
Beneath these stingy economies there remains the old confusion between charity and “do-gooding,” a confusion that has never been more deceptive than in our own day. It is even less true today than ever that helping the poor means melting down one’s gold, assuming one has any, in order to give them bread. . . . The horrible tragedy of Biafra ought to have opened their eyes since tons of food and medicine from the four corners of the earth went to rot on the doorstep of the needy because of a lack of elementary good will on the part of the local people. . . . The only effective aid to the underdeveloped countries that Christians can provide is to help them develop themselves.