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The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer
by louis bouyer
translated by john pepino
angelico, 272 pages, $19.95


his memoir is a joy to read. Louis Bouyer (1913–2004) writes so beautifully about his childhood in fin-de-­siècle Paris it almost makes up for not having lived in that time and place oneself. The early chapters are like a cross between All-of-a-Kind Family and Proust’s À La Recherche du temps perdu. After a Wordsworthian conversion to Christianity, Bouyer goes to study in Lutheran seminaries in Paris and in Strasbourg. He annoys his professors by playing hooky in order to hear Étienne ­Gilson lecture at the Sorbonne and falls under the influence of the Russian Orthodox diaspora in Paris. Unknown to ­himself, he is sleepwalking out of high Lutheranism and into ­Catholicism.

The most dreamlike scenes are set in the Oratorian house at Juilly where Bouyer was prepared for reception into the Catholic Church in 1939. It sounds like an eighteenth-century castle in a forest, like something out of a French movie of the 1940s, perhaps Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. Bouyer himself compares his domicile at Juilly to “the semi–fairy tale film Les Disparus de ­Saint-Agil.”

After a couple of decades of teaching at the Institut Catholique de Paris, Bouyer was sufficiently renowned to be invited to join several of the preparatory committees for the Second Vatican Council. The half-dozen well-known theologians who have composed encomiums for the back cover of this memoir heap their praise on Bouyer’s depiction of his negative experiences of Vatican II, especially his assessment of Msgr. Annibale Bugnini, the evil genius behind the new liturgy invented after the end of the Vatican Council. If only our liturgy had been reformed by Bouyer, who had a good nose for French art cinema, instead of the ­philistine ­Bugnini!

The author’s Vatican II backroom stories are already quite well known, and this book should be interesting to people who don’t know or care about the difference between a dalmatic and a chasuble. What is really thrilling about Bouyer’s Memoir is its capacity to evoke places and times. As befits an author who felt the presence of God in natural and liturgical beauty, Bouyer’s book shines like a sophiological Bonnard or a ­theological Monet.


ouyer has some wonderful remarks about comedy and why pie-throwing is deeper and more satisfying than witticisms. But the character of the author comes across clearly as a thin-skinned, otherworldly aesthete, who was built to alternate between chanting the office and writing about the liturgy, not to alternate between writing theology and engaging in a bout of ecclesiastical pie-throwing. There are caustic pen portraits not only of Bugnini but also of the great Jesuit and Dominican figures of the nouvelle théologie, including Jean Daniélou, Bouyer’s onetime colleague at the Institut Catholique, whom he nailed down as “journalism personified, a ­superior journalism, though.” Again and again in the Memoir we find Bouyer resigning from things, such as the Institut Catholique and the Vatican II committee on the liturgy, for obscure reasons. It is as if Bouyer felt contention to be a sufficient cause for abdication.

Bouyer belonged to the fabled generation of theologians who prepared the way for the Second Vatican Council by writing about Scripture, ecclesiology, and human nature, the three great themes of the Council, in a down-to-earth way. Because he was French and of their persuasion, he tends to merge in people’s minds with the other representatives of the nouvelle théologie. When we think of him as one face in a group portrait, it’s hard to distinguish his profile from those of Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, and he tends to disappear behind Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar. This book shows what made Bouyer unique.


Protestant convert who was put down regularly for being too interested in Scripture and liturgy to be a real—that is, a cradle—Catholic, Bouyer had specific insights developed in his pilgrimage from romantic Lutheranism, to friendships with Orthodox theologians such as Vladimir Lossky, to monastic-style Catholicism. Not only was he interested in ecumenism, but he also had good ideas about how to enracinate the best of Protestantism and Orthodoxy within the Catholic Church. He infuriated pre–Vatican II Catholics by insisting on the merits of Protestantism, and he continues in the same vein in this book. Without Bouyer’s praise of these other traditions, arrangements such as the Anglican Ordinariate would have remained inconceivable to Catholic officialdom. With his empathetic common sense, Bouyer represents the true spirit of Vatican II, even if he did quit the committees.

Like many of his generation, Bouyer tended to put the blame for the Protestant Reformation not so much on the Protestants as on the decadence of the late medieval Church. Bouyer argues, for instance, that by the early fifteenth century, liturgists tended to “over-play” the notion of the Mass as a drama, treating it as a literal reenactment of the Passion with the clergy as a cast of histrionic, Olivier-type actors. The performance of the Mass was excessively focused on the words of institution themselves, taken in isolation from the liturgical celebration as a whole. Bouyer sees Luther’s rewriting of the eucharistic liturgy as an attempt to reform practices that genuinely needed reforming. Unfortunately, as Bouyer says, Luther’s Formula Missae (1523) was not, as its author intended, the restoration of the primitive Eucharist but rather “the final result of certain of the most aberrant tendencies that threatened the whole practice and theory of the eucharist in the Middle Ages.” The Protestants ended up with what Bouyer calls an “uneucharistic eucharist”—hardly the words of an ecumenical diplomat.


ut Bouyer formulated an idea that proved crucial for ecumenism, and possibly also for the future of the liturgy itself. Most cradle Catholics of his generation saw Protestant liturgy as mere playacting of ritual without any spiritual value. Even daring Catholic ecumenists like Congar did not have the means to articulate how Anglican liturgies could have retained an abiding spiritual potency. As a convert from high Lutheranism, Bouyer was able to write that “whatever its defects may have been . . . the Lutheran mass preserved for the faithful all that they had found best about the Mass of the Middle Ages.” Bouyer was able to imagine Anglican liturgical practice not as a dead rite of heretics but as genuine if stunted eucharistic celebration.

Without Bouyer’s writings, it is difficult to see how John Paul II and Benedict XVI could have enabled the renewed use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer within the Catholic Church. The 1962 missal was the result of centuries of organic development. It must either continue to evolve or die. Only a dead, mortified liturgy ceases to grow. Could it be that the next stage of the development of the Roman rite will include the Mass of the Book of Common Prayer, perhaps in Latin, and, of course, performed ad orientem? Such would be the crowning of Bouyer’s life’s work.


n Women in the Church­—published by Ignatius in 1979, with a preface by von Balthasar and an afterword by C. S. Lewis—when it was clear that religious women were leaving their convents in droves and not being replaced, Bouyer suggested that small groups of women committed to poverty and chastity simply set up house together. Years back I told a conservative friend about that suggestion and he replied disconsolately that he wanted sisters back in their habits. For all his otherworldliness, Bouyer offered pragmatic ideas that were neither conservative nor liberal but are well worth pursuing.

It’s clear from this memoir that Bouyer’s close friendships with women, such as the English novelist ­Elizabeth Goudge, were essential to his personal balance. He came close to marrying during his Lutheran years, and Bouyer seems to have an insider’s understanding of male–­female relations that most other Catholic theologians of his generation lack. Bouyer’s vision of the Church was nuptial. He published on that theme from the early 1950s and continued to press for sane, spiritually satisfying conceptions of men and women right through his last years. Both the clerical depreciators of nuptial mysticism and its standard-bearers write sometimes as if they consorted solely with bluestockings, cross-patch Sisters, and, for the lucky few, the eternal feminine. Not so Bouyer.

Many years before the Council, Bouyer had developed a Pauline nuptial mysticism. In The Seat of Wisdom, he wrote that God “intended the relation between the union of Christ and the Church and that of man and woman as much more than a simple comparison: for the terms he uses, in their exactness and detail, show that, in a certain way, it is the union itself of Christ and the Church that has to be actualised in the union of husband and wife. It is for them to bring about, in their own sphere, what is effected by Christ and the Church in theirs.”


ohn Pepino deserves praise for translating Bouyer’s Memoir so well. His copious footnotes make Bouyer’s Memoir accessible to the common reader. Pepino’s English palette matches up to Bouyer’s French oils. He certainly does not deserve to be sentenced by his reviewer to make translations of the four novels that Bouyer mentions having penned in this book. Perhaps Bouyer is now in a position to arrange a staggered purgatorial remission for Pepino in return for each volume. Of course, none of the other great French theologians of the twentieth century wrote novels. The fact speaks for the one-off achievement of Louis Bouyer, sophiologist, liturgist, ecclesiologist, and lyrical prose stylist.

This book appeared last summer in an edition put out by Angelico Press, which is one of the heroic band of small Christian presses that operate on a shoestring and produce books one is delighted to find in print. Small presses are one of the saving graces of modern life. In the fall, Ignatius Press published its own edition of Bouyer’s Memoirs. It is not clear whether the appearance of two simultaneous editions was the result of accident or ­design, but for its beauty and historical significance, this book deserves wide recognition.

Francesca Aran Murphy is a senior fellow at First Things.