Fr. Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) was a member of the Oratory of France and one of the major theologians of the twentieth-century. Born to a Protestant family, in 1935 he became a Lutheran minister. However, his study of St. Athanasius and the liturgy prompted him to enter the Catholic Church, in 1939. Subsequently, he entered the Oratory of France, was ordained a priest, and taught theology at a number of institutes. A leading member of the liturgical and ecumenical movements prior to the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI appointed him to the Consilium for the renewal of the liturgical books and to the International Theological Council. He published influential books on the liturgy, spirituality, theTrinity, creation, and the situation of the post-conciliar Church.
In this interview, Dr. Keith Lemna selects and discusses five of Bouyer's best works.
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The first book on your list is Bouyer’s Memoirs. Who was Fr. Louis Bouyer and why are his books worth reading? Louis Bouyer was a former Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism and became a priest of the Oratory.
He was a prodigious scholar. He was an expert on Cardinal John Henry Newman, liturgy, and systematic theology. He was also a teacher who inspired many students. He was a novelist as well!
Bouyer was a friend and collaborator of some of the great twentieth-century theologians. These included Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and—during his time on the International Theological Commission in the early 1970s—Joseph Ratzinger.
He was a favorite of Pope Paul VI, who read his books and once recommended him, along with de Lubac and Cardinal Journet, to the Roman clergy as one of the theologians they should read to deepen their theological understanding and improve their preaching.
He is worth reading because quite a few of his books are now classic studies: in liturgy, ecumenism, ecclesiology, and Mariology.
I especially recommend his nine-volume synthesis of Catholic doctrine. I write about it in my two books on him. It provides a dynamic presentation of the Christian understanding of reality. It is rooted in the whole Tradition—starting with scripture and the Church Fathers—but is also modern and unafraid to address head-on the questions and challenges that the Church faces today and in the foreseeable future.
In these latter volumes, his theological vision is beautiful and expressed in a prose that rivals that of his great nineteenth-century role model, Cardinal Newman.
"His book, The Paschal Mystery, brought this very expression to the fore."
Bouyer had published important books before the Second Vatican Council and participated in it. Did he influence any of the Council’s documents? It is difficult to gauge the influence his work had at the Council.
A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about some of the theological greats who were not at the Council. Hans Urs von Balthasar was one. He also included Bouyer in the list.
However, Bouyer's pre-conciliar theological perspective was embraced by the Council in many ways, if not in every way.
His book Rite and Manwas being read by periti at the Council. I have already mentioned Pope Paul VI’s fondness for him. His studies of ecumenism, the theology of grace, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and divine revelation are deeply congruent with the conciliar texts. His book, The Paschal Mystery, brought this very expression to the fore. The paschal mystery is a major theme in conciliar and post-conciliar Catholic theology.
I believe that his influence on the Council was pretty large, even though he was in absentia. However, I am unsure how one could verify the scope of his influence on the Council documents. I can only say that studying Bouyer helps one understand the deep meaning of the Council.
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What led you to study Bouyer? I came across Bouyer’s work quite by accident, although I am sure it was providential.
I was interested in theological cosmology and planning to do a doctoral dissertation on the subject.
To get a manageable handle on it, I went in search of a single theologian that I could focus on. I wanted someone who took modern scientific cosmology seriously but who was also steeped in the Catholic Tradition and not too naively correlational in dealing with the interpretation of modern scientific cosmology. It is necessary to maintain a balance between embracing modern science and not making it the ultimate authority on everything we do or think on the metaphysical plane.
Immediately, I was struck by how Bouyer brought into play all the things I thought needed to be brought into play when dealing with the cosmological question in the (post-)modern context. Furthermore, he seemed to possess the balanced approach I was looking for. I was hooked.
Soon, I discovered the sophiological roots of his cosmological perspective and made that the focus of my studies on him.
“Sophiology” refers to a school of interpretation that comes from the Russians Vladimir Soloviev, Sergei Bulgakov, and Pavel Florensky. It centres, in new and interesting ways, on the theology of Wisdom, a topic that had been underdeveloped in the mainstream theological tradition, East and West. Bouyer knew Bulgakov in Paris.
There was not much on the topic at the time in English. Since then, the number of studies of Sophiology in the English-speaking world has exploded. Nonetheless, Bouyer’s importance in this field is still underappreciated.
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