Bouyer’s journey from Lutheran pastor to Ressourcement theologian

A new English translation of the Memoirs of Fr. Louis Bouyer offers keen insights into the Church, the Second Vatican Council, and the intellectual landscape of the past century

The ressourcement movement is arguably the most significant Catholic theological tradition of the twentieth century. Its thinkers figured prominently in shaping many of the documents of the Second Vatican Council; one of its brightest lights became Pope Benedict XVI. For all of this, it remains largely unknown among Catholics outside of the small circle gathered around the journal Communio. In the stormy decades following Vatican II, thinkers on both the left and the right found reasons for dismissing ressourcement theology: left-liberals found it too conservative, while conservative-traditionalists thought it too liberal. 

In America, lack of understanding of its theology has been surpassed only by ignorance of its theologians. Despite the translation of many of the major works of this predominantly francophone movement, there are few if any historical-biographical studies in English of individual theologians or the movement as a whole. Given this state of affairs, we are all indebted to Ignatius Press for publishing a new English translation of the memoirs of one of the leading ressourcement theologians, Louis Bouyer.

Perhaps less well known today than as thinkers such as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bouyer was in his time a pioneer in bringing new developments in European Catholic thought to America. A leading voice in the mid-twentieth century liturgical movement, he participated in the early American forays into liturgical renewal sponsored by the University of Notre Dame. Of all the ressourcement thinkers, Bouyer was perhaps the one most engaged with the English-speaking Catholic world. Much of this attraction may be traced to his fascination with the life and work of John Henry Newman, which in turn reflects in no small way Bouyer’s standing as himself a famous intellectual convert to Catholicism. Born in Paris in 1913, raised in a religiously and ethnically mixed French Protestant milieu, Bouyer found himself as a young man drawn to a group of earnest Protestants seeking some alternative to the stale liberal Protestantism of the nineteenth century; like Newman a century earlier, this search lead him first to ordained ministry in the way station of high church Protestantism (in his case, Lutheranism), and ultimately to the Roman Catholic Church.

Like Newman’s Apologia, Bouyer’s Memoirs offers a first-person account of a highly intellectualized spiritual transformation that is at the same time a moving portrait of the web of friendships and relationships inextricably bound up with that very personal conversion. Spared the need to defend himself against calumnies heaped upon him by pre-conversion confidents, Bouyer writes nonetheless in part to vindicate his pre-conversion years, insisting throughout on the enduring truth of those aspects of Protestantism common to all Christians yet sadly neglected by the Church in the first half of the twentieth century, most especially the Bible and the liturgy. 

Readers looking for a guide to the intellectual landscape of this period should be advised: the book is, as its title indicates, a memoir, not a history, and certainly not a theological treatise. In this respect, it offers first of all a rich and revealing glimpse into a lost European world, a time before the World Wars, death camps and the global triumph of American commercial culture. More precisely, in his account of his early childhood years in Paris, he gives us a portrait of a world on the verge of transformation, the last days of la belle epoque

along where we lived and my aunt lived, the place de Wagram, or along The boulevard Pereire, the most urban noises made by the traffic of that time did no more than pleasantly punctuate the silence. One, I would say, filled it without dispelling it: it was that of horses trotting on the wooden pavement. A sound of which people have no idea today: familiar and quiet music, with a bit of gaiety to it, which harmonized delightfully with the swaying coziness of the old carriages, where you were so well placed, on large grey or blue cushions, to watch from on high the swinging spectacle of houses, trees, and passerby. The other sound was a sign of a civilization that was barely on the way: the deafening racket, entertaining as long as it remained rare, of electric tramways creaking, whirling, and vibrating on their rails, with the joyful chimes of their bells, operated by the foot of the drive.

Apart from that, I recall only the noise of the little street trades: noise whose poetry I will always miss, like that of the diverse but equally pleasant characters whose call was enough to bring us to the windows (12-13).

Without directly addressing any particular theological issues, Bouyer nonetheless embodies in this passage some of the characteristics that so distinguished ressourcement theologians from their Thomistic/scholastic contemporaries: a preference for poetic expression over narrowly rational argumentation and for history over abstract categories.

Yet unlike so many of his secular contemporaries, Bouyer never lets poetry and history lead him into the nostalgia of a pastoral lament for a world we have lost. For all his attachment to the material world of his childhood, he came to realize the inadequacies of the spiritual principles that shaped the mainstream culture of his day. The secularized liberal Protestantism that claimed to provide the moral and spiritual foundations for nineteenth-century European civilization in fact offered little more than the equally inadequate alternatives of sentimental piety or cold rationalism. Even before Bouyer was old enough to articulate this problem, he came under the influence of enlightened Protestant ministers who, like Neman before them, were looking to the Church Fathers as a guide out of the impasse of modernity. As a teenager, he would come to learn of Newman’s own engagement with the Fathers by reading Henri Bremond’s The Mystery of Newman (though he would later take issue with some of the quasi-Modernist elements of Bremond’s work).

At the same time, Bouyer began rebelling against the severe, anti-liturgical strain of one strain of his Protestant upbringing. Attracted to imaginative literature of all sorts, he discovered in the work of decadant-artist-turned-Catholic Joris-Karl Huysmans, particularly his La Cathédrale, a compelling account of the role of beauty as a path to spiritual truth. These early intimations of Catholic truth would nonetheless take many years to bear fruit. Despite his growing attraction to Catholicism, Bouyer pursued the Lutheran ministry, ordained a pastor at age 23 in 1936. He would finally convert to Catholicism three years later and eventually receive Holy Orders in 1944.

Fully half of the Memoirs deals with Bouyer’s life prior to his conversion. Still, his account of his early post-conversion years provides a powerful account of the intellectual and spiritual challenges facing the Church in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Like many of his fellow ressourcement thinkers, Bouyer found in the Catholicism of his day a kind of doctrinally orthodox yet spiritually shallow version of the same problem that beset liberal Protestantism: a faith bifurcated into sentimental piety and arid rationalism. To this, the Roman Catholic Church added a commitment to institutional order and uniformity that at times seems to undermine the spirit of the Gospel itself. On this point, the following passage best captures Bouyer’s sense of the mindset of mainstream Catholicism at mid-century:

Needless to say, in contrasting “Catholicism” to the Catholic Church, I thereby mean only to contrast true fidelity to tradition to an anti-Protestantism deliberately ignorant of the Bible, suspicious of any personal religion, reducing faith to the verbal acceptance of ever-repeated formulas, and seeing in authority, not a means, but an end, the end par excellence. We have since seen how this almost entirely external Catholicism, confusing a sheep-like mentality with fidelity, can, from one day to the next, completely empty its baggage overboard or, if it fears the consequences, see salvation only in a supreme hardening of its emptiest shells (35).

These are hard words to read for anyone pining for the glories of the pre-Vatican II Church, but they should not be mistaken for any facile liberal critique. In seeking to foster a more authentic spiritual life within the Church, Bouyer was as dismayed by what he saw after the Council as by what he saw before. The disconnect between the ressourcement inspiration of the Council documents and the decidedly liberal, even Modernist implementation of those documents remains the great untold story of twentieth century Catholic history. One wishes that Bouyer would have devoted more of his Memoirs to the tumultuous decade following the Council, but he writes, in the end, neither to settle scores nor to win arguments, but rather to inspire others to seek to live a Gospel life.

The last chapters focus on Bouyer’s increasing commitment to Benedictine spirituality lived in monastic community. If his Memoirs leaves many of the “big” questions of Church politics unanswered, it is by way of trying to focus his readers’ attention on the biggest question of all.

by Louis Bouyer
Translated and annotated by Anne Englund Nash
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014
Paperback, 297 pages

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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 24 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World was published in June 2022 by Ignatius Press.