Louis Bouyer’s Memoirs (III): the Great Catastrophe

Tuesday, September 22, 2015
[“For the record”]

Louis Bouyer’s Memoirs (III): the Great Catastrophe

In the previous two installments treating The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer: From Youth and Conversion to Vatican II, the Liturgical Reform, and AfterI noted some of Bouyer’s wide-ranging publications, and then his contacts with some of the leading lights of Orthodoxy, especially in France after the 1917 Russian revolution. In this final installment, let us turn our attention to Bouyer’s involvement with and analysis of the Second Vatican Council and in particular the disastrous liturgical “reforms” carried on in its name in the later 1960s.

Bouyer was a participant in both the council and the commission charged with reforming the liturgy. Before that, he was appointed to the commission for reforming seminaries, and he does not leave his readers guessing as to what he thought of his fellow commissioners: “a mass of worthless idiots,” “mere blockheads obstinately clinging to their own limitations.” They do and did nothing to prevent what Bouyer saw as the already longstanding “collapse of ecclesiastical culture in the seminaries.”

Bouyer notes the debates about Latin at the council: often, he maintains, those most obstinate in defending Latin were the least capable of speaking it; and those who had facility in Latin did not see why it had to be imposed always and everywhere on everyone.

One of the major goals of Vatican II was the achievement of Christian unity. But every time that “ecumenism” comes up in Bouyer’s memoirs, the unease is palpable. Though the reasons for his unease are not always clear, at one point his characteristic bluntness reasserts itself by quoting the Anglo-Catholic Eric Mascall’s denunciation of “‘Alice in Wonderland Ecumenism’: Everybody has won and all must have prizes!” Bouyer objects to the fact that in the rush to unity, significant and serious doctrinal disagreements are merely dismissed as unimportant, “the important thing being to agree that one may behave or believe as he pleases.”

In his various ecumenical activities over the years, Bouyer came into contact with other Orthodox figures after Lossky and Bulgakov (discussed in Part II of this series) had passed from the scene, including Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad and Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Lebanon. Strikingly, he would also encounter “Bishop Kiril of Viborg” who, in 2009, was elected Patriarch of Moscow. Bouyer would go on to serve from 1979 on the official commission for dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Church.

Bouyer was skeptical about how much official dialogues could achieve. What he thought more important and more efficacious was “a common effort of purification, of understanding, and especially of humble faithfulness to what is authentic.” Bouyer despaired that few 20th-century churchmen, both Catholic and Orthodox, understood the need for, and were themselves capable of offering, such purification and reconciliation. Of the few he thought capable of doing this, he mentions Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, Metropolitan Nikodim again, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, and Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky.

Let us turn at last to Bouyer’s experience with the commission reforming the Latin liturgy ostensibly in the name, and with the purported mandate, of Vatican II. He had the expertise to be able to take part in this effort, but equally the intelligence to see that what the others were trying to pull off was in fact a giant swindle–manipulating data to accord with pre-arranged conclusions and decisions; manipulating people to make them do what others had chosen for them to do. And the worst culprit here, the greatest fraudster and master manipulator was, of course, Annibale Bugnini, whose The Reform of the Liturgy (1948-1975) attempts to offer a grand self-justification. Bugnini’s machinations eventually caught up with him and he was exiled from Rome in disgrace but his deeply damaging actions remain in place to the present day–and defended as recently as 2007 in the altogether absurd and risible book of Piero Marini, A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal. (I cannot improve on George Rutler’s take-down of this book.)

Bugnini was adept at playing off members of the commission against one another and especially playing the commission off against the rather hapless Pope Paul VI. But we must not be too hasty to blame Paul for employing Bugnini, who had in fact begun his destructive reign at the behest of Pope Pius XII in the 1940s. Thus we see–once more–the lie that Pius was some towering figure of unflinching and unchanging “tradition.” Pius brought in major liturgical revisions on his own initiative, and many of these were of provenance and rationale as dubious as those promulgated after Vatican II. (As a side note, it remains more than curious to me that Pope Paul VI has yet to be the object of a major scholarly biography. The only English biography I know of is Paul VI: The First Modern Pope by the deceased journalist Peter Hebblethwaite–an entertaining read, as I recall from many years ago now, but clearly prejudiced and not very intellectually rigorous. Pius XII, for his part, has been often studied but almost always entirely in connection with what he did, or did not, do during World War II; few focus on his liturgical views as far as I know.)

Bouyer begins his reflections on his experience by noting that “I should not like to be too harsh on this commission’s labors,” not least because it had some decent people on it with both intelligence and genuine pastoral solicitude. But all that was lost as the commission was hijacked by the “mealy-mouthed scoundrel” Bugnini, “a man as bereft of culture as he was of basic honesty.” The “deplorable conditions” under which the commission operated were a direct result of “the despicable Bugnini” who “cobbled together” a “slapdash Mass” (the infamous Eucharistic Prayer 2 in the Roman Missal, the most widely used prayer today, was hastily jerry-rigged in the space of one evening over plates of pasta in a Roman trattoria the night before Bugnini wanted to send everything in). Bugnini knew he had to proceed with such indecent haste in order to rush all the changes through before people wisened up and got to the pope to stop Bugnini.

Bugnini was not alone in some of his most damaging activities but instead aided by a “trio of maniacs” whom Bouyer does not name. The alterations to the calendar, the suppression of ancient feasts and the octaves of others, the yanking around of saints’ days, and the destruction of the ante-Lenten periods of preparation (to say nothing of fasting, which Bouyer does not treat) were all raced through the commission by the simple expedient of telling members “but the pope wills it!” and telling the pope “the commission wants this” and forbidding the other commissioners from talking independently to the pope. Both were kept in the dark and the “subterfuge Bugnini used” proved successful.

Only at the end did the mask slip and some of the game be given away. Thus Bouyer records his own private conversation with Pope Paul VI in which an incredulous pope asks why the commission did certain things, only to be staggered when Bouyer tells him that “‘simply because Bugnini had assured us that you absolutely wished it.’ His reaction was instantaneous: ‘Can this be? He told me himself that you were unanimous on this!'”

It remains a great mystery–and on this Bouyer says nothing–as to why the pope, seeing that he had been played for a fool, and knowing the commission led by a wicked and manipulative man of massive mendacity, did not send that swine Bugnini off a Gadarene cliff sooner, and disband the commission or at the very least reject its findings and start over. Why would he have allowed all this to go through once the game was up? Why not start over? Why push forward reforms about which he himself, for many reasons, was justifiably and understandably ambivalent? What was he afraid of?

It seems, according to the speculations of such historians as Eamon Duffy (see his Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes) that Paul VI was himself a deeply conflicted man about many things, and so perhaps for all his unease about the changes nonetheless felt that some of them were good and he could sincerely appreciate and promote them. Perhaps too he was aware of the propensity for divisions to increase and be magnified in the Church after past councils, and he would not block liturgical changes if doing so would run the risk of schism (which, ironically, came precisely because he did push the reforms through!).

I think, in the end, that any assessment of Paul’s pontificate must never collapse this irreconcilable tension: his great achievement (let it be counted unto him as righteousness!) in holding the line in Humanae Vitae set alongside his great failure in pushing through liturgical reforms whose results, as Ratzinger famously said, could only be catastrophic.

In concluding this series, I should say some things I forgot to mention at the outset: the book is superbly presented in its translation and editing. The footnotes are wonderful and almost lavish in their details, but never excessive; enough detail is given about more obscure references or persons to make their role in Bouyer’s life plain without overwhelming the reader. The translation reads very nicely too, and this is no small achievement given Bouyer’s cosmopolitan learning and lyrical, sometimes lapidary French. In sum, this is an important book and it has been given the translation and editing commensurate with its status.


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One comment on “Louis Bouyer’s Memoirs (III): the Great Catastrophe

  1. Posted by Dr. Adam DeVille on Monday, September 28, 2015

    Now What? Whither Goest Latin Liturgy? A Post-Script to Bouyer

    In three parts this month, I discussed The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer: From Youth and Conversion to Vatican II, the Liturgical Reform, and After, concluding by asking why, once Bouyer had revealed to Pope Paul VI the fact that Bugnini had swindled him and pulled off a giant heist, the pope did not sooner sack Bugnini and, especially, rubbish his proposed “reforms” and start over. Why persist with pushing through the results of a manifestly flawed, if not wicked, process? I shall return to this question, but for now want to consider the much larger and far more troubling ecclesiological and ecumenical question: by what lights did that pope, or any pope, believe himself to have the authority to dismantle an entire liturgical tradition and appoint a commission to jerry-rig a new one? The short answer is that no pope has ever had such authority, and no pope today has it, and no pope until Paul VI would dared to have dream that he did in fact have such authority.

    As in many things, this question is not my own, but comes from Joseph Ratzinger, especially in his Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977. There–but also in other works–he raises an uncomfortable question about how much contemporary Catholicism has over-estimated the power and importance of the pope, resulting in gross distortions not only of his office, but of the entire Church. Having been subjected to a papal celebrity tour only last week here in the US, and having watched for years now how every papal sneeze or Tweet gets acres of coverage, nobody can dispute that we are and have been–for well over four decades at least–in the era of superstar popes, which is a development one should be highly skeptical over.

    Ratzinger rightly notes that at no other period in 2000 years of history did anyone–including even such ultramontanist die-hards as Joseph de Maistre–conjure up the bizarre theory that popes had unlimited power to do anything, even abolishing age-old liturgical traditions and replacing them with committee-engineered products. Such a vision of the papacy really is the stuff of Eastern Orthodox nightmares, and rightly so. It deserves to continue to be challenged and dismantled at every opportunity.

    Nearly a half-century after the Latin “reforms,” and more than half a century after Vatican II’s decree on liturgy, where are we? What can we hope for in the coming years? This question deserves a longer answer than I shall attempt here
    –though it is one I hope to come back to precisely in longer form elsewhere–but in the meantime some suggestions are clearly to be found in a book to be published in December: Alcuin Reid, ed., T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy (T&T Clark, 2015), 584pp.

    About this book we are told:
    In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, Catholic liturgy became an area of considerable interest and debate, if not controversy, in the West. Mid-late 20th century liturgical scholarship, upon which the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were predicated and implemented, no longer stands unquestioned. The liturgical and ecclesial springtime the reforms of Paul VI were expected to facilitate has failed to emerge, leaving many questions as to their wisdom and value.
    Quo vadis Catholic liturgy? This Companion brings together a variety of scholars who consider this question at the beginning of the 21st century in the light of advances in liturgical scholarship, decades of post-Vatican II experience and the critical re-examination in the West of the question of the liturgy promoted by Benedict XVI. The contributors, each eminent in their field, have distinct takes on how to answer this question, but each makes a significant contribution to contemporary debate, making this Companion an essential reference for the study of Western Catholic liturgy in history and in the light of contemporary scholarship and debate.

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