Waiting for the Barbarians

12 02 2009


On the Iconoclasm of Louis Bouyer and the 20th Century Reform Movements in the Catholic Church

This post is not intended to be an extended essay on Bouyer or anything of that nature. I wish merely to post some quotes from his rather problematic work, Liturgical Piety, a pre-Vatican II work out of which one can discern much of the modernism in religion that we see now in Christianity. Here is the first passage:

For there was a time, – not so far from our own, and not yet entirely past,- when it was taken for granted by many Catholics that the liturgy was something to be performed, but that to understand it was, at best, optional, never necessary or highly desireable, and occasionally, considered even objectionable.

I wouldn’t want to emphasize the point too much, but for me this smacks a bit of rationalism. True enough, as I have written before, my family hated the all-Latin liturgy. But the opposite seems to have won the day. We are too comfortable with the Christian mystery, the workings of the Divine, and the hidden forces at the center of the cosmos. That is because we think we see or understand too much, which I would say is an erroneous impression. Often, the only way you can understand a mystery is to perform it.  At least that was the ancient understanding.

…having no deep or positive inspiration of its own but rather undergoing of its own but rather undergoing a process of gradual inhibition, deprived also by neo-paganism of its connatural Biblical medium of expression, the Christianity of the Baroque period was drawn to a souless kind of conservatism.

From here, Bouyer criticizes the Baroque liturgy for exalting things that were “completely external and foreign to its true nature”. Bouyer cites how the center of Baroque devotion was no longer the Mass but the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, a “kind of heavenly grand opera… performed, with all the display of lights, jewels (mostly false), exquisite polyphonic singing and pagentry which commonly accompanied a royal reception”.

Lully’s Te Deum

Snarky comments aside, many would find merit in Bouyer’s argument, and not just as nostalgia from a former Lutheran pastor longing for his sober services. Many have criticized Baroque Christianity for being a mere spectacle, without much depth, only in existence to stimulate the emotions and manipulate them. The German high altar or the Spanish crucifix don’t seem to have as much theological significance and sobriety as the Byzantine icon or the sculptures on a Gothic cathedral. As I have written before, however, there is an asceticsm that kills religion, and Pere Bouyer gets fairly close to it at times. What is often missing in his “sober” views of the Church (very similar to Alexander Schmemann), is the total absence of wonder. Wonder, apparently, can only inspire idolatry, and is best stamped out at the source. See the building above. Would it ever cause a child to wonder?

…And here also we can see, naively acknowledged, the purely pagan character of Baroque religion when it is examined in its essence. Vallemont certainly regards the liturgy as something sacred; but, to his mind, sacred means untouchable, something to be preserved intact at any price, and something which cannot be kept intact without the complete renunciation of all attempts to make the practice of it intelligent and living. No notion more fundamentally unchristian can be imagined: here, in fact, the kind of false “holiness” of the pagan mystery-religions is given the name of the true holiness of Christ.

I have cited the above before, but it is worth doing so again. Fundamentally, the theologians of Bouyer’s generation began to see the rest of the Church as closet pagans; ignorant of Scripture and Patristic thought, they saw little difference between Catholic popular devotion and the ancient fertility cults of Demeter. For them, “Christian” automatically meant transparent, sober, and cerebral. As Ratzinger has said as well, Christianity is the religion of the Logos, and worship to God must be “in spirit and in truth”.

I have no objections to these ideas; only profound reservations. While ideally I would want these issues to be not formulated in an “either/or” manner, I know that Bouyer’s ideas along with the suppositions of those of his generation were often excuses for iconoclasm or impiety. What great work of art has this post-Vatican II church built? What acts of beauty or Christian heroism? They are indeed few and far between. But how much has been torn-down, ransacked, and exiled to the forgetfulness of time? And what has taken its place? Only a stale religion for sterilized people. This time, the barbarians were bureaucrats and not men of war; their sacking took place by committee and not by the sword.

I fail to see how the Gospel message is better served by all of this. Indeed, I feel that it throws any person who calls himself a Catholic into a crisis of identity. Why did things have to get smashed instead of trying to understand them: Baroque, sentimental, and kitschy? I still don’t really have an answer. I do know that the death of the sacred, that idea of the higher things being “untouchable… to be preserved intact at any price”, has not given way to the “holiness of Christ”, but to the hollowness of indifferentism. It is hard for me not to place some of the blame on Bouyer himself.



8 responses

15 02 2009
random Orthodox chick

Sure. My opinion is most Catholics today don’t think the more traditional churches are necessary to reflect the theology of their Church (or that the more traditional styles are the only way to reflect Catholic theology), rather than it being an issue of theological divergence. For what personal experience is worth: I’ve only met one in real life that actually cared about church architecture, and on the flip side, other Catholics who didn’t really care knew Jesus Christ revealed in a very very real way.

Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll let their co-religionists decide (we’re all Christians, but you know what I mean).

BTW, Happy Valentine’s Day all.

14 02 2009
Andrea Elizabeth

Could you expand on that?

14 02 2009
random Orthodox chick

“…but to me this trend in Catholicism manifests the differences in theology.”

I think the reason is more social than theological.

13 02 2009
M.J. Ernst-Sandoval

At the risk of sounding silly, this discussion always reminds me of the last verse of Don McLean’s “American Pie”:

“I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.
And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.”

This sort of cold, austere, cerebral Catholicism that has taken over just doesn’t work because the average person is neither of these things. Even the psalms speak of praising God “in the beauty of holiness”. Extreme asceticism may work for some, but not the overwhelming majority. Perhaps one of the few fruits of the Second Vatican Council is that, due to the excesses of the last 40 years, we have realized something that had been forgotten–that fact that one type of spirituality doesn’t fit all.

13 02 2009
Andrea Elizabeth

In addition to being iconoclastic, the modern Catholic Churches also seem to idealize the abstract, and give up on being able to define the essence of God, so they put these freeform stones in the middle of the Church that are supposed to be mysterious, I suppose. Byzantine iconography reveals God in Christ and His Saints. Through Christ we can know God. Not that I am an expert on Absolute Divine Simplicity, the energies/essence distinction, or on how we know God through Christ’s divinized human nature, but to me this trend in Catholicism manifests the differences in theology.

I cannot judge on whether individuals such as Father Schmemann lost their sense of wonder, but in For the Life of the World, I know he talks about the necessity of joy in the Christian’s life. Wonder and joy should not be forgotten, as I think is easy to do when one is focusing solely on their sinfulness. From what I hear of Fr. Schmemann’s journal, he did struggle with sadness somewhat, I need to read it for myself, but I like how it is emphasized that Pascha was his favorite day of the year. And I get the sense that he was elevated by the joy of that mystery.

13 02 2009
Robert Thomas Llizo

“I have written before, however, there is an asceticsm that kills religion, and Pere Bouyer gets fairly close to it at times. What is often missing in his “sober” views of the Church (very similar to Alexander Schmemann), is the total absence of wonder. Wonder, apparently, can only inspire idolatry, and is best stamped out at the source. See the building above. Would it ever cause a child to wonder?”

That’s what always bothered me about some aspects of Fr. Schmemann’s work, as profound as much of it is (there are passages of For the Life of the World that still have the power to grab me and shake me to the core with appreciation of the cosmic mystery that is the Mass.Divine Liturgy). But if the mysterium tremendum does not inspire wonder, then it ceases to be mystery.

12 02 2009
Fr. Anthony

See http://pagesperso-orange.fr/civitas.dei/reflections02.09.htm from February 12th under the title Jansenism and Catholic identity. I understand your thought, or I think I do.

I have mixed feelings about letting all go to the wind. I see a need for a via media between popular religion and the modern successor of Jansenism.

Look also on the same page two days before for an article titled Jansenism or Free-for-all ?.

Fr. Anthony

12 02 2009
Ben George

“Would it ever cause a child to wonder?”

Excellent point. I’m thankful that my current pastor has de-modernized our parish church, and braved the gales of hatred he received for doing so. He replaced the “rustic” stone hewn altar with something more baroque, with a reliquary underneath. The reliquary (St Theresa of Lisieux) is a catechetical miracle worker: “You mean her bones are in there?! Whoa…” The ’68ers hate it of course (“Supersitious and creepy”), but the younger generation is glad their church no longer looks like an airport terminal.

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