Does Christian worship require the setting aside of a special sacred space and time in distinction from the profane space and time of our everyday lives? Should it elevate our moral and aesthetic sensibilities by putting Christian prayer in a ritual-symbolic context that moves our attention in a vertical direction beyond the horizontal plane of our daily experience?

These and similar questions were at the center of a major debate in the Christian world that arose shortly after the Second World War. At that time, so-called “Death of God” theologians emerged on the scene in America and Europe who argued that the age of the sacred begun in the Neolithic period of human history was now being effectively succeeded by the age of technology, secularism, and, at long last, the consecration of daily human life in its intrinsic goodness. These theologians held that the loss of the transcendent common in our modern era of secularism should not be taken by Christians to be something deplorable. Rather, it should be recognized as a sign of human maturation to a new and advanced form of consciousness, enabling humanity to live at last at the heart of the world in full self-possession. The ancient divide between the sacred and the profane was now thought to be otiose.

The development of this form of secularizing theology greatly impacted Catholic liturgists at that time, although it was foreign to the sensibilities of many of those who were the leading lights in the liturgical movement in the first half of the 20th century. It was not uncommon for theologians and liturgists influenced by this new current of thought to argue that our current era of secularization offers the opportunity to overcome at last the fissure between the sacred and profane realms that Jesus himself had drawn together by the fact of his Incarnation. Indeed, secularity could no longer be denigrated as “profane,” and liturgy should no longer be “God-centered and vertical.” Sacred space and time, in its true Christian meaning, is not something to be set apart from the secular domain of our quotidian history, the new liturgical theologians thought. Liturgical vestments, music, art, the rhythm of prayer—all these ritual or ceremonial externalities should be given new form befitting our awakening to the fact that Christ did not come to call us out of the world but to take root in it precisely within the context of what we used to denigrate mistakenly as profane.

This secularizing view was common in the 1960s and 1970s, but the greatest theologians in the Church in those days were not all on board with the liturgical specialists who were perhaps the most fervent champions of this theological persective. It was opposed by theologians of the stature of Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Louis Bouyer. Each of these theologians recognized that the loss of the sacred in Christian liturgy was detrimental to the faith and that desacralization in its extreme forms needed to be challenged. These eminent theologians realized that the profane, just as it is, is not the foreordained divine milieu that the “Death of God” theologians were proclaiming it to be. Bouyer’s work was particularly important in this regard because it centered throughout, in a uniquely comprehensive fashion in many books and articles, on the question of the relationship of Christian revelation to the sacred; in his work, Bouyer explored the issue with unsurpassed depth and breadth. He made the question of the sacred central to his theology of liturgy, and he made theology of liturgy central to his larger body of work.

Philosopher Frederich Nietzsche claimed that “God is Dead, and we have killed him.” In this same spirit, after the Second World War, so-called “Death of God” theologians emerged on the scene in America and Europe who argued that the age of the sacred begun in the Neolithic period of human history was now being effectively succeeded by the age of technology, secularism, and, at long last, the consecration of daily human life such as it is in its intrinsic goodness.

Bouyer by the Book(s)

Father Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) was born into a French Protestant family in 1913. After seminary studies, he was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1936 and was later received into the Catholic Church in 1939. He was ordained a Catholic priest in the French Congregation of the Oratory in 1944. He was named to the preparatory commission of the Second Vatican Council and again as a consultant to the Consilium in several key areas of the reform of the liturgy. Bouyer not only distinguished himself in many areas of scholarship (patristics, biblical studies, Reformation studies, dogmatic theology, and liturgical studies), but lectured widely in both English and French. He was particularly esteemed by Pope Paul VI who wanted to elevate him on the merits of his scholarly achievements to the college of cardinals. The pope was advised against it as a result of the controversial, combative attitude Bouyer assumed toward “mainstream” liturgists and others in power in the Church in France in the 1960s and 70s, and so the elevation never occurred. He was a particularly esteemed mentor of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007), the Archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005, who himself combatted many of the trends in French Catholicism that Bouyer deplored.

Bouyer’s first book exploring the sacred in liturgical theology, Le Mystère Pascal (The Paschal Mystery), released in 1945, was a milestone publication in the history of the liturgical movement in the 20th century. It was a meditation on the liturgy of the final days of Holy Week and presented an integrated theological vision of divine mystery and Christian assimilation to this vision. Indeed, the book may have introduced the expression “Paschal Mystery” into common usage in the Church. Bouyer followed this book with other seminal titles in the study of liturgy, such as Liturgical Piety, Eucharist, and Liturgy and Architecture.

The two books in which Bouyer addressed the question of the sacred most comprehensively were Rite and Man, published on the eve of the Second Vatican Council and read by many conciliar periti, and Cosmos: the World and the Glory of God, a thorough treatise on cosmology. A book of interviews that Bouyer granted to Catholic journalist Georges Daix, Le métier de théologien, added important clarifications to these more systematic productions.

Rite and Man was a major inspiration for James Hitchcock in writing The Recovery of the Sacred, and Hitchcock summarized in his own book Bouyer’s work on the sacred: “As the Second Vatican Council was beginning, the French theologian Louis Bouyer was analyzing rites and man, arguing that both an unrestrained embrace of the ethos of the sacred—rites, mysteries, sacraments—and a severe Puritanism are heretical from the standpoint of Catholic tradition, pointing out the opposed dangers of regarding the words of worship as meaningless in themselves and hence as magic or merely as means for conveying doctrinal teaching.”[1] In the Bouyerian optic, the liturgical rites of the Church are not a divine overturning of creation, as if they show forth a willful divine prerogative that is intrinsically unintelligible. Nor are they simply pedagogical tools. Rather, they are vessels of divine action through which the mystery of Christ is communicated to his followers so that their real filial adoption into the divine life might be effected and the whole of creation made new.

Liturgical rites are vessels of divine action through which the mystery of Christ is communicated to his follower

In Rite and Man, Bouyer argues that the liturgy of the Church is rooted in the “ritual realism” inherent to all living religion. For vital religions that have not lapsed into magic, ritual is not an arbitrary construct of divine or human will but accords with the religious valence of natural signs and symbols of the sacred in our experience. Liturgy works on the foundation of the ritual realism of natural religion. For instance, Eucharist and baptism connect with natural ritual eating and washing. Christ’s institution of the sacraments is not an arbitrary imposition on the good ordering of creation, and the natural sacramental sign is not abrogated when it is elevated onto the supernatural plane.

Bouyer’s first book exploring the sacred in liturgical theology, Le Mystère Pascal (The Paschal Mystery), released in 1945, was a milestone publication in the history of the liturgical movement in the 20th century. It was a meditation on the liturgy of the final days of Holy Week and presented an integrated theological vision of divine mystery and Christian assimilation to it.

Cosmic Undertaking

Bouyer moves the study of liturgy beyond a mere scientia rubricarum (science of rubrics).  He shows the meaning of liturgy in its vastest cosmic and historical horizon, and he demonstrates that there is no way to understand liturgy in depth without carrying out three connected studies that link the theology of liturgy to the theology of creation and redemption. The first study has to do with the meaning of liturgy in relation to the natural situation of humanity in the world. Bouyer takes up in this regard the great theme of Eastern Patristic theology—that humanity is a microcosm that sums up the whole world, a vision comprehensively articulated in the seventh century by St. Maximus the Confessor in his theology of “cosmic liturgy.” We are (to use St. Thomas Aquinas’ later concepts) a body-soul composite unity by nature, and we draw our vitality and knowledge from the cosmos. Maximus understood humanity to be a bridge or pontifex (bridge-builder) for creation that unites or reconciles all things and restores by faithful obedience to and union with Christ in his perfect humanity the harmonious liturgy of the cosmos. For Bouyer, it is in the context of this grasp of the cosmic proportions of human being in connection with the angelic realms that we must situate liturgy. The natural sacred in history is like a remnant sign of our liturgical connection to the whole creation, and natural human religious ritual prefigures the liturgy of the Church, without suggesting that such natural ritual serves as a sort of anticipatory Procrustean Bed onto which the supernatural sacred can be fitted.

The second study that must be carried out, on Bouyer’s admonition, concerns the direct communication of God to humanity in the revelation of the divine Word in the Old Testament. In God’s revelation to the people that he called out in Abraham, the Lord utilizes the entire structure of our religious and cultural existence in order to make himself known to us and to unite us to his eternal life. In the native situation of our existence, we coalesce as natural societies around the sacred, which is our first experience of the world in its totality unified by what we intuit to be qualitatively unique or “Wholly Other.” The sacred is given to us through “hierophanies” such as the sky, the sun, mountains, or the fire used in some forms of ritual sacrifice. These hierophanies obscurely point to the divine presence of the Creator in the world, who is experienced as a tremendous power or force transcendent to it and yet mysteriously immanent in it.

Bouyer moves the study of liturgy beyond a mere scientia rubricarum (science of rubrics).

With many Church Fathers, Bouyer holds that the divine might be given to us in sacred symbols by virtue of angelic mediation, but this mediation is distorted by the intrusion of the demonic into the human sphere. We are ordered by the sacred to a reality that we cannot control and that transcends us. As the German theologian Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) explained, the sacred both fills us with dread or terror and fascinates us with its beauty. It can be desecrated, in which case the profane at last comes into being. The profane is not the ab origine reality of human culture. Rather, humanity constructed the profane by pushing the sacred aside, and it sought to wrest control of the divine through magical manipulation of the sacred.

In the economy of the Old Covenant, God in his divine Word worked through the pagan or natural sacred to transfigure it and to elevate humanity onto a new, direct plane of relationship with him. God thereby came to his people as who he is in accordance with who human beings are as inherently religious creatures, each possessing an innate cultural need for sacred rite, myth, and prayer. God rectified the sacred by replacing the pagan cults with a cult that keeps to some degree the materiality of natural cults but, unlike these earlier cults, leads directly to him. He began to bring about in this way a new creation from the old through a new humanity rescued from sin.

The Sacred in the Flesh

The third level of study that Bouyer recommends concerns the New Covenant that God established by his direct embodiment in history in the person of Christ the New Adam. The Incarnation effected a transfiguration of sacred experience on an even deeper level than was attained in the Old Testament. With the redemptive Incarnation of Christ, those obscure signs of the Creator that were present in the hierophanies of the natural sacred now became direct signs of the embodied Redeemer who is not only a Word present to us in the external form of command or teaching but a personal presence fully immanent within the flesh of our historical humanity. He grasped and consummated our being in his own and carried out the decisive action in the Paschal Mystery which will make all things new with the transfiguration of the cosmos.

Everything we have, including most basically our nourishment and our very life, comes to us from a transcendent Giver. The sacred meal shows forth our absolute dependence on the divine.

The Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church offers the most important example of what Bouyer means by speaking of the transfiguration of the natural sacred in the ambit of the history of salvation. The natural sacred is present in an especially significant way in the sacrificial cults of the pagan world. Following a line of analysis present in eminent historians of religion such as William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), Gerard Van der Leeuw (1890-1950), and R.K. Yerkes fl. 1953), Bouyer stressed that sacrifice in its original material expression is a sacred meal. This is most assuredly not to say that it is a common meal but a meal that recovers our fundamental givenness and dependence on God. Everything we have, including most basically our nourishment and our very life, comes to us from a transcendent Giver. The sacred meal shows forth our absolute dependence on the divine.  Against theologians who thought of sacrifice as first and foremost destruction or a blood offering, Bouyer stressed that immolation and oblation are secondary aspects of sacrifice that have purpose only with respect to the meal. The sacrificial animal is slaughtered so that it may be shared with the gods, the priests, and the faithful who participate in the sacrifice, which is, it should be noted, understood to be fundamentally an act of the gods. In immolation there is a symbolic transfer of goods, an oblation from this world to the next, but such acts of immolation include the recognition that all we have and all we presume to possess is given to us as gift. Sharing in the meal, we do not give God something that he does not have; rather, through this sacred meal, we humans receive our lives anew.

The sacrificial meal is present in the ancient world in seasonal festivals of cosmic rebirth. Maintaining some connection to the materiality of these pagan rituals, the most important figure of sacrifice in the covenant of God with Israel is the paschal commemoration in which the people of God celebrate their deliverance from Egypt. The sacrifice of Christ, recapitulating the sacrificial history of human religion especially summed up in the Pasch, conjoins the Cross with the Last Supper. In the uniquely divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, God in Christ is directly offerer, priest, and victim of the sacrifice, and sacrifice is now recognized as God’s self-offering to us in the body of the Eucharist. His immolation and oblation on the Cross serve this end. God does not take pleasure in a ritual putting-to-death of his Son but offers his Son for us as the new Paschal Lamb. He is both lamb and shepherd who feeds his sheep with his own body and blood. As Presbyterorum Ordinis from Vatican II teaches, Christ in the Eucharist is the “living bread which gives life to men through his flesh.” In this understanding, the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church is not a sacrifice, on the one hand, and also a meal, on the other, as if the two emphases were separate—as is sometimes claimed. Rather, the Eucharist is a sacrifice because it is the sacred meal par excellence, the action through which God brings about in the culmination of all his work on our behalf the renewal of creation through the Son of Man.

The sacrifice of Christ, recapitulating the sacrificial history of human religion especially summed up in the Pasch, conjoins the Cross with the Last Supper. In Raphael’s depiction of the crucifixion, the angels collect the blood from Christ upon the cross, the same blood offered to God and received by the apostles in the Upper Room.

Reality’s Rubrics

If Bouyer’s studies of the theology of liturgy are not primarily about rubrics or liturgical forms, they nevertheless bear directly on these, especially with respect to the meaning and validity of the sacred and sacrifice in liturgy. As indicated above, the sacred is originally a kind of proto-sacramental experience given through natural signs of a transcendent power or an efficacious force. This power exists at the level of the heavens and of celestial deities. The sacred meal attests to the way that the sacred orients the totality of human life to the transcendent in a living—and life-giving—religion. Divine revelation does not abolish this orientation. Rather, it heals, perfects, and elevates the natural sacred by bringing it into the domain of the new creation in Christ through the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist, God extends through the supernatural mysteries of the sacraments his elevating grace to all aspects of our lives, transforming us in toto with his transcendent being that has become fully immanent to us and in us.

The mainstream of reformers after the Council oftentimes thought in terms of rupture and discontinuity, and this was of a piece with their desacralizing tendencies. Oftentimes, they alos operated on the premise that God came in Christ to overturn the old sacral orders of creation and the Church that encouraged an otherworldly pointing to the heavens and to the need for humanity to transcend the world as it is in its fallen condition. The Law of the Incarnation, they insisted, undermines this otherworldliness. In their view, Christ came in the Incarnation to consecrate the profane precisely as profane, that is, to leave the world as it was in its fallen and wounded state. Liturgy thus became the self-expression of participants such as they are and not as God wants them to become. Bouyer insisted that the Eucharistic mystery is the communication of the glory of the Cross and Resurrection to us, and that we are inserted into the very mystery of Christ, finding ourselves anew only by losing ourselves in him. Too often, many reformers thought in a contrary way that liturgy should be the celebration of natural life—even in its fallenness.

How did this play out with respect to liturgical symbolism in concreto? There are several areas of disappointment in this regard that Bouyer relates in Le métier de théologien: improvised Eucharistic prayers that glorified secular and profane human existence rather than the mirabilia Dei (the wondrous works of God) that bring about our transformation in Christ; the suppression of the consecration of churches; making the Eucharistic meal a common meal with an everyday table rather than a proper altar; the replacement in some places of scriptural readings with secular texts; the use—or abolition—of liturgical vestments (such as doing away with the chasuble and maniple) that do not accord with the meaning of particular feasts or celebrations, thereby failing to distinguish properly the sacramental function of the priest.

On this last point, Bouyer especially laments the progressive abandonment by bishops of the miter. He thinks that this abandonment stems from a rank tendency to confuse simplicity with mediocrity as well as poverty with indigence. He suggests that bishops have lost touch with the meaning of their sacred office, evidenced in displays of what Bouyer calls “false humility” (humilité fausse). Honor addressed to them and their special place in the liturgical service has not to do with their person first and foremost but with their office, and they have forgotten this crucial distinction.

Call for Clarity Continues

The abuses that Bouyer detailed are not as common and ubiquitous in our day as they were in the 1970s, but they still exist, and ambiguous theologies of the sacred are not lacking. It is not uncommon for Catholic scholars to reject the idea that the Eucharist is a divine sacrifice. Indeed, Stefan Orth summarized the situation when he said that numerous Catholics today follow Luther’s dictum according to which talk of “the sacrifice of the Mass” is the “most appalling horror” and a “damnable impiety.”[2]

A new generation of priests seems to be vehemently dissatisfied with this postconciliar situation, but the theological understanding that accompanies their reaction oftentimes lacks theological depth. Some are attracted to the obtuse theology of self-styled traditionalists who go so far as to reject essential theological advances present in the texts of the Second Vatican Council. In a talk in 2001, Joseph Ratzinger publicly lamented an example of “traditionalist” confusion along these lines:

“I mention this strange opposition between the Passover and sacrifice, because it represents the architectonic principle of a book recently published by the Society of St. Pius X, claiming that a dogmatic rupture exists between the new liturgy of Paul VI and the preceding catholic liturgical tradition. This rupture is seen [by the Society] precisely in the fact that everything is interpreted henceforth on the basis of the ‘paschal mystery,’ instead of the redeeming sacrifice of expiation of Christ; the category of the paschal mystery is said to be the heart of the liturgical reform, and it is precisely that which appears to be the proof of the rupture with the classical doctrine of the Church.” [3]

In fact, the expression “Paschal Mystery,” so crucial to Bouyer’s influence on the Church, refers to the unity of Christ’s action from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. Bringing the theology of the Paschal Mystery front and center we see that in the sacrificial dimension of Holy Week the Last Supper cannot be cut off from the event of the Cross or from the Resurrection. Christ’s body is broken and his blood shed in order that it may be given to us as the food and drink of eternal life. In the dispensation of the Church, the endpoint of immolation is communion with God and with one another by our being fed with the Bread of Life. The meaning of both sacred history and sacrifice is unveiled in the totality of creation’s common yearning for Christ’s paschal action communicated to us throughout the entirety of Holy Week.

Bouyer’s Human Connections

Louis Bouyer’s theology of liturgy demonstrates in exemplary fashion the interconnection of all these points. It shows how the act of redemption unveils the meaning of the whole of creation from the First Adam to the Second Adam and his Parousia. As St. Augustine realized, we were made from the beginning to be elevated to new life in the Second Adam. The natural sacred attests, confusedly and obscurely, to the meaning of our being as ordered from creation onward to transcendence in Christ and his Body. The Lord empties himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming our Paschal Lamb, in order to make us partakers of the divine nature and to fill us with the charity of his Spirit by feeding us with his own flesh, the flesh of the One who is God’s only Son, the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate.

The symbolism of liturgy should connect to our humanity at the most basic level.

The symbolism of liturgy should connect to our humanity at the most basic level. Inscribed in our being from the start is an implicit ordering, a hidden and often suppressed yearning for union with the transcendent God that only Christ can give us in His Spirit. Tertullian once said: “O noble testimony of the soul by nature Christian! ….It looks not to the Capitol, but to the heavens. It knows that there is the throne of the living God, as from him and from thence itself came down.” The throne of God descended into our midst in the Incarnation, but the glory of God’s royal dignity was in no way sullied by this divine condescendence. Indeed, the divine glory was communicated anew—to us who are by nature (as St. Irenaeus said) the glory of the living God in the world, and who were created in his image but tarnished by our sin. The symbolism of our liturgical practice should reflect with proper verticality the transcendence to which we are called in Christ and his Spirit of glory. This is not indicative of a theology of escape from the world but of liturgical understanding centered on the need for the reconciliation of all things in Christ the Second Adam and Paschal Lamb, so that the harmonious chorus of cosmic liturgy might resound from the new and higher plateau of the Church that God always willed it to do in his Wisdom.


  1. James Hitchock, Recovery of the Sacred: Reforming the Reformed Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 21.
  2. See Joseph Ratzinger, “The Theology of the Liturgy” in Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger: Proceedings of the July 2001 Fontgombault Liturgical Conference, ed. Fontgombault Liturgical Conference and Alcuin Reid (Farnborough, Hampshire, UK: St. Michael’s Abbey Press, 2003), 19–27, at 24.
  3. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Theology of the Liturgy,” 24.

Keith Lemna

Keith Lemna is associate professor of theology at Saint Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. He is the author of The Apocalypse of Wisdom: Louis Bouyer’s Theological Recovery of the Cosmos (Angelico Press, 2019).