Merton: Not Catholic Enough? Or Role Model for Pope Francis?

Do you remember the story some years ago about the U.S. Catholic bishops deleting Thomas Merton from the U.S. Catechism? As the National Catholic Reporter reported,

Two catechetical translators — Msgr. Michael Wrenn, dean of students at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoody, N.Y., and Kenneth D. Whitehead, a Catholic author who formerly served as U.S. assistant secretary of education — wrote an article for Catholic World News, a Web site, condemning the catechism’s biographical inclusion of the internationally admired Merton …

Wrenn and Whitehead have asserted that Merton’s investigation of Eastern religions toward the end of his life make him a poor role model for faithful Catholics.

A movement arose to lobby the U.S. bishops to include Merton, but he was excluded.

This is an interesting backdrop to the decision of Pope Francis to highlight precisely this Trappist monk in his speech to the U.S. congress, as RNS reports:

At his speech before Congress on Thursday (Sept. 24), Pope Francis listed Trappist monk Thomas Merton as one of four exemplary Americans who provide wisdom for us today. …

That monk was significant because 10 years ago, when the first national Catholic catechism for adults was published in the U.S., Merton’s name was omitted as not Catholic enough.

So there you have it: a follower of the Rule of Benedict (as Cistercians and Trappists are) was highlighted for a U.S. audience by Pope Francis. I wonder if he Francis realized the significance of his decision to include this Trappist monk.


  1. Thomas Merton’s ‘My Lord God’ is one of the most profound meditation-prayers in the Catholic tradition. This prayer is also shared by Christians of all denominations. What is heterodox about complete surrender to the grace of God?

    I am tired of an EWTN-style fundamentalism which judges “orthodoxy” based on whether or not a person has held a no-questions-asked, hypnotic “understanding” of Catholicism. Doubt is the necessary precursor to belief and faith.

  2. The Merton, of course, who wrote the following about Gregorian chant:

    “This is what I think about the Latin and the chant: they are masterpieces, which offer us an irreplaceable monastic and Christian experience. They have a force, an energy, a depth without equal. All the proposed English offices are very much impoverished in comparison — besides, it is not at all impossible to make such things understood and appreciated. Generally I succeed quite well in this, in the novitiate, with some exceptions, naturally, who did not understand well. But I must add something more serious. As you know, I have many friends in the world who are artists, poets, authors, editors, etc. Now they are well able to appreciate our chant and even our Latin. But they are all, without exception, scandalized and grieved when I tell them that probably this Office, this Mass will no longer be here in ten years. And that is the worst. The monks cannot understand this treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art.”— Thomas Merton, in a letter to Dom Ignace Gillet, Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (1964)

    “But the cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with a clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.”–Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Part 3, ch. 4, page 379

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      Right, that is central to what Merton was about, more than anything else. I’m sure it’s why Pope Francis wanted to highlight him. (Hahaha.)

      I love Gregorian chant and devote a good part of my earthly life to it. But I’m turned off by your oversized agenda and your trying to push it at any opportunity, no matter how far a reach it is. It almost leaves a bad taste in my mouth about Gregorian chant.


    2. @Peter Kwasniewski:

      The monks cannot understand this treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art.” (Thomas Merton, in a letter to Dom Ignace Gillet [1964])

      Peter, you and I are fluent Latin readers. I often take this gift for granted even if I should never do so. Yet in 1964 not a few Cistercian monks were still under simple perpetual vows. These monks did not receive an academic education and especially Latin and Greek training. Often monks under simple perpetual vows were sequestered from the full celebration of the monastic Hours. Instead these monks prayed the rosary or a vernacular adaptation of some of the Hours.

      Granted, some of the experimental English translations of the Breviarium were clumsy at best (_Prayer of Christians_ comes to mind). Yet interim translations permitted all monks to participate in the Hours. I agree that the loss of chant in _some communities_ must have been a privation for many monks. I know that I would have balked at its disappearance, just like Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton, however, was educated and knew Latin. What of those monks who did not? Perhaps the Council Fathers’ directive to update the Office in Sacrosanctum concilium was not only prescient but also the best remedy for this particular time in contemplative monastic life.

  3. My friendly read of Peter Kwasniewski’s post is as a reminder that neither the left nor the right “owns” Merton, and that he was a complex thinker who is not easily fit into boxes.

    I have no idea if that is what Peter intended, but I’ll stick with that interpretation until he informs me otherwise, if for no other reason than I happen to think it says something true about Merton.

    I presume this also means that Peter agrees that those who got Merton left out of the US Catechism were blinkered dimwits who did the Catholic faith no credit by their actions.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:

      …neither the left nor the right “owns” Merton, and that he was a complex thinker who is not easily fit into boxes.

      huh, this reminds me of someone else I know. Who could that possibly be, one wonders.

  4. Whereas the US Catechism goes about its task of teaching the faith by, in part, highlighting models of holy faith(-in-action), Pope Francis was not holding individuals out to us as exemplary *Catholics* but exemplary *Americans*. The fact that MLKs contemporaries admit he was given to “womanizing” does not prevent us from recognizing his positive contributions to our country, while at the same time we should restrain ourselves from rushing to canonize him. Could Merton be a similar case of a noble man whose failings might still give us pause? Pope Francis’ spotlight on Merton lauds him as “above all a man of prayer” who “opened new horizons for souls and for the Church,” so one can’t lean too heavily on a contention that Merton is being praised apart from or regardless of the question of orthodoxy. Nonetheless, since the pope used Merton as an example of “dialogue” needed not just within or among religions but for political society as a whole, it hardly gives conclusive proof that other Catholics are *ridiculous* to have any worries about spotlighting the famed Trappist. It could be the case, after all, that both Pope Francis and Wrenn/Whitehead are correct about Merton – he might have been a perfectly holy and orthodox man whose investigations of Eastern religions, while not causing him to defect from the faith, might nonetheless through misunderstanding encourage others to venture into territory they are ill-equipped to navigate.

  5. I concur with my confrere in response to Peter on Gregorian chant. Merton died too soon to experience some really fine contemporary sacred music, which compliments well chant in the same liturgy. But the real issue is Merton’s exclusion by the USCCB. An unfortunate mistake, as he represents an important light in the 20th century monastic renewal still going on with Benedictines, Cistercians, Camaldolese & Carthusians, etc., and our contribution to the church. It’s not unusual that secular clergy can be a bit perplexed by religious. Happily we have a pope from the latter tradition!

  6. Merton’s final book, Contemplative Prayer,–he died before completely finishing it–is an entirely Christian book. He references Christian contemplatives, saints and theologians throughout. Unless I’m mistaken there’s not a reference to Zen or any other Eastern tradition in the text, any more than there are in Seeds or New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton was a practicing Catholic in the Christian contemplative tradition. In reaching out to dialogue with other traditions of meditation, he did find much to admire. Of course, when one is trying to establish dialogue, it’s probably best not to reject and condemn the other tradition out of hand. And remember, dialogue works both ways. Merton would want his faith and perspective respected by the others as well. I wonder if those who fear Christians will be misled by Merton’s writings on Zen, etc.–and by the way, this is hardly an unknown tradition here–I wonder if they also ‘worry’ that Zen students might be led into conversion to Christianity by reading Merton. Ah, dialogue!

  7. re #4.

    In the address to Congress by Pope Francis there was mention of Thomas Merton, the monk of the Abbey of Gethsemane whose centenary we celebrate this year. Writing in the Tablet, back in the 90s, John Herriot described Merton as the example of monastic vocation in the late 20th C. He was a controversial figure in his life time, subject to the censorship of his Cistercian Order on a number of occasions, yet faithful in his Christian commitment until his early death in the same year as Martin Luther King.

    Ten years ago when an article on the life of Thomas Merton was excluded from the recent edition of the American Catechism, the Chair of the editorial group, Bishop Donald Wuerl, received a letter which was endorsed by more than 1500 signatories. It concluded with this comment.

    “We are particularly disappointed and deeply disturbed by news reports that the figure of Thomas Merton, who was to have appeared in the opening chapter of the catechism, was eliminated from the final draft. Merton has played a crucial role in the faith journeys of thousands upon thousands of Catholics (as well as other Christians and even non-Christians) both during his lifetime and since his death, and we believe his inclusion in the catechism can and should be a significant way to extend the powerful witness of his life and writings to a new audience. We respectfully request that the committee reverse its decision and restore the material on Merton to its original place in the volume”.

    Needless to say, this request was not honoured and the Catechism that was finally published is the poorer for this unfortunate omission. You can only speculate now on the consequence of the inclusion of Merton by Francis in such an important speech. Merton himself would no doubt find his name being written in to the record of Congress the occasion for a wry smile.

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