The riddle of Thomas Merton

In a story for The San Diego Union-Tribune, Kimberly Winston shows how much a talented religion reporter can do with something as simple as a locally sponsored conference about a dead man with a popular following. In this case, it helps that the dead man is Thomas Merton, the agnostic-turned-Catholic-monk who was pursuing an interest in Buddhism by the time he died in 1968. (If you’re a fan of Matthew Fox, you may believe that sentence should end with “by the time he was assassinated in 1968.”)

These paragraphs of Winston’s perfectly capture the mixed legacy of Merton more than 30 years after his death:

Last fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cut an essay on Merton as an exemplary American Catholic from an upcoming edition of the American Catholic Catechism.

At the time, Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Diocese of Pittsburgh said Merton was removed because “the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was.” He was replaced by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, another convert and founder of the Sisters of Charity.

That brought a petition from Merton devotees, many who say he was cut because of his dialogue with Buddhists and other Eastern monastics — something some conservative Catholics see as evidence that Merton moved outside the Christian faith. A final draft of the catechism has been submitted to the Vatican for approval, so it is unlikely Merton will be reinstated.

That is as it should be, says George Kilcourse, a diocesan priest and professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., where Merton taught and many of his papers are housed. Kilcourse was a student at Bellarmine and still remembers Merton. Reducing this impassioned, conflicted, talented man to an entry in the catechism is like reducing “St. Francis of Assisi to a birdbath,” he said.

“He never wanted to be canonized,” Kilcourse explained. “He was much too human to be dealt with that reverently.”

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  • Steve Nicoloso

    These paragraphs of Winston’s perfectly capture the mixed legacy of Merton nearly 30 years after his death

    30 years?!?! Last time I checked it was at least 1998…

    On a different note, I wonder what Prof. Kilcourse (a most fortunate, or unfortunate depending, professorial name I think…) thinks of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s catechetical mention… a soup ladle?

  • Kevin Jones

    Anybody know who those “some conservative Catholics” are by name? It’s news to me. I know some people try to claim his name for Buddhism, but I don’t know any “conservative” Catholic who agrees with them.

    Frankly, his violation of his vow of chastity could also justify his exclusion, and I would think it a more likely reason if the one given isn’t to be trusted.

    I was introduced to Merton in 1998 by a “30 Years Later” piece in the Wall St. Journal, to which my roommate subscribed.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    > 30 years?!?! Last time I checked it was at least 1998…

    D’oh! I wrote this item in a hurry, and my weak talents for doing math in my head caught up to me. I’ll correct that to “more than 30 years.”

  • Charlie

    Thanks for posting this, Doug. I enjoyed Kimberly Winston’s article tremendously because of its respectful tone. As a young Christian in college, I was introduced to Merton and his writings captivated me. I think of him as responsible for driving me towards a faith that infused my whole being and life, a faith centered on a desire to know God and live like Christ. Merton devoted himself to seeking God, and I believe he found Him.

  • Beth

    Count me as another who first caught from Merton the vision of a Christianity that seemed worth giving one’s life and mind and heart. I might have asked for Baptism without ever reading him, but who knows? The comment from Kilcourse is a good one: the guy, it can’t be forgotten, was an *artist*, and thus his multiple contradictions and oddities should be no real suprise.

  • Sean Callum

    Something is wrong with this picture. It’s been said that youth can smell hypocracy better than most; and since it doesn’t take much to smell the rank ripe rotten stench of hypocracy emanating from the ivory rectories of American parishes, no wonder American youth continues to be disinterested and disillusioned with The Catholic Church!

    I’m sick and tired of these cowardly and out-of-touch girly men Bishops who in the name of Christ, personify the antithesis. In a time when the name “Catholic”, which means Universal, is conventionally viewed as an institution of repression, exclusion, and disconnectedness from the “flock”, it is no surprise to me that one of the most prolific seekers of Christ in the modern age is to be be shunned.

    Don’t they get it? Of course not! He is too like Christ for the Church to recognize him.