Friday, November 19, 2004

Bishops Approve National Adult Catechism--Minus Merton

I find the reasoning quesionable. Merton still remains the best known American Catholic.

Bernardin made the cut probably because other bishops were voting on it--but given some recent statements by Richard Sipe on his situation, he hardly seems like a good choice.

From Catholic bishops approve national adult catechism:

"However, the final draft removed the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, who was originally the opening story. Every bishop on the committee had read Merton's bestselling 1949 autobiography about his journey from atheism to faith and thought he was an excellent example of a young American searching for God. But Merton, who died in 1968, is rejected by conservative Catholics who believe his later interest in Buddhist forms of prayer compromised his faith.

The main reason Merton was removed was because 'the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was,' Wuerl said. 'Only secondarily did we take into consideration that we don't know all the details of the searching at the end of his life.'"


  1. Michael--

    From Amy's recent announcement, it sounds like you'll be busy for the next...18 years or so. But I would like to hear more about your thoughts on Merton, someone I've had conflicting feelings about for some time. For me, he in many ways embodies the struggle over Vatican II--promoted by those with an agenda to push their side of the story.

    May the Lord bless and keep you, Amy, and the new baby. St. Gerard Majella, pray for us.

  2. My opinion about Merton and his work has changed over the years. When I was first looking at the Catholic church and monasticism, I read much of his writing. It was an accessible introduction. But later, it has a feeling to me of being always unsettled, unstable, unsatisfied, never going deep into the Roman Catholic faith but always looking for something else. Last year I sold off the last of my Merton library, and I don't have any of his work. (In contrast, I have a whole shelf of solid books of the Cistercian Studies series.) His work is, perhaps, like a gate to a Church--easy to enter, but always standing outside, and easy to leave.

    I have also found that he tends to be "The Monk" for progressive, activist, non-monastic folks, on the one hand, but that monks under vows in monasteries, including Trappists, with whom I have spoken abouit Merton often quietly express Merton's struggle with his monastic vocation, and some even indicated that his activism ruined his monstic life; perhaps Merton also felt this way in his later life when he tried more to withdraw from the world's attention. I have also had monks tell me that there is no way that Merton, always writing, writing, writing, could have had enough time for more normal Trappist monastic life and contemplative prayer. He was something of a workaholic.

    I think that his popularity with Catholics over a certain are has a lot to do with (1) he was American; (2) he was photographed with the Dalai Lama; (3) he advocated social activism; (4) he was a writer. But to my reading, he did not do much to cultivate or present the depths of Catholic or Christian tradtion or faith. Perhaps is 200 years he will be little more than a footnote.

  3. The Big Observations have already been posted. A tame Catholic monk for the lefto-libs. And a foe of the Vietnam War. Contemplation-lite.

    But there're also The Conspiracy Theories. Was M gay?
    Even more lurid, though: M was thinking about abandoning Christianity in favir of Buddhism, and was assassinated.

  4. The Big Observations have already been posted. A tame Catholic monk for the lefto-libs. And a foe of the Vietnam War. Contemplation-lite.

    But there're also The Conspiracy Theories. Was M gay? Even more lurid, though: M was thinking about abandoning Christianity in favir of Buddhism, and was assassinated.

  5. I often wonder if God didn't take Merton in that "accident" before he lost ALL of the graces given him when he entered that "courtyard of the Queen of Heaven" and did so at the request of that same Queen ... and before he could make any additional shock type comments to his "monks are the truest Marxists". If one is not clear, one only adds confusion to the faith. After reading his early writings I was disappointed to read later how easy it seemed for him to get around the rules, sneak people in, use his friends to help him break those rules without them knowing his true intentions, doing so rather gleefully as well ... and when he had to come back to his reality of the monastic communal life he often was quite critical of his brother monks who simply obeyed the rules, worked simply to earn a living for the monastery and with whom he felt awkward and clutzy in trying to blend in. Those who make excuses for him usually come from the "he was an artist" approach. I believe he was always looking for boundaries which his early life lacked but needed a stronger abbot/father to guide him rather than give in to his fits and special requests. But,... "those were the days, my friends"! Unfortunately he seems to appeal to progressives who really believe one can have his cake and eat it too - who wish to remain at a certain immature emotional level. He was a struggler whom only God could truly understand.

  6. Perhaps most of saintly people's stories are hagiographical, but Merton's life was more of an open book than most, so the gap between theory and practice was more evident. His later journals were certainly less than edifying. I always got the feeling he "peaked too soon", spiritually-speaking.

  7. Michael:

    Does anyone have any real insight into the content of this new Catechism? I have to say that I don't really understand why it was prepared. I mean, we already have the Universal Catechism and many supplementary guides to it. Do we really need another? I only see two legitimate reasons for any catechisms other than the Universal Catechism: (1) to address issues specific to the different rites versus just focusing on faith and morals; (2) to address inculturation issues; or (3) to provide a document that is easier to understand for audiences that would find the Universal Catechism too difficult at first.

    The Byzantine bishops in the United States saw a need based on (1) and they prepared their wonderful Light For Life series that speaks the truths of the faith from an Eastern voice. It is just three hundred pages across three small volumes and is very good. So there it makes sense to me for an additional catechism to be created.

    If this new Catechism truly tackles the issue of expressing the faith in the context of American culture, then I am eager to see it. But from all the quotes I have seen, it seems as though that wasn't the focus. For example, the highlighted American Catholics sound as though they were selected because they were American not because they present some example of the unique challenges faced in expressing the faith within American culture. Second, the released quotes seem to imply that the bishops judge the Universal Catechism too difficult for Americans. Maybe I am out of touch with my fellow American Catholics, but I just don't buy that argument. It also strikes a nerve, because one of the remnants of clericalism I have seen and experienced is the assumption by clergy that the laity are just too dumb to get it. I don't think it's entirely malicious, but it's out there. I have had priests tell me that encyclicals are too challenging so don't bother reading them. Bunk. Yes, I don't expect the average Catholic to read an encyclical and understand it in all its levels in the same way that a trained theologian might, but I have NEVER encountered a modern document from the Holy See that wasn't fairly accessible. Plus, we are talking about a population that, with each passing generation, is more educated than ever before.

    From what I have heard, unlike what the article reports, it is alo longer than the Universal Catechism.

    I'm hoping for the best, but I am very doubtful that this document is going to add any value over what we already have.

    I also was completely offended by what seemed to be a very cavalier attitude that Latin bishops demonstrated to Eastern bishops now that this Adult Catechism is supposed to be for all Catholics in the United States and not just the Latin rite. To want to avoid accepting amendments to clarify that certain practices are not mandated by the faith but are the Latin rite's tradition all because they want to approve a text is deplorable in my mind and a real slight to our Eastern brothers.

  8. I still treasure Merton's "New Seeds of Contemplation" and his books were my college-age entrance into an adult grasp of the Truth.

    Sometimes I wonder if his decades are so close to ours that we can scrutinize what were obviously some real weak spots in his life too closely. I wonder if the lives of others within our own century, like Baroness Catherine or Padre Pio or Josemaria, could bear the scrutiny, if they were cut short as abruptly.

    I am almost thankful that his life ended so early, so we can hold onto what was good and pray for the reparation of what wasn't fruitful.

  9. If Bernardin can make the cut, anyone can make the cut. The man was more responsible than any other member of the institutional Church for the terrible state of American Catholicism in the last generation. Shameful.


  10. I am unhappy about what I know about Merton's affair with a nurse(I read)or a doctor(someone who may be more in the know told me.) Definitely female. The thing is, when with her he apparently at least strongly hinted that he was considering leaving the monastery and marrying her..but then he would go back and write in his journal that that was crazy, what he really wanted was his monastic vocation. That may be considered more understandable vascillation towards whichever was exerting more emotional pull at the moment, but at the same time it indicates unstability of character..and definitely irresponsibility, immaturity, and even emotional cruelty, even if not deliberate, towards the woman involved. I also read that while he was the one that instigataed their meeting after he was discharged from the hospital, he let his abbot think that she had pursued him. I am sure he repented and God forgave him, and probably the woman recovered and eventually was able to forgive him. I am sure it doesn't invalidate all of his insights. But it certainly affects what I think when I read his writing. SSFP

  11. Best known by whom, though? That's the issue. I think Wuerl hit the nail on the head with his comment about Merton not being very important to the age group that this new Catechism is targeting. I'm 31 and am well read when it comes to Catholicism, and Merton qualifies as a blip on the radar screen in my book. I know he was much more important to the generation ahead of me, though, which is why I suppose this is a "controversy" at all. Once again, Baby Boomers are assuming that their generational perspective should be the measuring stick for all.

  12. Thomas Merton is a footnote now. In 50 years, no one will recognize his name. As soon as the acid paper his books are written upon degrades, that's it.

    As for the new Catechism, I agree with the comment above about laypeople being underestimated. The behavior of the bishops toward laypeople is routinely insulting. THEY seem to be the ones who can't seem to make sense of things. Maybe WE should write THEM a catechism.

  13. Seriously, I won't be using a copy of any catechism produced by the NCCB. From the advance descriptions I'm seeing, I am sure it won't be worth the paper it'll be written upon. I'm just hoping we'll manage to luck out enough to avoid outright scandal or schism when it goes to print.

  14. "the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was..." How refreshingly perceptive! Yes, talking to Gen-X and younger Catholics about Merton is like trying to woo 18-year-old voters with appearances by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

  15. As a gen-xer, I too knew almost nothing about Merton until recently. I think much of what's been said here and elsewhere is misinformed. He's been turned into a political football equally by liberals and conservatives, both exagerating his message to suit their ends. He was a Catholic to the day he died, saying mass and performing his duties of a priest while on the trip to Asia (after obediently remaining at Gethsemani and hardly traveling for 27 years) which you can read from his journals. He was deeply appreciative of what eastern traditions could teach us, but NOT into syncretism.

    As to the relationship with the nurse, whatever. I think many appreciate him more for being human. He struggled with it to the end, but had ultimately seen the inherent conflict and turned away from it. As a modern figure who was so self-revealing, we know such things about him. Had documentary evidence been present for 90% of our canon of the saints, I can bet you'd find a similar human tendency to fail at times. Isn't this hopeful for the rest of us?

    He was a complex figure, but if people can't sort this out in a book meant for "adults", what else can we expect them to grasp? I don't see anything "lite" about his contemplation.

    Here's a well-written letter of objection:

  16. ...not to mention a recent positive writeup about Merton in Crisis Magazine... not at all associated with people pushing a liberal agenda as had been stated.

  17. Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton (Against The Grain Sunday, January 02, 2005); and Thomas Merton Revisited January 9, 2005) -- two posts of mine on Merton's behalf.