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Patriotism or Peace? Part 4

By John Gillespie, M.Ed., MLA

This is Part 4 of a serial publication on Thomas Merton’s influence on the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris. You can read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3 here. To get the remainder of the series delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to subscribe.

Beati Pacifici

The Roman Catholic position, as articulated by CAIP, John Courtney Murray, and (at least to Murray’s satisfaction), the pope, supported the use of nuclear weapons so long as they were employed within the strictures of the Just War Theory, and were ostensibly “limited” in their destructive capacity.

Not everyone felt this way.

Minority voices existed that expressed opinions outside of the mainstream Catholic, as well as Christian consensus. Their ranks included, according to Thomas Merton, “a few priests, no bishops, and hardly any of the laity.”

One of these dissenters was Dorothy Day, the founder of the New York based Catholic Worker movement, whose members devoted themselves to the service of the city’s homeless and destitute.

She came to the Church as an adult convert, unimpressed with the Church’s magisterial display of power, but drawn nonetheless to its tradition of humility and solidarity with poor and marginalized. The purpose of the Gospel, she famously insisted, was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Many of the comfortable American Catholics took issue with Day almost immediately. Who was this busybody – a convert of all things – come to instruct us in the Faith? Day’s resume raised more than a few red flags.

First, in a time at which Catholics were dependably hawkish, Day was a dove. “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, she published in the Catholic Worker as the United States prepared to enter the Second World War, “which means that we will try to be peacemakers.”

The workers not only rejected military service, but also refused their labor to industries that built munitions or purchased war bonds. For her uncompromising pacifism, Day war harshly criticized.

The Catholic Worker, after all, sounded suspiciously Marxist. And furthermore, it was widely rumored that Day had participated in radical circles before joining the Church.

In any event, Day was a confirmed critic of winner-take-all capitalism – a blot on her record that has stood in the way of her beatification to this day.

As if Day’s political radicalism were not enough, she was known to oppose the arms race, and she refused to take part in air raid drills, for which she spent time in jail for her trouble. The advent of the atomic bomb, she wrote in the Worker, surely meant the end of supposedly just wars.

The “colossal slaughter of innocents” on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to her mind, outweighed any conceivable benefit.

Day was part of a small but growing movement unofficially chaired by Thomas Merton, one of America’s most widely read writers on Christian spirituality.

Orphaned as a teenager, Merton converted to Catholicism in 1941 and renounced every earthly possession as he joined the Trappist order at Our Lady of Gethsemani in the hills of Kentucky. Although he intended to live a life of contemplation and prayer, Merton’s natural draw to sociability made keeping his vows problematic.

His abbot suggested – ordered, in fact – Merton to write and publish his memoirs, which he reluctantly did in 1948. To everyone’s surprise, the Seven Story Mountain became a bestseller, and Merton, who had shunned the world’s attention, found himself in unlikely role as a monastic superstar.

Merton’s book was a tell-all autobiography; he confessed everything from his stormy relationship with his father to his hard-drinking days while a college student at Columbia, his longing to join the Church, and then a religious order, and his rejection from the Franciscans when they learned of his sordid past.

The Seven Story Mountain would have likely made for an even more compelling read had his abbot not excised form the first draft Merton’s account of his shameful affair with an anonymous young English woman, who he impregnated and unceremonious dismissed.

Merton’s autobiography brought the monastery uninvited attention, and many of his more pious brothers resented Merton’s presence.  Yet with the support of his abbot, Merton continued to publish. He wrote voluminously on prayer, the sacraments, and on monasticism.

Rarely did he move into topics that one would find surprising from the pen of a monk. Readers were therefore quite unprepared when in 1961, Merton’s writings began to appear in the Catholic Worker.

One of Merton’s contributions, “The Root of War,” struck a raw nerve. He openly argued, against the opinions of Murray, or Niebuhr, or the evangelicals, that the Cold War was not the result of an expansive, monolithic, and unreasonable evil that could only be dealt with through overwhelming force:

When I pray for peace I pray God to pacify not on the Russians and the Chinese but above all my own nation and myself. When I pray for peace I pray to be protected not only from the Reds but also from the folly and blindness of my own country.

Was it was possible, as Merton strongly suggested, that the enmity between the United States and the Soviets is the result of both parties? The prevailing wisdom said that “they,” the godless Reds, were different from “us,” the good people of the Christian West.

Merton took a dim view of such a worldview, especially when espoused by his own country.

How is it that the United States postmarks its mail with van exhortations to “pray for peace,” he asked, while at the same time spending billions of dollars on atomic submarines, thermonuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles? “This, I think,” wrote Merton through clenched teeth, “would certainly be what the New Testament calls ‘mocking God’ – and mocking him far more effectively than the Soviets do.  

He wrote to Ethel Kennedy, wife of Robert Kennedy, “The great illusion is to assume that we are perfectly innocent, peace-loving, and right while the communists are devils incarnate.”

To fully understand Merton’s perspective, one must know something of his theology.

Despite his broad appeal, he comes off as quite parochial in the Seven Story Mountain. He is dismissive of non-Catholic faiths, especially Anglicans, whose “insubstantiality,” he finds insufferable. But as he spends more time with the Trappists, his narrow vision widened to see the goodness in every human being.

The pinnacle of his experience came to him as he observed ordinary people on an ordinary day on an ordinary corner now famously known as “Fourth and Walnut.”

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes so many mistakes; yet, with all that God himself glorified in becoming a member of the human race.

With this realization, Merton was never the same. The “us” and “them” categories fell quickly away until all that was left was a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” as one of Merton’s favorite poets put it.

In his exegesis of the Good Samaritan, a parable exclusive to the Gospel of Luke, Merton reflects on the story’s hero – an unclear outsider, despised and rejected by the Jews, and yet, the only character in the story who shows genuine compassion:

If a man has to be pleasing to me, comforting, reassuring, before I can love him, than I cannot truly love him … if a man must be a Jew or a Christian before I can love him, than I cannot truly love him … if he has to belong to my political party or social group or wear my uniform before I can love him, than I cannot truly love him.

One can hear the clear echoes of William Blake, the English poet, mystic, and Merton’s spiritual mentor who wrote:

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

Merton must have thought: does all this inclusive love extent to the communists? He had to admit yes, the divine image did in fact encompass all. And therefore, he reasoned, a nuclear attack was an unjust attack on one’s fellow man, which is no less than Christ himself.

“Can we not see,” he wrote in Worker, “that to risk the destruction of man for the supposed glory of Christ is to crucify Christ over again in his members?

Merton discerned that a moral and psychological paralysis had gripped America, especially its Christians, who seemed hell-bent on destroying the planet for Jesus. In their moral numbness, their “pseudo-Christian obedience,” he wrote, they offered God the dull “obedience of an Eichmann.

In numerous publications he despaired over the American, and especially the Catholic population that seemed insensible to the problem posed by nuclear war, or worse, resigned to the attitude that “since Communism is evil we can do anything we like to wipe it out and thus prevent it from gaining and overwhelming us.”

Against the grain, he attacked Murray’s popular understanding of Pope Pious XII’s Christmas message: he insisted that “no theologian, no matter how broad, how lax, would insist that one was bound in conscience to participate in a war that was evidently leading to global suicide.”

Merton’s abbot must have begun to consider the wisdom of his orders. Merton was the public face of the Church, which was one America’s most dependably patriotic institutions. And the more he published, the more unwanted attention he brought to both Gethsemani and the Church at large.

It appeared to many as if the Church had granted sanctuary to a communist who furiously denounced the United States from his cloister. He was denounced as disloyal and a communist sympathizer.

Consequently, Merton found that much of his work, which he dutifully submitted to his ecclesiastical editors, was being returned to him with portions edited, politely re-written, or altogether excised.

On April 27, 1962, as Merton prepared the final draft of his Peace in the Post Christian Era – the summa theologica of his thought on nuclear war – his abbot handed him a letter: Peace would not see the light of day. Merton had been officially silenced on matters pertaining to war and peace.

The official reason given for Merton’s censure was that while his concerns were genuine, his abbot felt that he would serve a greater purpose addressing them in prayer (preferably silent prayer) than with the pen.

Yet one cannot notice that the theology that coalesced around Merton’s writings was astoundingly innovative. Merton claimed that he was no pacifist; and that he upheld the Just War Theory as had been traditionally expounded by the Church.

But unlike Murray, who attempted to apply the old doctrine to the atomic age, Merton found the two entirely incompatible. “In plain language, this is a new kind of war in which the old concept of the ‘just war” is irrelevant because the conditions for such a war no longer exists,” he wrote.

He criticized the Just War Theory for its “deficiencies” and its adherents as possessed by “excessive naiveté,” including Catholic theologians who continued to defend it. Furthermore, “one wonders at the modern Augustinians and their desperate maneuvers to preserve the doctrine of the just war from the museum or the junk pile.”

His superiors were understandably alarmed: the great Saint Augustine – in the junk pile? Dorothy Day may be forgiven for uttering such things; she was, after all, a lay person lacking in theological training. But Merton was an ordained priest, who in an unofficial capacity, communicated Church teaching to the faithful. Silencing the man seemed the appropriate action to take.

The extent to which Merton obeyed his censure is a matter of perspective.

In keeping with the letter of the order, he indeed withheld the book from publication. However, he was more flexible in his interpretation of the spirit of the censure.

Casually, he wrote to a friend that he planned to “run off a few copies anyway” so that his “friends can see it.” Merton’s list of friends was extensive.

Over the next several months, copies of Peace in the Post Christian Era ended up in the hands of Dorothy Day and Jim Forest of the Catholic Worker, Daniel Berrigan, a priest whose work in social issues was beginning to gain attention, the Catholic author and spiritualist Etta Gullick, Sister Emanuel de Souza de Silva, Charles Thompson, publisher of Pax Bulletin in England, and others, including the recently elected Pope John XXIII.

A few copies to friends,” Merton? Over the next year, contraband copies of Peace made the circulated through the ranks of the Church, making a mockery of the censure. Merton intended for his readers to forward the copies on to others.

In a letter to Ethel Kennedy he wrote, “I wrote a book on peace which the Superiors decided I ought to bury about ten feet deep behind the monastery someplace, but I still don’t think it is that bad … maybe the President might have five minutes to spare looking at it. If you think he would, I will even send him a copy.”

One reader who gave Merton’s book its due five minutes was John Wright, the bishop of Pittsburgh. He was so favorably impressed with Peace that he took it upon himself to run off a few copies, and carry them to Rome, where he placed them before the eyes of the fellow cardinal as they donned their red hats for the Second Vatican Council.

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