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Patriotism or Peace? Part 5 (Finale)

By John Gillespie, M.Ed., MLA

This is Part 5, the finale, of the serial publication on Thomas Merton’s influence on the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris. You can read Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 here. To receive more articles like this delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to subscribe.

Ut Omnes Unum Sint

When seventy-seven-year-old Angelo Roncalli, formerly the Patriarch of Venice, was elected pope in 1958, he raised eyebrows among this electors who must have startled at this choice of names: Vocobar Johannes – “I will be called John.”

The last pope to use that name had been an imposter, an antipope, and the one before had ruled from Avignon, not Rome, a reminder of a less than glorious époque in the Church’s history. Most cardinals had hoped to keep the name in permanent moratorium.

But Roncalli was not a member of the old guard. The decades leading to his appointment as pope had been marked by challenges to the by-the-book orthopraxy.

Upon his appointment as bishop, he was sent to serve the Bulgarian Uniate Christians, an oddball group of Slavic peoples who existed on the margins of Catholic identity.

Despised by both Eastern Orthodox Christians who found their allegiance to Rome treasonous, the Uniates found friendship with Roncalli, who permitted them to continue worshipping in the Eastern rite, and he even joined them.

It was an experience through which, “I began to feel myself more catholic [note the small c], more universal,” he later wrote. The same ecumenism informed his next appointment in Istanbul, where he served a small and persecuted community of Catholics in Ataturk’s secular republic.

“The wall between East and West was formidable,” he noted, “but I try to pull out a brick here and there.” As with the Uniates, Roncalli adapted the Church’s liturgy to suit Eastern tastes by saying the portions not explicitly required to be said in Latin – the reading of the Gospel, the “Blessed be God,” and the intercessory prayers – in the people’s Turkish.

John XXIII’s pontificate was an extension of his ministry.

In 1962, he called the Second Vatican Council seemingly out of the blue.  Its purpose, he said, was to reach out to the modern world and to heal some of the rifts that had developed over the centuries.

In keeping with John’s directive, the Council formerly withdrew its excommunication on the Eastern Orthodox Church, which had stood since 1054, and invited its delegates, along with representatives of the various Protestants churches, to attend the Council as observers.

About the Protestants, John insisted that the Church exchange the term “schismatics,” for the softer, more inclusive, “separated brethren,” with whom reunification was not only possible, but earnestly desired.

The churches within the Anglican Communion, which had so annoyed Merton, received the special distinction of “sister churches.”

The pope even reached across the Iron Curtain to invite representatives of the Soviet Union to be present, believing that the Church had a role to play as peacemaker in the Cold War.

Whereas his predecessor had been so intransigently anti-communist as to earn the name, “Pope of the Atlantic Alliance,” John refused to play partisan politics. Like Merton he insisted that those locked within Soviet totalitarianism – both the prisoners and the jailers – were human beings who needed above all, to be welcomed back into the human family, from which they were sadly estranged.

But lest he forget the evils of the totalitarian system, John prayed for its victims over a map of the Soviet Union marked with the location of each known gulag.

The great summary statement of the Church’s achievements at the Council, Pacem in Terris, or “Peace on Earth,” was published during Holy Week of 1963. Unlike other papal encyclicals, which are customarily addressed to the Church’s bishops, Pacem was addressed by John’s own hand, and included an address “to all men and women of good will.”

The Holy Father chose to publish Pacem on Maundy Thursday because it was the day on which the Church prays, as Jesus had prayed, ut omnes unam sint – that they all may be one.

Pacem reflected much of the modern spirit that characterized the age. For the first time in Church history, political participation was not only permitted, but encouraged. Human rights, economic liberalism (within limits), and the rights of women were all affirmed. Even John Courtney Murray, who, like Merton, had come up against ecclesiastical censorship for his views on religious pluralism, was at last vindicated.

The encyclical ends with its most groundbreaking statement: an impassioned plea for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. “The arms race should cease, and nuclear weapons be banned,” the pope wrote without mincing words, “and it is now meaningless to imagine that war could be a fitting instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.”

The Council likewise asked governments to make “human provision for those who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms,” provided they substitute violence with some other form of service.

After Pope John’s death in June 1963, his successor, Paul VI brought the Council to completion. In 1965 the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World published its Gaudium et Spes, a definitive statement on the Church’s positions on the various social, economic, and moral questions faced in the twentieth century, including its stand on war:

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

And here is a passage from Merton’s Peace in the Post Christian Era:

All nuclear war, and indeed massive destruction of cities, populations, nations, and cultures by any means whatever is a most serious crime which is forbidden to us not only by Christian ethics but by every sane and serious moral code.

Was Merton an indirect author of the Vatican Council’s statement on nuclear war? Noting the similarities between the two passages above, several scholars and observers, some of whom knew Merton personally, have concluded that he was.

The abundance of circumstantial evidence is compelling: Merton’s personal contacts with the papacy, the intercession of Bishop Wright with the Council curia, and the textual similarities between Peace and Gaudium all strongly bear the imprint of Merton’s hand.

Adding to this, Merton was awarded the Church’s Pax Medal in 1963, an occasion on which he praised the Vatican Council, proclaiming Pacem in Terris a “magnificent document,” and fully crediting John XXIII.

“For my part,” he added, “I have said nothing that Pope John did not say. If I said it before Pacem in Terris that sill does not make me terribly original because the same things were said long ago by Popes before Pope John, and Theologians, and by the Fathers of the Church, and by the Gospels themselves.”

How could Merton have said more? It hardly would have been in keeping with monastic humility to stand up and declare, “It was me! It was me!” After all, was he not still under the Church’s official censure?

Whatever the case, Merton could not restrain himself from getting in one good jab at his abbot: “Fortunately, the pope does not need to be approved by the censors in the Order in America, for they said very energetically last year that this thesis, when I proposed it myself, was wrong, scandalous, and I didn’t know what more.”

He was, in effect, asking the Church to allow Peace in the Post Christian Era to be published. It did not happen until 2004.

What lessons can we take from this largely unknown, yet potentially earth-saving episode in American history?

Merton, who died in 1968, never knew the full impact of this work. Perhaps none of us will.

Still, as we look across our world, which C.S. Lewis first called “post-Christian,” for its apparent indifference to the Gospel of Christ, we can certainly find cause to agree. Merton did. He wrote that Christianity, wherever one looks, is “yielding to the hegemony of naked power.” Indeed.

Today, the voices within the Church calling for peace are growing faint, while those demanding power, arms, and unrelenting strength are growling distressingly loud.

It is for us,” wrote Merton in Peace in the Post Christian Era, to decide whether we are going to give in to hatred, terror and blind love of power for its own sake, and thus plunge our world into the abyss, or whether, restraining our savagery, we can patiently and humanely work together for interests which transcend the limits of any national or ideological community.

Indeed. It is up to us.

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