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Patriotism or Peace? Thomas Merton and the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris

By John Gillespie, M.Ed., MLA

In August, 1945, as the atomic fallout was settling over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American President Harry Truman announced to a victorious nation:

“We thank God that it [the atomic bomb] has come to us, instead of our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in his ways and for His purposes.”

Discerning just how the Almighty might make use of nuclear weapons proved to be a formidable task for American Christian communities who sought to support their nation and its foreign policy objectives, but also remain faithful to the Augustinian Just War Theory.

Although many mainstream American Catholics were willing to subordinate Church teaching to the new atomic reality, and rush into battle with their Protestant partisans, one obstreperous monk raised some serious questions.

The celebrity cleric, Thomas Merton, argued that the existence of atomic weapons had rendered the Church’s centuries-old teaching on the Just War irrelevant and should be abandoned.

Merton became an embarrassment to the Church, and though he superiors silenced him, his ideas found their way into the Church’s official proclamations during the Second Vatican Council.

Beati persecuti

American anti-Catholicism arrived with the first immigrants. Both Puritan and Anglican ministers associated the Catholic Church with the forces of the devil. Similarly, more than a few of the framers of the Republic believed that Church teaching, which insisted on fidelity to a foreign pope, could not be reconciled with the propositions of self-government set forth by the Constitution.

In the 19th century, political parties such as the Know-Nothings, and even to some extent the Republicans, gathered the forces of nativism into their coalition so that they might counter the “Catholic threat” they imagined at the polls and in the public schools. Catholics routinely saw their property damaged, their schools burned, and the civil liberties ignored.

With a new surge of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe near the end of the 19th century, anti-Catholicism reached new heights as nativists sought to keep Catholics from holding office, and even voting.

The twentieth century saw little improvement. Catholics found that in the 1920s the resurgent and newly respectable Ku Klux Klan had added the Church to its list of undesirable influences, and ranked them in the social basement with Blacks and Jews.

To be fair, prejudice existed on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide.

Since the Atlantic Revolutions of 1775 – 1789, which saw the liberal insurgencies in America, France, and Haiti, the pope had positioned the Church squarely against the very ideas that had set upheavals in motions – liberalism, rationalism, and republicanism.

Pope Pius IX, who saw the Church’s temporal power fading from the European landscape, defiantly issued the Syllabus of Errors in 1862 which flatly condemned just about every damnable thing that liberalism had produced in the last half century.

Most memorably, he condemned the proposition that “the Roman pontiff, can and ought to, reconcile himself to, and agree with, progress, liberalism, and civilization.” These protests were of little use.

The subsequent swells of European nationalism that gave birth to the nation states of Germany and Italy stripped the Church of almost all temporal power, and left the Holy Father confined – imprisoned even – within the Vatican, where pope after pope shook an angry fist at the secular world.

These European events had ramifications in America. In 1899, just as the United States saw Catholic immigration to its shores peak, Pope Leo XIII issued Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, an encyclical that forbid Catholics from joining political parties or even from voting.

For good measure he condemned what he loosely called “Americanism,” for its relative religious tolerance and pluralism. “The bishops of America,” Leo insisted, “would be the first to repudiate and condemn [Americanism] as being most injurious to themselves and their country.”

 Contrary to Leo’s predictions, the American bishops did not rise up in solidarity to condemn the “errors” of their nation. But they did rise up.

On the whole, the faithful did not see their commitment to the Church and their American citizenship as part of an irreconcilable personality disorder. From the Washington administration, American Catholics have had no problem swearing allegiance to both Church and state.

The Third Plenary Council, which met in 1884 utterly repudiated “the assertion that we need to lay aside any of our devotedness to the Church, to be true Americans” or that “we need to abate any of our love for our country’s principles and institutions, to be faithful Catholics.” Even the famous French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville observed that American Catholics

constitute the most republican and the most democratic class in the United States … the Catholic religion has erroneously been regarded as the natural enemy of democracy. Among the various sects of Christians, Catholicism seems to me, on the contrary, to be one of the most favorable to equality of condition among men.

Rebuttal after rebuttal did little to ease suspicions that Catholics were by nature disloyal citizens, or that their faith could not be reconciled with the flag.

As a consequence, by the mid-twentieth century, as one scholar notes, the American Church had assumed a “siege mentality” in which hostile forces waged like so many “wagons circles around doctrinal and moral absolutes.”

This is Part 1 of a serial publication on Thomas Merton’s influence on the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris. Read Part 2.

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