Merton: Persona Non Grata?

Brace yourselves, young-adult Catholics (are you out there?): the U.S. bishops have written and approved a new catechism aimed squarely at you. The idea of composing a catechism specifically tailored for the United States had been percolating for several years before bishops started working on the first draft four years ago. Pittsburgh’s Bishop Donald Wuerl, chairman of the catechism’s editorial oversight board, explained the purpose of the book in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (“Catholic Bishops Approve National Adult Catechism,” November 19, 2004): “We are trying to reach so many of those young people, young adults, who have drifted away from the practice of the faith, and to invite these seekers...back to an understanding and practice of faith.” A laudable goal. It’s the execution that’s worrying.

Each of the catechism’s chapters begins with a brief biographical profile of an exemplary Catholic. These stories are meant to provide context and inspiration to the young. Of course, deciding whom to include wasn’t easy. Some conservative Catholics opposed using profiles of labor organizer César Chávez and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, yet both remain in the final draft. One Catholic who appeared in early drafts but didn’t make the final cut sent to Rome for approval was Thomas Merton, whose brief life story initially appeared in the catechism’s first chapter. Why the last-minute removal? “The generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was,” Bishop Wuerl explained. Alluding to reservations expressed by some conservative Catholics concerning Merton’s later interest in Buddhism, 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.” The implication here is that Merton’s studies of Eastern religions caused him to drift away from traditional Catholic teaching. Some critics have suggested that had Merton not died so young, he would have left the church altogether.

Contrary to Wuerl’s claim, Merton remains one of the best-known Catholic figures of our age. As Lawrence S. Cunningham, the University of Notre Dame theologian and Commonweal columnist, explained in his letter to Wuerl on this controversy: “Next to C. S. Lewis, [Merton] is one of the people who is most influential on serious young people who are deeply committed Catholics or who are converts to the faith.” Cunningham went on to address the issue of Merton’s later “searching”: “Not to profile Merton in the catechism because of the pressures of soi disant ‘orthodox’ Catholics would be a travesty and an insult to the memory of both Pope John XXIII and Paul VI who wrote him personally to encourage him in his apostolate.”

If the purpose of the catechism is to entice what Wuerl calls “seekers,” isn’t the story of Merton’s restless spiritual and intellectual curiosity exactly what young-adult Catholics need to learn about?

Published in the 2005-03-11 issue: 
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