Thomas Merton is usually thought of as a liberal or progressive Catholic, which in many respects he was: he certainly tilted left politically, on civil rights and Vietnam; he wanted to explore new modes of monastic life, putting the Western monastic tradition in conversation with Eastern religions; he chafed under authority throughout his Trappist life; he had a strong sense of self, the 20th-century equivalent of what the Reformation controversialists called “private judgment.” I’ve no ideas what Merton’s liturgical practices were, but it’s not easy to imagine him a rubrical traditionalist.
Yet for all of that, I’ve often had the sneaking suspicion that, had he lived beyond his untimely death in 1968, Merton might—just might—have become one of the first Catholic neoconservatives. Why?
One reason is that he was too smart to swallow the juvenile political leftism into which Catholic progressives fell from the late Sixties through the Seventies. Merton had known the real thing—that is, real communists—in his Columbia undergraduate days, and I suspect he would not have been much impressed with the Woodstock-generation imitation. Merton’s rivalry with Daniel Berrigan might have been another factor pushing him toward a critique of progressive Catholicism: as Berrigan, the Church’s other poet-activist, moved farther and farther left, Merton might have recoiled in a different direction. Then there was Merton’s interest in religion in Asia: had he lived to see the vast persecution wrought by communists on Catholics and Buddhists alike in Vietnam, Tibet and China, the cause of religious freedom might have been for him, as it was for Richard John Neuhaus, a pathway out of “The Movement.”
No one will ever know for sure where Thomas Merton would have ended up, ideologically speaking. But we do know that he was not altogether comfortable with the Catholic progressives of his own time, and we know that from his own hand. Merton and his old friend Robert Lax wrote each other a long series of what they called “nonsense letters,” crafted in a deliberately zany style but making serious points from time to time. Here, in that inimitable style, is Merton to Lax in 1967 on the subject of Catholic progressives:
“I am truly spry and full of fun, but am pursued by the vilifications of progressed Catholics. Mark my word man there is no uglier species on the face of the earth than progressed Catholics, mean, frivol, ungainly, inarticulate, venomous, and bursting at the seams with progress into the secular cities and Teilhardian subways. The Ottavianis was bad but these are infinitely worse. You wait and see.”
It’s hard not to see real prescience on Merton’s part here. Today’s progressive Catholic world seems to be coming unglued. Examples abound; here are two particularly ripe ones.
In May, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, wrote to Congressman Paul Ryan, laying out basic principles of Catholic social doctrine and welcoming a conversation with the House budget committee chairman on the application of those principles to political reality. This entirely sensible letter was greeted by one progressive blogger with a lengthy and vaguely paranoid post hinting at a vast and dark conspiracy to starve children and welfare mothers, the co-conspirators being Dolan; Ryan; Msgr. David Malloy (general secretary of the bishops’ conference); the Prefect of the Papal Household; Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln; your columnist; and a parish in Milwaukee I had never heard of. Very odd.
Then there was The Tablet, England’s premier progressive Catholic journal, which marked the April 29 Royal Wedding with an editorial recommending pre-marital co-habitation. The practice, it was argued, had proven such a good preparation for marriage (cf. William and Kate) that the Church ought to get with the program. Biblical morality and two millennia of Church teaching jettisoned because of ubiquitous contemporary randiness and despite empirical data showing that pre-marital co-habitation is a good predictor of eventual divorce: odder still.
Merton told us to “wait and see” about that “ungainly” species he called “progressed Catholics.” Well, we’ve waited. We’ve seen. The picture isn’t a pretty one.