Merton and the “Church”

[Jesus] responded,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites,
as it is written:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
In vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He went on to say,
“How well you have set aside the commandment of God
in order to uphold your tradition!

I am afraid that Jesus would level this condemnation at the institutional church today. Patriarchal leaders cling to man-made, culturally-laden traditions which excoriate the word of God. Relying on culturally bound scriptural interpretation and looking at it with a jaundiced patriarchal eye, church leaders violate the biblical call to justice. This is particularly true in the unjust treatment of women and gays and lesbians in the church.

The role of women in the church IS a justice issue. No amount of contrived tradition can trump the demand for justice. Justice is about right order and right relationships. Justice is about according women full citizenship in the church, including access to Holy Orders.

With regard to gays and lesbians, Paul, if he were not so bound by the culture of his day would have added “gay or straight” to his “Jew or Greek’ proclamation. In God, as revealed by Jesus the Christ, there are no exclusions. All are welcome at the table on equal footing.

When we witness institutionalized injustice in the church, we have choices. We can opt out, go away, find some other religious sanctuary more akin to our passion for justice. That is all well and good. However, opting out does nothing to remedy the injustice. When we disagree with church authorities, they really do not care whether we opt out. Our absence just makes the club easier to manage and control.

Recently, I have become more aware of Merton’s stance toward church authority run amok. Merton had long and difficult bouts with church authority beginning with his love-hate relationship with his Abbot, Dom James. Merton would stand up and argue for his point; however, when the Abbot said, “this is the way it is going to be,” Merton honored his vow of obedience. Merton also had many difficulties with censorship. Trappist censors often refused to grant imprimaturs. This troubled Merton. Censorship affected the final version of The Seven Storey Mountain to some degree.

Some of Merton’s many pre-monastic peccadilloes were too hot to handle. When Merton bared his soul to the Franciscan vocation director, he was told that he had no vocation to the priesthood.

The greatest test for Merton’s obedience came when the French Abbot General, Dom Gabriel, ordered him not to publish any further materials on the war in Vietnam and nuclear proliferation. This was very political. Dom Gabriel supported the Gaullist pursuit of nuclear weaponry in France. Merton had some harsh criticism for his superior:

Merton has written of Dom Gabriel’s refusal to permit the publication of a Merton piece on Teilhard de Chardin:

The decision means little to me one way or the other, and I can accept it without difficulty. Less easily the stuffy authoritarianism of Dom Gabriel, who cannot help being an autocrat, even while multiplying protestations of love. I rebel against being treated as a ‘property,’ as an ‘instrument’ and as a ‘thing’ by the Superiors of this Order. He definitely insists that I think as he thinks, for to think with him is to ‘think with the Church.’ To many this would seem quite obvious. Is it not the formula they follow in Moscow?

On another occasion, he writes:

I have been for the past few days anxious and disturbed because the Abbot-General is on his way…There will be ‘les explications.’ What I fear is the arduous labor of trying to bridge the gap between us without simply pretending that I agree with him. To obey at once him and my own conscience, without being disobedient or servile…I must trust God and not resist authority even when it is authoritarian. (, emphasis added)

Merton said, ““I am to stop all publication of anything on war. In other words I am to be in effect silenced on this subject for the main reason that it is not appropriate for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the message of monasticism.” (Diary, 1962)

Jim Forest recounts Merton’s reaction to the order to cease publication:

The decision, Merton said, reflected

an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects an insensitivity to Christian and ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the monastic message.’ Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone. (Emphasis added)

Beneath the surface of the disagreement between Merton and the Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church. In his letter, Merton stated,

The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the ‘kingdom of God.’ The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.

Those silencing him, he went on, regarded the monk as someone appointed not to see or hear anything new but

to support the already existing viewpoints … defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials…. He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy…. He must in no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes. ( , emphasis added)

The Abbot kept the cease and desist letter from Merton for six months. Dom James also suggested that mimeographing his writings would not violate the Abbot general’s ban on “publication.”

Merton describes the crisis in the church for 2010:

There can be no question that the great crisis in the Church today is the crisis of authority brought on by the fact that the Church, as institution and organization, has in fact usurped the place of the Church as community of persons united in love and in Christ . . . Love is equated with obedience and conformity [pray and pay] within the framework of an impersonal corporation. The Church is preached as a communion, but is run in fact as a collectivity, and even as a totalitarian collectivity. (Thomas P. McDonald, “An Interview with Thomas Merton,” Motive 28 (1967), p. 41. Cited in Anthony Padovano, The Human Journey, New York: Image Books, 1984, 48)

Merton’s message is stay in, criticize when necessary, and find ways around authoritarian strictures. Thank you, Thomas Merton for lighting our way today!

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