Pope Francis and Thomas Merton

mertonBy Rose Marie Berger, originally published at Religion News Service.

At his speech before Congress on Thursday (Sept. 24), Pope Francis listed Trappist monk Thomas Merton as one of four exemplary Americans who provide wisdom for us today.

Out on the National Mall, thousands cheered when the pope named two other exemplary Americans: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Fewer recognized Merton (or the fourth exemplar the pope mentioned, social activist Dorothy Day.)

The pope did not choose to hail anyone associated with the institutional Catholic Church as his models. Instead he chose a former president, a Protestant minister, a lay Catholic and a monk.

That monk was significant because 10 years ago, when the first national Catholic catechism for adults was published in the U.S., Merton’s name was omitted as not Catholic enough.

The editors had included Merton in an earlier draft. In fact, the opening chapter told the story of Merton’s conversion. The editors understood that Merton’s story was quintessentially American and that he was central to 20th-century American Catholicism.

At the time, however, two influential conservatives involved in drafting the catechism described Merton as a “‘lapsed monk’ who in his last days went ‘wandering in the East, seeking consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality … ”

They were appalled that anyone would hold Merton up as a model of faith, according to Deborah Halter’s 2005 National Catholic Reporter essay “Whose orthodoxy is it?”

When it was leaked that Merton was being excised from the new catechism, Catholics implored the bishops’ catechism committee to reverse its decision. Hundreds of letters flowed in. A petition was signed by 500 Catholic leaders.

The International Thomas Merton Society sent a letter to then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, chair of the committee charged with writing the catechism, and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president Bishop William Skylstad, saying they were “deeply disturbed” by the Merton exclusion.

“Merton,” they wrote, “has played a crucial role in the faith journeys of thousands upon thousands of Catholics (as well as other Christians and even non-Christians) both during his lifetime and since his death, and we believe his inclusion in the catechism can and should be a significant way to extend the powerful witness of his life and writings to a new audience.”

This article was originally published at Religion News Service, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.


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