Pope Francis’ citing Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton in his speech to Congress was a red flag to the Katholic Krazies. Both Day and Merton, though they really represent the Church before Vatican II in as that the greater part of their work was done in the years prior to the Council, are icons of Contemporary Catholicism.
The Pope cited Thomas Merton for his openness to dialogue and the reconciliation to which dialogue can lead. Merton (1915-1968) was a convert to Catholicism while in graduate school at Columbia University and he later entered the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Merton’s literary background put him in a unique position in the Abbey as he was commissioned to write several books introducing the Cistercian tradition to the American public. Merton was also cast into a vital role in the Abbey as Master of Novices which mean that it was his task to oversee the instruction of the young monks in the first six or so years of their monastic journey. During this time he immersed himself in the monastic tradition going back before Benedict to Cassian and the Desert Fathers. As he explored the world of mysticism he began to notice similarities between the ancient traditions of the Desert Fathers with spiritualties in other religious traditions, most notably Zen Buddhism. In the last few years of his life, Merton began writing on this subject but while his exposure to Zen (in particular) and other Eastern traditions enriched his spiritual growth he remained orthodox in his Catholic faith and a priest in good standing.
Merton’s contemplative journey has had a huge impact on many people over the years. Despite the monastic setting in which he lived, tens or even hundreds, of thousands of Catholics and other Christians have learned from him how to practice a much deeper life of prayer that was typical of the Catholic laity (or even most Religious) in the those golden days of yore to which the neo-trads always harken as an alleged “golden age” of the faith. Meditation has become a common practice among Catholic laity and Merton’s practical guides to a contemplative life have channeled out from his Cistercian cloister through the Benedictines, Carmelites, Augustinians and other apostolic communities to the laity. Indeed through the influence of Merton, it is often more likely to find a deep spiritual life lived by laity than by many Religious or priests and this is a most unfortunate situation. Fellow Cistercian Thomas Keating and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr have done much to advance Merton’s work in providing down to earth spiritual guidance rooted in the monastic heritage but suited to people “in the real world.”
Merton did have a final crisis in his life that was very significant. During a hospitalization two years before he died, he fell in love with a student Nurse. The relationship is complex and it is uncertain whether or not and to what extent Merton was faithful to his vows. In the end, however, he did recommit himself to the monastic life though, despite the admonition of his abbot, he never broke contact with the nurse. Merton had also fathered an illegitimate child in his youth before his conversion. Merton devotees seem to be able to take his faults in their stride; those who see Merton as negative influence stress his failings.
What has set the krazies off about Merton is his commitment to dialogue and his conviction that dialogue with those who differ from us can enrich our own understanding of the Truth. To those who have an absolutist view of the universe this is a very threatening concept. They believe there since we possess all Truth in itself we can learn nothing—ours is but to impart the truth to others which is not dialogic but didactic. Dialogue can lead to change and change is threatening to them.
Merton’s exploration of mysticism also gave him a passion for social justice. His was an early voice both for Civil Rights and against the War in Vietnam. Merton understood that a contemplative life changes us, makes us see the world through God’s eyes, and recognize the fundamental evil of human-caused suffering whether it be poverty, war, discrimination, prejudice, sexism, religious hatred or other source of evil. But it was Dorothy Day that Pope Francis cited as his model for the Church’s engagement with contemporary social issues.
Day’s life was as complex as Merton’s. Like Merton, Day was a convert to the Church after a fairly raucous and even libertine life. While she had always been a nominal Christian and even, for a while, a devout Episcopalian, her twenties were caught up in a somewhat bohemian existence. She became pregnant by one love and terminated the pregnancy with an abortion. She became—to her surprise (she had thought she was sterile after her abortion)—pregnant by a second lover and bore the child. Motherhood changed her radically and her concern for her daughter made Day bring her life more sharply into focus. Her politics had always been radical. From the beginning her views were shaped by a Christian perspective on distributive justice, but in her relative naïveté this led to strong ties to the American Communist party. She also was involved in Women’s Suffrage and had been arrested at the White House during the Wilson Administration for demonstrating for the right of women to vote. Upon her conversion to Catholicism she moved away from Communism to the principles of Distributive Justice as were being articulated at the time by Pius XI as an alternative to both Marxism and uncontrolled market capitalism. She came under the influence of Peter Maurin, a French immigrant well steeped in the Fathers of the Church and Catholic Theology who articulated a clear vision for what Catholics hold to constitute a just society. Distributive justice of course demands an equitable distribution of wealth and this appears to many—both then and today—as socialism. Day was no arm-chair radical but a very hands on practioner. She and Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement and began publishing its newspaper, The Catholic Worker. The movement continues today, with the Church’s blessing, but on the extreme left of contemporary Catholicism. Day herself has been proposed for the canonization process and has been given the title “Servant of God” in recognition of that status. She died in 1980.
Dorothy Day, like Merton, is a threatening figure to the krazies because she isn’t a cookie-cutter Catholic. Their being cited by the Pope as examples of American (and in this case Catholic) virtues signals a real re-ordering in our moral hierarchy. No longer is righteousness limited to the field of sexual propriety but deeper values are permitted to transcend the superficial categories which we cathari, perfecti, pure ones, self-righteous have constructed to demonstrate our moral superiority. This Pope is turning things upside down and if you don’t have a strong sense of adventure the ride is becoming frightening.