Easter is a time to reflect on the basics of Christianity- the kerygma. In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis says that the fundamental truth of Christianity is God loves all and that we are to act to bring about a kingdom of love. Francis’ concern is about the marginalized yet the Roman Catholic Church continues to ally itself with the culture of a civilization of wealth. (see Jon Sobrino, ‘On the Way to Healing,’ America, Nov. 10, 2014) There is no outrage over chronic racism or the attempt to destroy the hope of the poor and the middle class, the union movement.
Was it better before Vatican II? I remember as a student in a Dominican high school in Oak Park, IL (1949 – 1953) being very aware of the social encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadrigesimo Anno. It was made clear to sons of the suburban bourgeois that the encyclicals established that workers had the right to organize. Also we knew racism was wrong. I remember a ringing denunciation of racism in a religion class.
But is that the whole story? The most popular writer on Roman Catholic Spirituality before Vatican II (1962 -1965) was Thomas Merton. Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, begun in 1944 and published in 1948, was a best seller to a wounded world recovering from World War II entering the age of anxiety and the cold war.
THE YOUNG THOMAS MERTON
LABOR AND THE UNION MOVEMENT
The young energetic and passionate Thomas Merton of the 1930’s was mostly concerned about his place in a world rocketing towards another horrible war. He had read a bit of Marx, flirted with the communist party because of its apparent opposition to war, but had no awareness of the alienated worker without a political voice. Marx’ treatise, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which demonstrated that economic liberalism separated the worker from his humanity, was not available.
In 1939 after meeting a priest interested in the labor movement Merton wrote:
Being interested in unions is as proper an interest for a priest as the interest in writing and painting. (Run to the Mountain, The Journals of Thomas Merton – Volume One 1939-1940, Harper, San Francisco, 1996, p. 100.)
In other words a compatible hobby, not directly related to the basic Christian message.
Beginning theologian Merton gets close to the problem and a solution with his experience in New York City’s Harlem. He wrote in The Seven Story Mountain:
Do Catholics have a labor policy? Have the Popes said anything about these problems? The Communists know more about these Encyclicals than the average Catholic. Rerum Novarum and Quadrigesimo Anno are discussed and analyzed in their public meetings, and the Reds end up by appealing to their audience … ‘Even their priests in Harlem go outside and hire white men when they want somebody to repaint their churches!’ … (The Seven Story Mountain, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Harcourt, 1999, p. 374)
There is no other reference to labor unions in The Seven Story Mountain.
Merton’s experience in Harlem made him acutely aware of racism. He wrote:
… the prejudice that hems them in (Negros in Harlem herded in like cattle) with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron, inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry are stamped down and left to boil with the dregs of an elementary corrupted nature … (Ibid. p.378. Corrupted nature refers to original sin)
Merton was sensitive and angered by the situation in Harlem. He realized there was something wrong with the prevailing capitalist culture:
No, there is not a Negro in the whole place who can fail to know, in the marrow of his own bones, that the white man’s culture is not worth the jetsam in the Harlem River.(Ibid. p. 379)
PILATE THE “LIBERAL”
Neophyte theologian Merton was trapped by belief in the dogmatic non-historical understanding of Faith at that time. Merton wrote in his diary while in Havana, Cuba – April 1940:
He (Pilate) recognized that Christ was innocent and washed his hands of the whole affair. Pilate is the hero of the 19th century. He was a great liberal. (Run to the Mountain. P. 201)
Historical research has shown that Pilate was a vicious and cruel administrator for the Roman Empire. But Merton indicates that the ‘Jews’ were responsible for Jesus crucifixion. He also wrote in the diary of April, 1940 :
But before Pilate’s hands were dry, the Jews had laid the heavy cross upon Christ’s shoulder and were driving Him up to the path to Calvary. (Run to the Mountain, p. 201.)
Crucifixion was reserved by Rome for political crime; Rome would have allowed Jesus to be stoned to death by those who might have opposed him for religious hearsay. Jesus’ confrontation with Rome was political and revolutionary. Christian theology blaming the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion was at least partially responsible for the holocaust – the murder of 6 million Jews. Despite the young Merton’s horror of war, the holocaust and Christianity’s complicity would have been beyond imagination.
THE ESCAPE - ME & GOD THEOLOGY
Lord my God, in you I take refuge… Psalm 7
After discussions with friends and spiritual advisors Merton decided against joining the Franciscans, or working in Harlem, to join the Trappists at Gethsemane, Kentucky. He was searching for perfection which he determined was a spiritual relationship with God in the silence of contemplative life. If he were to be active, it would be in writing. Was it really an escape from an absurd world or a plunge into solitary confinement? Merton describes his entrance to the monastery:
So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom. (The Seven Story Mountain, p. 410.)
VATICAN II (1963–1965) A LIMITED CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
Certainly the Thomas Merton of The Seven Story Mountain was different from the post Vatican II Merton of the 60’s who spoke out against racism and the war in Vietnam. The documents of Vatican II such as Nostra Aetate, Gaudium et Spes and Ecumenism must have had an influence on him.
The current church, in its search for identity, lost after testing the waters of ecumenism, no longer has the pre-Vatican II passion for social justice, such as that of the young Thomas Merton. However, the passion for social justice was not enough for Merton to overcome a theology that saw contemplation as the ideal life.
Vatican II opened the way for the thrust to peace by working ecumenically for justice. Merton took advantage of the opportunity by speaking and writing. But what is the faith context for political action? I remember a synagogue on the way to high school in Oak Park with the inscription on the wall from the Prophet Zechariah,
Not by might and power but by my spirit, says Yahweh Sabaoth.