Thomas Merton – ‘Among the Progressed’

George Weigel

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 twentieth-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.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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15 Responses to Thomas Merton – ‘Among the Progressed’

  1. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    A very interesting comment on Merton though the notion that he could have become a neocon is fantasy. Neocon politics comes from the same stable as fascism, though of a different breed; the idea that Catholic Merton (and a progressive one at that) could support such barbarism is utterly unfounded. We have seen the results of US neocon policies, and the body count runs into millions, still rising. Weigel supports such policies, asserting that the US should ally itself with dictatorships in the interests of the US, from Pinochet to Pol Pot.

    I note the writer’s distortion of the word ‘progressive’; Orwell warned us against the twisting of language. Without justification, Weigel links ‘ripe’ examples of his notion of progressive actions to the extract from Merton’s letter -an extrapolation too far. Merton of course died long before these ‘ripe’ examples existed. Merton, opposed to the US terror in Vietnam, is now being claimed by the militarists apologists after his death. If the word terror is too strong for some, I regret we can’t ask the 4 million dead there for their opinion.

    Perhaps if Weigel, also an apologist for antique royalty like ArchDuke Hapsburg, repeats his distortions often enough, people will begin to believe it – a technique used effectively by a dictatorship in WWII. He says that the abuse scandal is “a media distortion” organised by those who “want to take down the Church”. Perhaps we should agree to that and forget all about it, just deny it.

    Thank you CP&S for posting this article – it serves as a reminder of the articulate, unwholesome characters who advocate support of dictatorships and murderous wars to suit US interests.


  2. kathleen says:

    We have no way of knowing for sure whether Thomas Merton would have opposed the future wars he never lived to see, (but one can surmise that he would have accepted the Catholic Church’s view that the war in Iraq at least was quite unjustified.)
    Yet as George Weigel points out: “…..had [Merton] 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.””

    However, it is certainly feasible to imagine that he would have rejected the anti-Catholic agenda that bombarded the Church by the so-called “progressives” of the late 60s and 70s. If that means he would have been branded as a “neoconservative”, so be it, but he would probably just have seen it as being faithful to the Pope and Magisterium of the Catholic Church.


  3. Srdc says:


    There’s a difference between American neo-con’s and Catholics. The church was opposed to their wars to begin with.


  4. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    I’m relieved to hear that, Sr.


  5. Srdc says:


    Merton was not progressive by today’s standard’s. He would be fairly Orthodox.


  6. Mr Badger says:

    Merton was not progressive by today’s standard’s. He would be fairly Orthodox.

    That’s too simple, its possible to be politically progressive and doctrinally orthodox for example.


  7. The Raven says:

    I think we have a terminological problem here: when applied to Church politics “neo-con” does not map to the way that term is used in mainstream politics: in this context it is a slightly perjorative term used by Trads to describe people that are keen on the teaching of the Church but less bothered by the praxis of the Church.

    In the context of Merton, I can see the viewpoint that he would have fallen into that camp.


  8. Robert John Bennett says:

    I think George Weigel is right. If it is possible to feel revulsion in heaven, Merton is probably revolted by what has been done to the Church, its liturgy, and its teachings since his death in 1968. He is surely praying very hard for us all.


  9. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    You claim that Weigel is right. So, what has been done to the Church etc since ’68? And who did it?

    You really will have to be more specific.

    If at all possible.


  10. Mr Badger says:

    bursting at the seams with progress into the secular cities and Teilhardian subways.

    Next stop the noosphere?

    You claim that Weigel is right. So, what has been done to the Church etc since ’68? And who did it?

    Protestantised by freemasons I imagine. Or jamboreed by boy scouts. Or secularised by satanists. Or modernised by Moravian malefactors. You get the picture. —


  11. The Raven says:

    Badger: how about b*gg*r*d about by people who should have known better? That’s the version that I usually run with.


  12. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    And given recent horrible events, if you’d left out the word ‘about’ , that would have made yet another version.


  13. The Raven says:

    While it does seem that most of the cases of abuse date back to the period when most of the damage was done to the faithful, I’m not sure that I’d want to point the finger of blame exclusively at the faction in the Church that were keen on change. Still, you probably know better than me.


  14. rebrites says:

    If there is revulsion in heaven, I think Thomas Merton would be revolted at his name and legend being co-opted to justify self-righteous Catholic neoconservatives like Weigel.
    I know I find it revolting, right here on earth.


  15. Srdc says:


    Weigel is not a neo-con.


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