Posted September 25, 2015
Day and Merton: the Catholic radicals Francis cited
Thomas C. Fox
National Catholic Reporter
Francis in the United States
Pope Francis touched the souls of Catholic progressives everywhere this
morning by mentioning in his address to the U.S. Congress the names of three
radicals they have revered for decades. Most of the millions who watched the
pontiff speak were familiar with Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights
advocate, preacher of nonviolence, and Nobel prize laureate assassinated in
1968. They are less familiar with two other Americans equally dedicated to
nonviolent principles, Trappist Monk Thomas Merton and co-founder of the
Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day.
Merton and Day were the two most noted
radical US Catholics of the 20th century. Both based their visions of life and
society on the Christian Gospels, especially their rejections of violence and
commitments to the poor.
By citing these two figures, Francis appears to be
elaborating on his own radical vision of Catholicism while placing this vision
in a context more recognizable and understandable to U.S. Catholics.
Lawrence Cunningham, emeritus professor of theology at Notre Dame
University, writing about Merton, once called him "the greatest spiritual writer
and spiritual master of the twentieth century in English speaking
In 1939, after graduating from Columbia University, while reading a
book on Gerard Manley Hopkins' conversion to Catholicism Merton found himself
wanting to convert to the Catholic faith. He was baptized and eventually entered
monastic life as a Trappist monk, finding his home at the Abbey of Our Lady of
Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. He took his solemn vows in 1947 and in 1948
published his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.
Over the years he
became a prolific writer, publishing deeply spiritual reflections and
maintaining copious correspondence with a wide range of public figures and
private individuals and all the while growing to be a radical critic of U.S.
militarism. He became a strong opponent to the Vietnam War and to the growing
arms race. From his hermitage at Gethsemani, he used his writing to speak out
against threats to the soul and society that nuclear weapons were causing.
wrote that violence was shaping the very psyche of the nation.
focus of American violence is not in esoteric groups but in the very culture
itself, its mass media, its extreme individualism and competitiveness, its
inflated myths of virility and toughness, and its overwhelming preoccupation
with the power of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and psychological
overkill," he once wrote. "If we live in what is essentially a culture of
overkill, how can we be surprised at finding violence in it?
He once wrote in
a letter to his friend, Jim Forest that he was not a "pure pacifist," going on
to say "though today in practice I don't see how anyone can be anything else
since limited wars (however 'just') present an almost certain danger of nuclear
war on an all-out scale. It is absolutely clear to me that we are faced with the
obligation, both as human beings and as Christians, of striving in every way
possible to abolish war."
He once wrote words that seem to echo Francis
today. Yesterday Francis told the US bishops not to fight culture but rather to
Wrote Merton decades back: "The beginning of love is to let those
we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.
Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in
Throughout his adult life, Merton consistently maintained an antiwar
Merton once referred to the Vietnam was as "an overwhelming
Merton believed and stated unequivocally that "the root of all war
is fear," not so much the fear people have of one another as "the fear they have
of everything." Merton is widely viewed today at one of the two or three most
influential peacemakers in the entire Catholic tradition.
inter-religious dialogued, still a relatively new idea in the 1960s. He traveled
to Thailand to participate in a gathering hosted by Buddhist monks and died in a
freak accident on Dec. 10, 1968.
Day, like Merton, has
animated progressive Catholics for decades and continues to do so in the
hundreds of Catholic Worker Houses that dot the inner cities of the United
States and beyond.
It was in the 1930s, she met follow activist Peter Maurin
and the two established the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist movement that
combines hospitality to the homeless with nonviolent direct action. She served
as editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper, which she and Maurin founded, from
1933 until her death in 1980.
Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, and
initially lived a bohemian life. It involved various love affairs and an
abortion. A Day biographer, Robert Coles, described her as "a woman who had
been, in her twenties, a well-known journalist and essayist, a novelist, a close
friend of writers such as Eugene O'Neill, Mike Gold, John Dos Passos, and
It was in 1932 she met, Maurin, a French immigrant, and a
man of deep intellect. The two began publishing The Catholic Worker May 1,
1933, priced at one cent, and published to this day at the same price.
had an affinity toward anarchists and Catholic Workers to this day often view
their own hospitality actions in light of Day's anarchistic tendencies.
June 1955, Day joined a group of pacifists in refusing to participate in civil
defense drills. Day and six others took the position that their refusal was not
a legal dispute but rather one of philosophy. As quoted on her Wikipedia page,
Day said she was doing "public penance" for the United States' first use of an
Like other reform minded Catholics at the time, Day became an
enthusiastic supporter of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. She hoped
it would endorse nonviolence as a fundamental tenet of the Catholic faith,
rejecting the church's "just war" theory, which she argued no longer made sense
and violated the mandates of the gospels. She spoke out, as being immoral, not
only the use but also the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, calling them acts of
She lobbied bishops in Rome and joined with other women in a 10-day
fast, attempting to draw attention to her nonviolent views. She wrote that she
was pleased when the when the Vatican Council issued a document saying that
nuclear warfare was incompatible with traditional Catholic just war theory .
The document read: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction
of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and
man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."
The Catholic hierarchy
viewed her as a renegade through most of her life. Apparently more manageable
after her death, Catholic bishops warmed to her. In 2000, the late Cardinal John
O'Connor of New York opened Days' cause for canonization. Pope Benedict XVI ,
in the closing days of his papacy, cited Day as an example of conversion.
this day, Day's spirit rings through the Catholic Worker movement, still well
outside the mainstream of Catholic life. He writings on nonviolence and personal
responsibility to the poorest continue to animate the movement.
[Fox is NCR
publisher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.}