Was Thomas Merton Left, Right…or Catholic?

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Thomas Merton, like the concept of “social justice,” has been co-opted by the American left. Many liberals, progressives, socialists, and probably even some further left still, have hijacked the Trappist monk and remade him in their own image. He is handily used for all sorts of left-leaning causes and purposes. Among the latest examples, Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center is honoring the Occupy movement (specifically Occupy Pittsburgh) with its annual New Person’s Award.

In truth, Merton was a complex character, much easier to understand earlier in his life, such as when he published his wonderful 1948 memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, than later in life, when he died tragically in a freak accident at the age of 53 in 1968. We know that Merton was decidedly, unequivocally anti-war. And it was there that American liberals would pick up Merton and deploy him into various political battlefields, from the nuclear freeze to anti-Apartheid.

Thomas Merton, 1915-1968

We do know this, however, Merton was staunchly anti-communist, particularly after being misled, burned, and duped by communists in his youth at the radical Columbia University. “Communists,” wrote Merton later, “are, in actual fact, noisy and shallow and violent people, torn to pieces by petty jealousies and factional hatred and envies and strife.”

Merton was also, of course, thoroughly Christian, Catholic, intensely pious—anything but secular.

It is difficult to imagine Merton today supporting something as secular, violent, and wildly hedonistic as the Occupy movement. From untold numbers of rapes and robberies and drug dealings and assaults on police, and even urinating and defecating on cars, the Occupiers are an unkempt, remarkably radical bunch. To borrow from Merton, they are noisy and violent, torn to pieces by all sorts of envy and jealousy and hatred. If Thomas Merton were to appear at an Occupy gathering at Wall Street, Cleveland, Seattle, or Pittsburgh, and dare share his utterly brilliant insights into the Christian faith and his unwavering conviction that the Catholic Church was the repository of truth—which he would—he’d be denounced as a religious fanatic by the modern occupiers.

Thomas Merton found his home in the Catholic Church. Let’s keep him out of Occupy Wall Street.


Dr. Paul Kengor


Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

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  • vytautas

    well, there is no need to artificially associate or dissociate him from the Occupy movement. It’s hard to say where he would stand on that. Urinating on a car, silly as it is, is still a thousand times smaller a crime than industrial pollution of the environment or financial schemes that rob people of their money/savings/pensions. He was, though, definitely anti-war and leftist in his social-economic views. He also said that the only career choice that had never entered his mind was that of a businessman.
    The only movement he definintely would not support today is that of the Republican Party.

  • chaco

    vytautas, Definition of Life & marriage are non-negotiables in regard to calling ourselves christians. These definitions are the FOUNDATION of society. Of course we can’t claim that Republicans are right on all issues but it seems quite obvious that they are closer to being right in these definitions than the democrat option. If you are opting for an independent, it seems to me, you are opting for an unelectable and are thus not helping to move “the ball” forward.

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  • plowshare

    Did he die a Catholic? I saw a film talking at length about how he got infatuated with Buddhism.

  • Matthew41

     “In truth, Merton was a complex character” is just code for “a Christian leftist”. Christ, too, was ‘complex’ in that, “He wasn’t killed for being too conservative.”

  • Elecpencil

    Not surprised to see you work at the far right-wing Grove City College. Word is Jesus was unkempt and radical. Anyone who would write a book celebrating Reagan who was a mass murder and responsible for over 100,000 Latin Americans deaths by supporting brutal, dictators can’t be taken seriously. Some of those killed were environmentalists, union organizers, priests, Bishop Romero and nuns who were raped and killed. I don’t think Merton would have been favorable to Reagan. OK maybe Reagan didn’t urinate on a car he just pissed on the working-class and the poor so that is alright in your mind.  

  • Aylakob

    Dr. Kengor, what Occupy movement have you been following?? Even the mainstream media has not reported rapes, drug dealing, robberies by Occupiers. Where do you get your news? Or maybe you’ve been at a march and seen these things happening first hand? Thank you Thomas Merton Center for honoring Occupy Pittsburgh!

  • James Ignatius

    Aylakob – Philadelphia, …Philly has seen all of these crimes from the tent people.

  • Monastery

    You’re ignorant and vile.

  • Something tells me you wouldn’t have all that great an opinion of a modern day Thomas Merton speaking truth to power either.

  • When I tell my right-wing friends my Church’s stance on social justice, they say being an informed Catholic IS being a leftist. Then again, it probably only looks that way to someone that far to the right.

  • Monastery

    I would have no problem at all. I’d join him. Today the “power” is Obama’s statism.

  • Monastery

    Lets be honest. “Social Justice” is a euphemism for forced redistribution of wealth. It’s socialism, not charity. It’s legislated theft in a governmental power grab, masquerading as compassion.

  • RCLN

    Without progressive taxation [forced redistribution of wealth] we’ll wind up with what we left behind, e.g. a few who are filthy rich and the rest who are dirt poor.