Merton and Catechism Letter Campaign

The International Thomas Merton Society has sponsored an effort to reverse a decision by US bishops to remove a profile of Thomas Merton from the new American Catholic Catechism.  The ITMS has drafted a letter to Bishop Donald Wuerl, chair of the committee charged with writing the catechism, and USCCB president Bishop William Skylstad, explaining why the decision to omit Merton should be changed.  More than 1160 people have already endorsed the letter, which has periodically been mailed to Bishops Wuerl and Skylstad and other bishops on the catechism committee.  While the ITMS is no longer collecting names for the petition, those who agree with the statement are invited to mail a copy of the letter or their own personal response to Bishop Wuerl at the address given in the letter below.   For those who wish to contact other individual bishops about the matter, addresses can be found at the USCCB web site,  


The campaign has received national attention.  The original story that prompted the campaign can be found at:  Subsequent articles include those in the Louisville Courier Journal, a story that added significant information and is available at This was picked up by Religious News Service, and was followed by a Catholic News Service piece that ran in many diocesan papers; it can be found at  More recently the story has prompted an editorial in Commonweal (available at ) and a front page story in the National Catholic Reporter (available at ).  The original critique of the catechism and Merton’s place in it (among other things) by Msgr. Wrenn and Kenneth Whitehead can be found at  


May 15, 2005

Feast of Pentecost


Bishop Donald Wuerl

Diocese of Pittsburgh

111 Boulevard of the Allies,

Pittsburgh, PA15222-1618


Dear Bishop Wuerl:


Congratulations on the completion of work on the new American Catholic Catechism that you and your editorial board submitted to the bishops for approval in November.  We hope the book will serve as a powerful tool for evangelization in the years to come, particularly among young Catholics.  We agree that presenting profiles of faithful Catholic leaders as models to introduce each of the book’s chapters will be an effective technique for attracting and instructing readers, and we were pleased to learn that efforts by ultra-conservative critics to persuade the bishops to omit Cesar Chavez and Cardinal Bernardin from the catechism were unsuccessful.


We are therefore particularly disappointed and deeply disturbed by news reports that the figure of Thomas Merton, who was to have appeared in the opening chapter of the catechism, was eliminated from the final draft.  Merton has played a crucial role in the faith journeys of thousands upon thousands of Catholics (as well as other Christians and even non-Christians) both during his lifetime and since his death, and we believe his inclusion in the catechism can and should be a significant way to extend the powerful witness of his life and writings to a new audience.


Your statement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Merton was removed from the final version of the catechism because “the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was,” and that “only secondarily did we take into consideration that we don’t know all the details of the searching at the end of his life” appears to us neither cogent nor persuasive.  We would venture to guess that Merton is far better known to the target audience than (for example) Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (whom we are delighted to find included in the volume) and many if not most of the other figures profiled.


Many of us have taught classes on Merton on secondary, collegiate and graduate levels, or have included him in classes on topics from social ethics to spirituality to world religions, thus familiarizing the next generation with his work.  Conferences of the International Thomas Merton Society in recent years have been marked by the enthusiastic participation of students and young adults, who now even have their own web site (  Graduate students in many disciplines continue to produce masters and doctoral theses on Merton in an impressive quantity and quality.  The Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, the major repository of Merton’s papers, receives hundreds of visits and thousands of inquiries every year from scholars and readers throughout the country and the world.  Merton is being studied and written about with growing interest and insight in former Iron Curtain countries such as Poland, and his work is being translated and published in Russia.  Books about and even by Merton continue to appear at an amazing rate, including his selected letters (1985-1994) and complete journals (1995-1998) issued by major secular publishing houses (Farrar, Straus, Giroux and HarperCollins, respectively).  When the Trees Say Nothing, a recent collection of Merton’s writings on nature, has appeared on the Catholic Best Sellers list.  The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia received the award as the best reference work from the Catholic Press Association two years ago.  The Inner Experience, his book on contemplation finally published in 2003, was a Book of the Month Club alternate selection.  A volume on Merton published this year was among the first six (and the only one focused on a male American) in the “Spiritual Leaders and Thinkers Series” issued by Chelsea House and aimed at a junior high audience.  The Thomas Merton Curriculum produced by the Merton Foundation is in use in more than 200 secondary schools and 250 parishes throughout the nation. People of all ages continue to flock to lectures, conferences and retreats focused on Merton.  We believe that Merton remains a figure of great fascination and attraction, and will continue to serve as an outstanding model of faith, wisdom and compassion for many years to come.  But even if this is not the case, it would seem to be an argument for inclusion, not exclusion: his presence in the catechism would be a wonderful opportunity to bring him back to the attention of the Catholic and wider American public.


As for the “secondary” consideration “that we don’t know all the details of the searching at the end of his life,” we are aware of no reputable Merton scholars or even of careful readers of Merton who think that his interest in Eastern religions toward the end of his life, which led to his Asian journey and his untimely death, in any way compromised his commitment to the Catholic Christianity that he had embraced thirty years before.  On the contrary, a reading of the major biographies by James Forest, Michael Mott and William Shannon, of The Other Side of the Mountain, the final volume of his journals, of his retreat conferences in Thomas Merton in Alaska, given immediately before leaving for Asia, and of his final talk on the day of his death, published in The Asian Journal, confirm that it was because of the deep grounding in his own Catholic, Cistercian, contemplative tradition that he was able to enter into meaningful dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions like the Dalai Lama, who has repeatedly said that it was his encounter with Merton that first allowed him to recognize the beauty and authentic spiritual depths of Christianity.  As Merton himself said in a classic passage in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (published two years before his death): “I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.  So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc.  This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing.  There is much that one cannot ‘affirm’ and ‘accept,’ but first one must say ‘yes’ where one really can.  If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”  Merton’s combination of inter-religious awareness and openness with fidelity to his own tradition is an invaluable model for the dialogue among religious traditions that will necessarily mark our new century, a model that Catholics, young and old, need to know.  We find it ironic that in the very month which saw the publication of Peace in the Post-Christian Era, his work on the nuclear threat that he was forbidden to publish in 1962, his voice is once again being “silenced” by leaders of a Church that is in vital need of his continued witness.


According to news reports, the catechism still has to be approved by officials in Rome and thus publication is not expected until 2006.  Therefore there is time to reconsider the decision to remove the Thomas Merton story from the catechism.  We respectfully request that the committee reverse its decision and restore the material on Merton to its original place in the volume.  We believe that doing so will make the catechism a better book and will assist its readers in becoming wiser, more mature, more committed Catholic Christians.






cc. Bishop William Skylstad, President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


Copyright (c) The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. All rights reserved.