Friday, October 19, 2012

Thomas Merton on Vatican II

50 years ago last week (October 11) the Second Vatican Council began.  Throughout the Catholic world, various events are planned over the next three years to commemorate the event of the Council and to study the Council documents.

I continue to re-read Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and was struck just now about his own comments about the hardening of division that came about as a result of Vatican II.  He wasn't denigrating Vatican II.  In fact, if one reads his journals and other writings, his devotion to Pope John XXIII comes through clearly as does his perception that the Council was something to be celebrated even despite the division that occurred during and after it.

The division between progressives and conservatives in the Catholic church is an ugly one, particularly in the United States.  Merton foresaw this division, and wrote about he understood his position vis-a-vis the progressives and the conservatives.  As I read these words just now, I felt a sense of solidarity with Merton once again, for they express so clearly the way I so often feel.  More importantly, these words express something that deserves to be heard by those who identify themselves as either progressive or conservative.
[O]ne of the great problems after this Council is certainly going to be the division between progressives and conservatives, and this may prove to be rather ugly in some cases, though it may also be a fruitful source of sacrifice for those who are determined to seek the will of God and not their own.  I do not speak here of bishops, but of ordinary priests, theologians, lay people, and all who voice their opinions one way or another.
For my own part I consider myself neither conservative nor an extreme progressive.  I would like to think I am what Pope John was - a progressive with a deep respect and love for tradition - in other words a progressive who wants to preserve a very clear and marked continuity with the past and not make silly and idealistic compromises with the present - yet to be completely open to the modern world while retaining the clearly defined, traditionally Catholic position (p. 315-6, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander).
Two things are of note here.  First is Merton's reference to a 'fruitful source of sacrifice' in the midst of the debate between conservatives and progressives.  I think he is here referring to an idea he expresses elsewhere that disagreement with the other needs to be entered into a) with the ability to affirm all that we can of the other and b) with a true desire for dialogue that leads to truth rather than for a desire simply to prove the other wrong.  Second is Merton's unwillingness to classify himself on one side or the other.  In so doing, it appears to me that Merton actually gets pretty close to the heart of the spirit of Vatican II as exemplified by the event and the documents.  This was neither a progressive nor a conservative Council, but was one that expressed a radical continuity with the past (and particularly the early Christian communities) while at the same time recognizing (as Christians in the patristic period did) that the 'world' could not be summarily dismissed as 'evil' or 'irrelevant'.


  1. Vatican II's Constitution on the Church says this in chapter three:
    "Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining
    the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith."

    The 20 ecumenical councils before it are still infallible, like the ecumenical council of Trent that declared that Catholics with faith
    can lose salvation from unrepented mortal (grave) sin. And that baptism or the implicit desire of baptism is necessary for salvation.

    1. Lumen Gentium does indeed say that. Perhaps you could say a bit more about why you thought that quotation was important in response to this blog post?

  2. Greg, I'm the coordinator of the Chicago Merton Chapter and we are interested in a speaker on Merton & Vatican II. Your blog popped up when I did a Google search. Where are you located? Here is our blog which is serving as our website until we rebuild our page: Hope to hear from you.

    Mike Brennan, Chicago Chapter-ITMS