Fifty years ago, December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton left this world. His prophet words serve as a warning to the people of our times.
The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s autobiography of faith tells of God’s subtle enticement of Merton’s spirit. The ruins of Cistercian monasteries in France fascinated Young Thomas. He read a range of philosophers including Jacques Maritan and other Catholics who convinced Merton that Scholastic Philosophy offered the best explanation of reality.
Most of all, Merton was drawn by example. Before his conversion, he sat near a young woman at Mass. Her fervor and sincerity convinced Thomas of the strength of her faith and encouraged him to deepen his own.
Baroness de Heuck, a Russian immigrant, shaped his concept of social justice. During the Great Depression, Communist recruiters opened soup kitchens in Harlem. When hospitals refused medical treatment for persons of color; when landlords denied housing, and employers, jobs; Communists brought doctors, rented apartments, and offered financial support.
The Baroness noted that it was once said: “See how these Christians love one another.” She observed no sign of Catholic love in Harlem. The Cardinal and Bishops dined with the wealthy but ignored the poorest within the Archdiocese.
The Baroness frightened establishment Catholics with her application of the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius IX. She embarrassed pastors in Harlem who hired white tradesmen to repair their buildings when Harlem residents stood in unemployment lines. She claimed that the Catholic Church was “just a front for Capitalism.”
She established Friendship House and Blessed Martin de Porres Center—Catholic Christian responses to the social needs of Harlem. Merton worked there briefly, but the experience influenced his social justice message.
In Merton’s discussion of sins and virtues, he noted that during the period leading up to the Great Depression, the Capital Sins of Pride and Greed had become virtues. Americans of the 1920s chose personal and national greatness over goodness and humility; unregulated growth and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few over a disciplined and reliable economic system that allowed everyone to benefit. Merton’s words warn Americans about the consequences of its Roaring 20/20ies economic injustice—redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich and the threat of another depression. Greatness is not measured in triumphalism or superiority but love and justice.
America ignores the prophetic words of Thomas Merton, Popes Leo, Pius, and Francis at its peril.