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Issue Date:  March 11, 2005

Whose orthodoxy is it?

Merton gets tossed from new catechism, victim of latest round over who gets to decide what's Catholic


Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong. -- Stephen Stills

Battle lines are being drawn in the oldest prizefight of Catholicism -- the quest for orthodoxy.

At stake, this time, is the first national catechism for adults -- including and especially young adults -- which in November 2003 enjoyed the U.S. bishops’ 218-10 approval. Having endured four years, three drafts, and more than 10,000 suggested amendments, and having finally gained overwhelming support among bishops and other consultants as a solid source of information and an open invitation to explore the faith, the 456-page U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults now awaits the required Vatican recognitio before becoming official.

Two prominent critics of the catechism, however, have antagonized hundreds of Catholics by allegedly convincing, or cowing the bishops into removing Trappist monk and best-selling author Thomas Merton from the text. In an impassioned response, some 500 Catholics have petitioned the bishops’ catechism committee to reverse its acquiescence to the critics’ charges that Merton is an unsuitable role model for young adults.

For the moment, however, the petitioners are on the sidelines watching the real sparring partners: two critics with a small band of bishops wary of contemporary expressions of the faith, and the majority of bishops who think otherwise. It won’t do in this case to employ the usual conversation stoppers -- “conservative” and “liberal” -- that are routinely bestowed upon a group by its opponents. Catholics agree on too many fundamentals of this face-off to remain for long in their stereotyped corners. The pugilists may be at odds with each other, but they’re in the same ring.

The current controversy ignited even as the bishops were approving the new catechism. Two catechetical translators -- Msgr. Michael Wrenn, dean of students at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoody, N.Y., and Kenneth D. Whitehead, a Catholic author who formerly served as U.S. assistant secretary of education -- wrote an article for Catholic World News, a Web site, condemning the catechism’s biographical inclusion of the internationally admired Merton, whose The Seven Storey Mountain in 1949 helped energize a surge of postwar vocations to the priesthood and religious life -- not a bad role model in the current American climate of priest shortages and sex scandals. More than a half-century after it was first published, the autobiography of Merton’s conversion and entry into the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky is still in print around the globe.

Wrenn and Whitehead have asserted that Merton’s investigation of Eastern religions toward the end of his life make him a poor role model for faithful Catholics. Their complaint against Merton, however, may be a lightning rod to the more deeply rooted slugfest over who has the right to examine and define orthodoxy. On one hand, every Catholic has the duty to cross-question catechism and conscience; on the other, Rome has the teaching authority.

A bit of background is necessary here. The broader Wrenn-Whitehead criticism of the new catechism for young adults earlier had found voice with their criticism of the English translation of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church during its two-year “Roman captivity,” when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith examined and rejected it, primarily because of the text’s gender-inclusive language.

At the time, Wrenn and Whitehead wrote: “We are obliged to judge this translation to be a very bad one” that, if “foisted off” on the English-speaking world, would bring “discredit upon the whole catechism enterprise.” The translation, they said, suffered from hundreds of errors, some with major doctrinal significance.

Abandonment of ‘man’

Of high concern was inclusive language, against which the two men employed a pejorative variation of the word “feminist” 23 times within a few hundred words, calling the demand for inclusive language “bitterly anti-Catholic.” The “deplorable” abandonment of the generic “man” revealed the U.S. bishops’ “almost maniacal concern” for political correctness and formed “the most serious deficiency in this English translation.”

In their recent analysis of the new Catholic Catechism for Adults, Wrenn and Whitehead revisited their 1992 issues as well as some new ones, one of which was Thomas Merton, dead 35 years, whose search for truth while maintaining dogged loyalty to Catholicism ironically has become a perceived threat to orthodoxy.

At this point, we are reminded that by definition and choice, Roman Catholics must accede to the magisterium, the teaching authority of the pope and bishops, even if as a matter of conscience they question a particular doctrine. By that same necessity, Catholics do not have the right to fossilize every teaching that ever rolled out of the magisterial factory while rejecting new theological insights that may develop or expand on a concept without necessarily rejecting it.

Wrenn and Whitehead, like many Catholics, would seem to distrust change, as evidenced by their hot-button criticisms of the as-yet unofficial U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults:

  • According to Wrenn and Whitehead, the catechism sometimes succumbs to defects of post-Second Vatican Council (1962-65) catechesis, a claim that echoes Wrenn’s years-long misgivings about contemporary catechetical works and Whitehead’s abiding concern with the identity crisis facing religious studies in American universities.

In this, the two men would doubtless find agreement in the broader Catholic community, especially among pre-Vatican II Catholics for whom the old Baltimore Catechism series provided a complete course of religious instruction. If by today’s standards it was somewhat dry and rigid, the Baltimore series was rooted in a pedagogy that established and then followed its own internal logic. First came the prayers, then questions, then twice the number of questions, and so on, with each slender volume building on the one preceding it.

  • Wrenn and Whitehead maintain that the “new catechetics” betrays traditional teaching by offering an “amorphous view of an egalitarian ‘Christian community.’ ” The new catechism, they say, fails to stress the necessary sacramental divide between ordained priesthood and laity, especially the idea of priest as a “man set apart.” While priestly celibacy is “ably justified as going back to Gospel times” and the male-only priesthood is “unapologetically affirmed and explained,” there could “perhaps have been a more ample explanation of why sacred ordination is reserved to men only.”

Their claim that the catechism should include the Vatican’s explanation of the male-only priesthood surely would find agreement among conservative and liberal Catholics alike. Most young adults have never been given that explanation.

  • Wrenn and Whitehead assert that the catechism is threatened by political correctness, most especially by the two men’s nemeses: feminism and its illegitimate child, inclusive language. But the U.S. bishops involved in the catechism effort, including Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, chair of the five-bishop editorial oversight board that handled the writing, employed inclusive language to avoid alienating young adult Catholics increasingly unaccustomed to the leveling of the sexes inherent in male-oriented language.

Keeping with cultural practice

The catechism writers used “horizontal” inclusive language to speak of women and men without seeking to neutralize the male-gendered, “vertical” language for God. In a November article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wuerl explained that the catechism’s writers and editors had been directed to describe “human persons according to both male and female genders … in keeping with cultural practice in the United States.” Wrenn and Whitehead earnestly objected, pointing out that the generic “man” had served Catholicism for a millennium before feminists started erasing that tradition.

Those who might disagree point out that, ironically, the venerable Baltimore Catechism No. 3 (Q. 134) asked: Does “man” in the catechism mean all human beings?” It answered: “ ‘Man’ in the catechism means all human beings, either men or women, boys, girls or children.” It seems unlikely that a 19th-century catechism would have found it necessary to define who is included in the word “man” if the term was so widely accepted as Wrenn and Whitehead claimed.

  • The two critics point out that the catechism’s glossary omitted, among other terms: commandments, heaven, hell, heresy, precepts of the church, and sacrifice. Virtually all Catholics would agree that these terms should be defined because it can no longer be assumed that young adults know the difference between, say, heresy and blasphemy, or that they know (or have ever heard of) the precepts of the church.
  • Concerning human sexuality, Wrenn and Whitehead lamented that the new catechism highlights the “unjust discrimination” against, and the “respect, compassion and sensitivity” due to homosexuals, instead of putting “homosexuality in its proper context as a serious disorder.”

Further, they say, the text’s treatment of contraception in the United States fails to point out the prevalence of sterilization, “which has already wreaked untold havoc on Catholic health care facilities.” But against Wrenn and Whitehead, even Catholics concerned with the use of sterilization as birth control might say that the church’s first concern should not be institutional but pastoral, especially for Catholics who later regret having been sterilized.

Wrenn and Whitehead maintain that the catechism editors lacked fundamental understanding of these and other issues, an acute problem because the U.S. bishops need to “get it pretty nearly exactly right” the first time or risk exacerbating rather than healing divisions in the American Catholic community. Catholics observing the unfolding of these catechism events would surely agree, especially after the disaster surrounding the English-language translation. The challenge here lies in determining what “pretty nearly exactly right” means in American Catholicism.

Further, Catholics would widely agree with Wrenn-Whitehead that a teaching instrument should not be “compromised by our contemporary decadent American culture.” But some, including the bishops, might argue that the whole of “American culture” cannot and should not be maligned with the overbroad, hence unfair, label of “decadent.” There are perfectly decent people all over the land, many of whom are Catholic.

Now, back to Merton and what he represents in this contest.

The new catechism quite effectively includes biographical sketches of exemplary American Catholics such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pope John XXIII, Dorothy Day and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Wrenn and Whitehead, however, insist that these and other traditional role models should stand over and against more suspect Catholics -- Sr. Thea Bowman (her attempt to educate poor blacks was “hardly an unalloyed Gospel message”), César Chávez (his work to unionize farm hands was “partisan and controversial”), and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago (who, because of his “seamless garment” approach to the sanctity of life, could not be “anything but a controversial figure,” even though he “died an edifying death”).

“Near-contemporary figures” in particular and “controversy” in general should be avoided, said Wrenn and Whitehead, who criticized even Pope John XXIII for his misplaced “cheerful optimism,” which ultimately was “wrong” -- especially compared to the “great pontificate of John Paul II.”

The Wrenn-Whitehead preoccupation with banning “controversial figures” such as Chávez, Bernardin, and Bowman is problematic because the catechism’s inclusion of role models in that regard is clearly inconsistent. Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day was jailed in 1973 for joining a church-banned picket line supporting farm workers (see Chávez), considered all human life to be sacred without exception (see Bernardin), and kept her hand extended to all in poverty (see Bowman). Particularly ironic is that she vociferously denounced U.S. involvement in war and rejected out of hand the racism then rampant in the United States (see Merton).

Wrenn and Whitehead described Merton as a “lapsed monk” who in his last days went “wandering in the East, seeking the consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality,” for which he could “scarcely be considered an ‘exemplary Catholic.’ The very fact that the editors [of the catechism] could have included him as such in their very first chapter immediately casts doubt on their understanding of Catholic teaching and practice.”

Wrenn-Whitehead omitted the widely known circumstance that, in the spirit of the Vatican’s call to greater ecumenical awareness and dialogue, Merton was attending a conference of Catholic and Buddhist monks in Thailand with official permission from his superiors. The journey was made in his last days not by design but only because he was accidentally electrocuted during the conference. These careless errors of fact cast doubt on Wrenn and Whitehead’s research and intellectual honesty.

Wuerl later claimed that the bishops removed Merton -- whose biography originally was the opening story -- because “the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was.” But a recent search returned 647 results for books by and about Merton. By contrast, the search returned 15 works (seven of which are out of print) by or about Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, who was included because of her work with cancer patients (and because her spiritual biography is truly remarkable).

The Amazon search results do not suggest that Merton was worthier of emulation than Lathrop or others, but that Wuerl’s claim that the Trappist monk had fallen into obscurity was so egregiously erroneous that it endangers the credibility of the larger biographical effort.

Likewise with a claim by the executive director for the bishops’ catechism office, Msgr. Daniel Kutys, who said the bishops replaced the internationally popular Merton with the first American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, to provide more gender balance, as most of the book’s profiles are male. As politically polite as that sounds, it is hard to imagine that Elizabeth Ann Seton originally was left out of the catechism and inserted at the 11th hour. Or, maybe she actually was included all along and promoted to first place only after Merton was removed. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that Thomas Merton helped shape the very American Catholicism that the catechism now seeks to bequeath to young adults.

Many Catholics might argue that today’s young adults are both spiritual seekers and intellectually demanding. Merton’s search for truth, and what it represents, would appeal to Catholic students who have little or no intention of ever again entering a Catholic church. The Trappist could have helped develop in them the sense of mystery that roots the Catholic imagination. Sadly, the bishops’ capitulation to Wrenn and Whitehead and other critics removed not only Merton but also a rare and valuable teaching moment, an opportunity to grace young Catholics with a sense of the sacred.

The catechism conflict, for better or worse, reveals confusion about what it means to be orthodox in post-Vatican II society, about who ultimately has the power to decide, and by what means.

When Abraham Lincoln echoed Matthew 12:25 that a house divided cannot stand, he might have added that a healthy set-to does not necessarily reveal a divided house but only carpenters with different tools and construction methods. This glove-game pits, in one corner, two champion defenders of orthodoxy against, in the other corner, the titleholders of American Catholicism. What is interesting and ironic is that this round has reenacted the fisticuffs of the wider post-Vatican II encounter.

Still, whether from papacy, pulpit or pew, conflicting views cannot all be right, but they can’t all be wrong, either. What that means for now is that neither side is going to pull off a victory. If anything, these contenders are in for a long fight.

Deborah Halter is a lecturer in World Religions at Loyola University, New Orleans.

'Why did God make you?': A century of catechisms

The last century has seen changes in wording and emphasis in American catechisms. Illustrating this is the perennial question, “Why did God make you/us?”

The Baltimore Catechism Series (Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1885)
Catechism #1
Q. 150. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.

Catechisms #2 and #3
Q. 150. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.

Catechism For the Catholic Parochial Schools of the United States (B. Herder Book Co., 31st ed., 1927)
Q. #2. Why did God make us?
A. God made us that we might serve Him, and thereby gain Heaven.

The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, Official Revised Edition, No. 2 (Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1969)
Q. #3. Why did God make us?
A. God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (Ligouri Publications, 1994)
1. The Life of Man -- To Know and Love God
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. … He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength.

A sampling of perennial Merton favorites

Reading Thomas Merton is a fundamentally solitary affair. Anyone’s recommended reading by and about the remarkable man and monk is likewise a subjective list. The following books, all still in print, are my perennial favorites.

By Thomas Merton:

The Seven Storey Mountain (1948): This international bestseller speaks as forcefully today as it did in 1948. Seven years after entering the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, a young Thomas Merton traces his self-conscious immersion into the world and then his slow but inevitable journey out of it. This is Every Person’s search for faith.

The Sign of Jonas (1953): Merton continues his journey away from the outside world toward his baptism into an inner world of searching, doubt and conviction. This detailed examination of interior life acts like a mirror to the reader’s own spiritual wanderings.

No Man Is An Island (1955): These essays on human spirituality explore themes in the life of faith. My favorite is “Being and Doing,” which surely is nothing less than a classic.

Raids on the Unspeakable (1960): These essays center on life in the world, with its deep worries and interminable problems. For the world-weary, there is wisdom on every page.

New Seeds of Contemplation (1962): This book traces the phases of a contemplative life, and any spiritual process, while making a cardinal statement about the search for spirit in a material world.

About Thomas Merton:

The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott (1984): Bar none, this New York Times bestseller is the most complete and engaging biography of Merton. A can’t-put-down volume.

Merton’s Palace of Nowhere by James Finley (1978): This book takes Merton as a jumping-off point for the quest for spiritual understanding. A quick but satisfying read.

Thomas Merton/Monk: A Monastic Tribute, edited by Br. Patrick Hart (1974): A little-known gem, this is an anthology of essays by the people who knew Merton best.

-- Deborah Halter


National Catholic Reporter, March 11, 2005

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