Harder Than War: Catholic Peacemaking in Twentieth-Century America

By Patricia McNeal | Go to book overview

5
Thomas Merton at the Crossroads of Peace

THE PERIOD BETWEEN WORLD War II and Vatican II was a crucible for the later development of the American Catholic peace movement. This was the time when the theological rationales for the just war doctrine and pacifism were being severely challenged and the new ethic of nonviolence was born. The war in Vietnam would complete the process in the 1960s when nonviolent resistance became the movement's main means to stop the war. Thomas Merton stood at this crossroads and attempted to evaluate the Catholic tradition on war and peace in three areas: just war, pacifism, and nonviolence. His writings changed once and for all how American Catholics would henceforth think about peacemaking.

Thomas Merton was born in Praedes, France, on 31 January 1915. Six years later his Quaker mother died. He spent most of his young adult life studying in France or England. When he was not in school, he frequently travelled throughout Europe with his father, who was an artist and was always in quest of ideas for his paintings.

In 1934, after attending Cambridge for one year, Merton came to the United States and completed his formal education at Columbia University, where he obtained an M.A. degree in English. Like Dorothy Day, he had flirted with socialism and communism, but found them disillusioning because they were too focused on society with insufficient emphasis placed on personal responsibility. While completing his master's thesis on the religious and mystical elements of the writings of William Blake, he took the advice of a Hindu monk and began to read St. Augustine and the early Church Fathers. By the end of his first year of graduate study, Merton had led himself to a firm commitment to the Catholic faith.

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