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Theological Notebook: Pat Collins on Vatican II, Reform and Renewal, with Merton

by Rev. Patrick W. Collins, Ph.D.


The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) called for church renewal and reform. Renewal is interior, reform external. As a first generation post-Vatican II priest, I recall the enthusiasm with which we went about implementing the insights and decrees of that Council. New winds were blowing and it was refreshing and exciting for us change-agents. At my 20th anniversary of ordination, I recall making a television program based upon which I considered to have been the principal energy of those two decades: Change in the Church.

Now, 42 years after my ordination and in the first year of my retirement, I look back and sense a missing piece. Or perhaps better said, the wrong ordering of things. We went about the external reforms but perhaps we neglected to some extent the interior spiritual renewal from which the external reforms should have flowed. We turned altars around ordered congregants to active participation in the liturgy. We summoned laity into engagements in church governance and ordained permanent deacons. We questioned many church teachings and pressed for new theological insights. All well and good. But was all of this as well grounded as it should have been? I wonder.


Vatican II is often described as a theologians’ council since they had such strong input in showing the bishops ways toward a new approaches of being “Church.” An ancient dictum of our Catholic Traditions says that a theologian is one who prays and one who prays in a theologian. One person whose life affirms this aphorism is the American Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. Merton’s thoughts about the Church and its reform and renewal, born of his contemplative living and praying, can be instructive for those still striving to pursue the vision of Vatican II. His struggle to remain faithful in The Journey of Faith and in and with the Church both challenges us and gives us hope - or perhaps I should say Hope.

Near the end of his life he wrote: “The
contemplative mind is, in fact, not normally
ultra-conservative; but neither is it necessarily
radical. It transcends both these extremes in order
to remain living contact with that which is genuinely
true in any traditional movement.” Therefore he
believed that contemplatives “will not normally be
associated too firmly or too definitely with any
‘movement’ whether political, religious, liturgical,
artistic, philosophical or what have you. The
contemplative stays clear of movements, not because
they confuse him, but simply because he does not need
them and can go father by himself than he can in their
formalized and often fanatical ranks.”

Contemplatives, Merton contends, “will instinctively
avoid becoming enmeshed in conceptual systems.” Such
persons become able to live within themselves, at home
with their own thoughts and to an ever greater degree
independent of exterior supports. Satisfaction is
derived more and more spiritual creativeness. “He
derives strength not from what he gets out of things
and people, but from giving himself to life and to
others. He discovers the secret of life in the
creative energy of love.” (The Inner Experience,

Well, if all of this is true for Merton, what did it
mean to affiliate with a Church - especially in its
interior renewal and external reforms? In 1963 Merton
professed that “The Church is fortunately a mystery
that is beyond the reach of bureaucracy, though
sometimes one is tempted to doubt it.” (CT 82) For
him Church reform was not primarily a political
endeavor of power sharing or power grabbing. For
monk Merton spiritual renewal was always primary and
the reform of church structures was to flow from that
on-going interior transformation. As he wrote in
1963, “There is no question that the mystics are the
ones who have kept Christianity going, if anyone has.”
(HGL 583) This is true because the Church for
Merton was the Holy spirit dwelling and acting in the
Mystical Christ.

When Merton became a convert to the Roman Catholic
Church in 1939, his life was in a chaotic state.
Early on he had been afraid of Catholicism even though
he admired it. But after some serious Catholic
reading, he found the Church with its clarity and
certitude to be a kind of life raft in a sea of the
world’s and his own confusion. After his baptism he
said that he had “entered into the everlasting
movement of that gravitation which is the very life
and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the
depths of His own infinite nature, His goodness
without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere,
and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me,
through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into
this immense and tremendous gravitational movement
which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”
(SSM 246) Throughout Merton’s life the Church as The
Mystical Body of Christ was the principal image and
metaphor energizing his ecclesial faith.

Years later, in a letter to theologian Rosemary
Radford Ruether, the monk described his conversion as
“marked by a pretty strong and dazzled belief in the
Christ of the Nicene Creed. One reason for this was
a strong reaction against the fogginess and
subjectivity and messed-up-ness of the ideas about
Christ that I had met with up and down in various
types of Protestantism. I was tired of a Christ who
had evaporated.” (At Home in the World, 22)

This initial enthusiasm for the Church was tempered
over the years by experience and study. Life in the
Church was not about security stemming from the right
questions and answers. It was about flowing in the
stream of life’s complexities with ever maturing faith
and a certain detachment from the institutional
Church. In 1959 he realized the purity of the Gospel
often involved an admixture of error and wrong
attitudes in the Church. He told a friend: “We
cannot demand that our Christianity be absolutely
pure... There is inevitably plenty of prejudice and
cant wherever there is a religion.” Quoting Jesus,
he said that in the Church the weeds and the wheat
grow together until the harvest. The temptation is
to think that the Church is without such “cockle.”
Our task is to make distinctions between the good and
the bad and to adjust to the reality ourselves “in
order to make sure that we ourselves are wheat and not
cockle. And of course the thing is that one never can
tell. Because we are not the ones appointed to do
the judging. To look for an absolute assurance that
one is pure wheat is to fall, after all, into the same
old pharisaism.” (HGL, 387)

To D.T. Suzuki, the Buddhism scholar, Merton admitted
that the Church could become a prisoner of its own
formulas, laws and structures. Writing things down
about the Christian faith is “fraught with ludicrous
and overwhelming difficulties,” he wrote. “No one
cares for fresh, direct and sincere intuitions of the
Living Truth. Everyone is preoccupied with
formulas.” HGL 564) He was particularly critical
of the bureaucratic ways of the Vatican, claiming
that, while “the Church itself is a permanent miracle
witnessed to her own divine origin by her manifestly
divine qualities,” the “Roman Curia does not always
bear this out, unless the eternity of God is conceived
as a vacuum without activity in it.” HGL 397

Merton’s sense of Church was much more than a matter
of signing up with a group called religion as if mere

gregariousness brought one closer to God. He decried
such ecclesiastical gregariousness as a kind of
“huddling together against God rather than adoration
of His true transcendent holiness.” (HGL 43) In 1961
the monk wrote about the Church as “the Mother of
Truth.” Yet he asserted that truth cannot be equated
with ecclesiastical formulas or rules nor any single
school of theological thought. The Church mothers
Truth by being open to all truth: “We must go
straight to the truth without wanting to glance
backward and without caring about what school of
theology it represents.” He contended that one must
seek “to find the truth of love instead of the truth
of formulas... of laws, of programs, of projects...”
(HGL 560)

For the Church to be authentic, according to Merton,
it had to contribute to the forward thrust of humanity
because it is the continuation of the Incarnation. He
wrote of this in late 1961 and early 1962. To the
extent that the Church stands in the way of being a
matrix for the humanization of persons and cultures,
it may foreshadow the end of Western Christianity.
His sense of the human was grounded in the biblical
understanding of persons as the object of divine mercy
and special concern on the part of God. In some
mysterious sense “the spouse of God” and “an epiphany
of divine wisdom.” But he judged that the
institutional Church was, in some ways, far from such
an agent of divinization. Rather than a “body of
perfections to be salvaged” but one of “infidelity and
imperfection.” He criticized efforts to stress the
value and supreme importance of Western Christian
cultural heritage which has become in some ways a
religion of abstract formality without a humanist
matrix. (HGL 541-2) A large part of the Church’s
infidelity to the Gospel lay, Merton thought, in its
over-identification with the secular order, thus
losing its real Christian center. “Centuries of
identification between Christian and civil life have
done more to secularize Christianity than to sanctify
civil life.” (HGL 649)

On the eve of the Second Vatican Council which began
in the fall of 1962, Thomas Merton wrote to Catherine
de Hueck Doherty, saying that, while he was tired of
all of the complaining about the state of the Church,
he realized that the Church was experiencing “a
terrible spiritual sickness, even though there is
always that inexpressible life.” And then he added
his own complaints: “What is wanted is love. But
love has been buried under words, noise, plans,
projects, systems, and apostolic gimmicks... We are
afflicted with the disease of constant talking with
almost nothing to say... People like to get around
the responsibility by entering into a routine of
trivialities in which everything seems clear and noble
and defined: but when you look at it honestly it
falls apart, for it is riddled with absurdity from top
to bottom...” (HGL 19)

During the summer of 1962 the monk, in a letter to an
English friend spoke of the Church’s graces and its
need for renewal and reform. “What can I tell you
about the Church?... In a sense it is true that one
only comes in with blinders on, blinders one has put
on and kept on. One has to refuse to be disturbed by
so many things... The Church is not of this world,
and she complacently reminds us ot this when we try to
budge her in any direction. But on the other hand we
also are of the Church and we also have our duty to
speak up and say the Church is not of this world when
her refusal to budge turns out, in effect, to be a
refusal to budge from a solidly and immovable temporal
position.. You will have the grace to see through
all that is inconsequential and unfortunate in the

Merton’s advice in the face of difficulties with the
Church was born of his spirituality. Church reform
must flow from the spiritual renewal of the members of
the Body of Christ. “Be true to the Spirit of God
and to Christ. Read your Prophets sometimes, and go
through the Gospels and St. Paul and see what is said
there: there is your life. You are called to a
totally new, risen, transformed life in the Spirit of
Christ. A life of simplicity and truth and joy that
is not of this world.” (HGL 397-399)

Monk Merton in June of 1962 held out some hope that
the Council would help the Church become more than a
kind of ark into which one scrambles to escape life’s
flood. Sometimes, he admitted “one can also be
tempted to wonder if the ark itself is going to leak
or even founded. But God is the one to worry about
that.” He spoke at that time for the first time of
the Church as the People of God, a metaphor that would
come to dominate the ecclesiological visions of
Vatican II. He told a lay woman entering the Church
that she would find that she would have some serious
work to do because the Council would show how
important is the contribution of the laity, the People
of God. “The Church is not just an institution for
the benefit of priests and nuns, with lay people
around to fill in the background. The coming Council,
may, we hope, give light and direction on these
things.” HGL 110)

During the first session of the Council, while Thomas
Merton continued to express his concern about not
“feeling snug in the Church” as an institution -
largely due to its “continual complicity with secular
interests for purposes of gain for the Church” - he
spoke glowingly of the holiness of the Church from a
spiritual perspective - “the communion of saints in
the Holy Spirit.”

By the end of the session, he judged that the
discussions were not radical enough. “The great
problem is the fact that the Church is utterly
embedded in a social matrix that is radically
unfriendly to stifle justice and charity as well as
genuine inner life.” HGL 580) Christianity, he
feared, “has become a complex and multifarious thing.
It takes Chuang Tzu to remind us of essential
elements of the Gospel which we have simply ‘tuned
out.’ “ (HGL 723) He thought that Christian had,
over the years, done exactly what they had accused the
Jews of doing: “finding an earthly fulfillment of
prophecy in political institutions dressed up as
theocracy... so perhaps we will be humble enough to
dig down to a deeper and more burning truth.” (HGL

After the second session of Vatican II, Thomas Merton
saw signs of hope in the conciliar discussion of
collegial governance in the Church. This was based
upon faith in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the
entire Church, Head and members of Christ’s Body, the
People of God. He wrote with some tongue-in-cheek no
doubt: “Let’s throw out the skeleton for good and
all and take off for nowhere with that Vagabond (that
notorious illuminist, the Holy Spirit).” This notion
Merton found expressed especially in the Russian
orthodox notion of sobornost, ie, the doctrine of the
Spirit acting and leading the whole Church into the
truth. “Collegiality is a step in that direction,” he
believed. (HGL 104)

By the summer of 1964, as the third session neared,
Merton found himself discouraged and disillusioned
about the Church inability to address important public
issues of reform and renewal such as justice, war and
peace. The Church seemed “paralyzed by
institutionalism, formalism, rigidity and regressions.
The real life of the Church is not in her hierarchy,
it is dormant somwhere.” (CT 192) To Daniel
Berrigan SJ he wrote: “It is of course not God’s will
that a religious or a priest should spend his life
more or less in frustration and defeat over the most
important issues in the church... I realize that I am
about at the end of some kind of a line. What line”
What is the trolley I am probably getting off? The
trolley is called a special kind of hope... I don’t
need to be on the trolley car anyway, I don’t belong
riding in a trolley... As a priest I am a burnt-out
case, repeat, burnt-out-case. I am waiting to fall
over and it may take about ten more years of writing.
When I fall over, it will be a big laugh because I
wasn’t there at all... Where we are all going is
where we went a long time ago, over the falls. We are
in a new river and we don’t know it.” (HGL 83)

Another concern of Merton’s was what he discerned was
the Church’s becoming swallowed up in excessive
activism in order to prove its worth in the
secularized twentieth century. This was a betrayal of
its purpose to be prayerful and a contemplative
presence in the world. He asked, as the third
session was about to begin: Why was that happening?
“I think the root of the trouble is fear and
truculence, unrealized, deep down. The realization
that the Church of Rome is not going to be able to
maintain a grandiose and preeminent sort of position,
the old prestige she has always had and the decisive
say in the things of the world, to some extent even in
the last centuries. Contemplation will be regarded
more and more as an official ‘dynamo’ source of
inspiration and power for the big guns out there:
Carmelite nuns generating electricity for the Holy
Office, not so much by contemplative prayer as by
action and official public prayer within an enclosure.
In a word, the tempter of the Roman Church is
combative and ‘aroused’ and the emphasis on
contemplation is (if there is any at all) dominated by
a specific end in view so that implicitly
contemplation becomes ordered to action, which is so
easy in a certain type of scholastic thought,
misunderstood. When this happens, the real purity of
the life of prayer is gone.” (HGL 367-368)

At the end of session three Merton was more convinced
than ever that the Church was having great difficulty
moving beyond its ancient philosophical structures
which meant little to that time and place. “It is
even more true that among many Christians there is a
lack of a living presence and witness to God, but
rather an abundance of words and formulas, together
with rites that many no longer understand. It is the
old problem of institutional religion and of
traditions that remain fixed in the past.” (HGL 452)

The Trappist wrote to a Sufi scholar, Martin Lings,
in early 1965 of feeling caught between baroque
conservatism and “a rather irresponsible and fantastic
progressivism a la Teilhard.” He was trying to cling
to what he called “a sane and living traditionalism in
full contact with the living contemplative experience
of the past - and with the presence of the Spirit here
and now.” (HGL 454) He somewhat cynically sensed
that progressives didn’t know what they were talking
about “in their declarations about modern man, the
modern world, etc. Perhaps they are dealing with
some private myth or other. That is their affair.”
(HGL 546) Merton was in favor definitely of “a new
mentality” in the Church but one that “implies above
all a recovery of ancient and original wisdom. And a
real contact with what is right before our noses.”
(HGL 382)

In the years following the Council, despite the
initial enthusiasm for renewal and reform, Thomas
Merton judged that the conciliar hopes were being
sidetracked or neglected. “It is getting clearer and
clearer that the institutional Church does not measure
up to the tasks that she believes and proclaims to be
hers, and it is a wonder more people are not fully
aware of that. I guess a lot are...” (HGL 166) He
expressed his fears that an authoritarian Church would
destroy itself by becoming increasingly incredible to
its thinking members. “Authority has simply been
abused too long in the Catholic Church and for many
people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable
to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around
that is posed in God’s name. It is an insult to God
Himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea
of authority and obedience. There comes a point where
they simply forfeit the right to be listened to.”
(HGL 230)

In early 1967, in correspondence with Rosemary

Radford Ruether, the monk was trying to identify his
place within the Church, wondering if he belonged
there any longer. “I do wonder at times if the
Church is real at all, I believe it, you know. But I
wonder if I am nuts to do so. Am I part of a great
big hoax? ...there is a real sense of and confidence
in an underlying reality, the presence of Christ in
the world which I don’t doubt for an instant. But is
that presence where we are all saying it is? We are
all pointing (in various directions) and my dreadful
feeling is that we are all pointing wrong. Could you
point someplace for me maybe?” (HGL 499-500)

Ruether told Merton she considered the Church to be
less of an institution and more of a “happening.” He
liked that image and thought that if the two of them
and others were thinking in this direction “then there
is something going on.” He said, though, that he
felt the Church of the future “will be a very
scattered Church for a while. But as long as I know
what directions to be the one to do in, I will gladly
go in it.” He just did not want his sense of Church
to be a “deception.” “Because if that is where God
speaks and the Spirit acts, then I can be confident
that God has not abandoned us. Nor left us at the
mercy of the princes of the Church.” As he looked
back over the history of the Church, he could see “a
bigger and bigger hole of conscious bad faith.” One
example of which was the Catholic Church’s dictating
to all other religions “that we are the one authentic
outfit that has the real goods.” (HGL 500-502)

By mid-1967 Merton was clear that he needed “to be
free from a sort of denominational tag. Though I
have one in theory (people still have me categorized
in terms of The Seven Storey Mtn) I am really not any
of the things they think, and I don’t comfortable wear
the label of monk either, because I am now convinced
that the first way to be a decent monk is to be a
non-monk and an anti-monk, as far as the ‘image’ goes:
but I am certainly quite definite about wanting to
stay in the bushes (provided I can make some sort of
noises that will reach my offbeat friends)...” (HGL
511) He even told Ruether that, in some ways, he was
“sneaking out the back door of the Church without
telling myself that this is what I am doing. I don’t
feel guilty about this, though, and am conscious of
it.” (HGL 509)

Later in 1967 the Trappist wrote of his pure faith as
a Christian. “Of all religions, Christianity is the
one that least needs techniques, or least needs to
depend on them. Nor is the overemphasis on sacraments
necessary either: the great thing is faith. With a
pure faith, our use of techniques, our understanding
of the psyche and our use of the sacraments all become
really meaningful. Without it, they are just
routines.” (HGL 532)

In the end Merton could see himself as a bridge
builder within the Church “to keep communication open
between the extremists at both ends.” For “whatever
may happen,” he believed, “let us remember that
persons are more important than opinions.” (HGL
324-325) One of the things her most admired about
John XXIII was his commitment to the Socratic
principle. “This means respect for persons, to the
point where the person of the adversary demands a
hearing even when the authority of one’s own ecclesial
institution might appear to be temporarily
quesstioned. Actually, this Socrafic confidence in
dialogue implies a deeper faith in the Church than you
find in a merely rigid, defensive,a nd legative
attitude which refuses all dialolgue. The negative
view really suggests that the Church has something to
lose by engaging in dialogue with her adversaries.
This in turn is a rejection of the Christian Socratism
which sees that truth develops in conversation.”
This meant for John and for Merton that one meets
one’s adversary as an equal and “The moment one does
this, he ceases to be an adversary.” (Conjectures of
a Guilty Bystander, 217-218)

He could see this new life for the Church beginning
to be expressed in Latin American, Africa and Asia and
he felt that the real movement, when it comes, will
start of itself.

Perhaps, as his life ended in 1968 at the age of 53,
Thomas Merton had become in his own renewal and reform
an incarnation of something he had written to
Catherine de Hueck Doherty in 1966: “Well, we won’t
really get out of the wilderness until everything is
pressed out and there is nothing left but the pure
wine to be offered to the Lord, transubstantiated into
his blood.” (HGL 24)
Tags: ecclesiology, mysticism/spirituality, second vatican council, theological notebook, thomas merton
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