Thomas Merton War and Peace

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Thomas Merton War and Peace 1

Thomas Merton War and Peace:

A Review of the Literature

Leo Ryan

The Catholic Tradition REL 401

Saint Leo’s University

December 2, 2007

Thomas Merton War and Peace 2

Thomas Merton War and Peace:
A Review of the Literature

This review of the literature will focus on Merton’s philosophy’s about war and peace and will reveal the underlying way in which he thought about these issues. Thomas Merton was a humanist who was consistently writing about the importance for reason, balance and proportion in life. As a Catholic humanist, he affirmed the Catholic distinctive compassion and ethic of collaboration, while as the same time he affirmed the “authentic dignity” of human beings (Love 150). Merton believed that Karl Marx was committed to the dignity of human beings (Labrie), but Marx was opposed to the individual. Marx believed that scientific knowledge and a master of material reality would help people as a whole. Merton’s emphasis was on the greatest good for the greatest number. This thinking can be traced back to the Greeks and also in medieval philosophy. This has evolved into a hierarchy of goods based on personal preferences and desires. At times he would accept the sacrifice of the one individual because that individual was focusing on the many.

Merton had accepted the Catholic doctrine of just modern warfare; he had a hard time accepting the theory when one looks Thomas Merton War and Peace 3

at “killing people with flame throwers” was no “form of Catholic perfection” (Thompson). The technology of mass destruction that was displayed in the Second World War were products of science that was sponsored by the governments of all the countries that were involved in the war. He lamented about a century filled with “poison gas and atomic bombs” (Merton 1989, 10; 1977, 36; 1948. 85). Merton had a personal tragedy, his own brother John Paul who served in the Allied Air Force, had died an agonizing death as a downed bomber pilot. He also formulated that Christians must act out of love, Augustine speculated that people were morally justified in defending themselves as a response to unwarranted aggression. That the response given to the aggressor should contain restraint as a clear signal for the overriding desire for peace. This theory had influenced in Western religious and secular communities for years. Dating back to the invasion of the Roman Empire by the barbarian armies, Augustine concluded that it was impossible for people to live near each other without conflicts.

If one takes Augustine’s theory forward, forward to the Spanish Inquisition. One could see that there was an enormous

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Gap between the moral objectives and the horrors of the practice of the Inquisition. Even though there were good intentions, things seemed to get out of hand, this behavior was born in violence and how could it follow in the Catholic law of love?

In the Raids on the Unspeakable, Merton wrote about the dangers of advocating the statement of ‘the ends that are justified by their ends’. In the times of conflict one can easily be propelled by the statement as merely the instrument for the use of reason. Merton looks at the German citizens during World War II in Peace: a Religious Responsibility. Under Nazi rule, ordinary German citizens had been told by church and the state to acknowledge the Nazi government as legitimate. With the success of the concentration camps, Merton came to the conclusion that most people were willing to accept even the most heinous activities as long as those activities were done by the order of the government.

The Dutch people impressed Merton. They had a quiet collective response for the Nazi attempt to have the Dutch collaborate in the rounding up and executing of the Jews. Faced with the Nazi order to isolate the Jews by having...
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