The riddle of Thomas Merton

In a story for The San Diego Union-Tribune, Kimberly Winston shows how much a talented religion reporter can do with something as simple as a locally sponsored conference about a dead man with a popular following. In this case, it helps that the dead man is Thomas Merton, the agnostic-turned-Catholic-monk who was pursuing an interest in Buddhism by the time he died in 1968. (If you're a fan of Matthew Fox, you may believe that sentence should end with "by the time he was assassinated in 1968.") These paragraphs of Winston's perfectly capture the mixed legacy of Merton more than 30 years after his death:

Last fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cut an essay on Merton as an exemplary American Catholic from an upcoming edition of the American Catholic Catechism.

At the time, Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Diocese of Pittsburgh said Merton was removed because "the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was." He was replaced by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, another convert and founder of the Sisters of Charity.

That brought a petition from Merton devotees, many who say he was cut because of his dialogue with Buddhists and other Eastern monastics -- something some conservative Catholics see as evidence that Merton moved outside the Christian faith. A final draft of the catechism has been submitted to the Vatican for approval, so it is unlikely Merton will be reinstated.

That is as it should be, says George Kilcourse, a diocesan priest and professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., where Merton taught and many of his papers are housed. Kilcourse was a student at Bellarmine and still remembers Merton. Reducing this impassioned, conflicted, talented man to an entry in the catechism is like reducing "St. Francis of Assisi to a birdbath," he said.

"He never wanted to be canonized," Kilcourse explained. "He was much too human to be dealt with that reverently."

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