Thomas Merton on Education
I recently read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, his best-selling autobiography which tells of his dubious past before converting to Catholicism and then becoming a monk. I’ll have more to say about it. But for starters, his comments on education are noteworthy.
“I am overwhelmed at the thought of the tremendous weight of moral responsibility that Catholic parents accumulate upon their shoulders by not sending their children to Catholic schools….
Is it any wonder that there can be no peace in a world where everything possible is done to guarantee that the youth of every nation will grow up absolutely without moral and religious discipline, and without the shadow of an interior life, or of that spirituality and charity and faith which alone can safeguard the treaties and agreements made by governments?’
Thomas Merton is widely considered to be one of the best minds the Catholic Church has produced in the last century. This is his best book. It was published in 1948, shortly after World War II.
Merton claims that there is little if any morality to be found outside Catholic Schools, so that if Catholic parents send their children to secular schools, they are all but condemning them to a life of immorality. More importantly, he claims that world peace is impossible without a near-universal Catholic education. These kinds of sweeping claims are characteristic of Merton, as well as many other Catholic intellectual leaders.
The Recent Past – Nazi Germany
Merton makes no attempt to provide any empirical support for these claims. He even manages to ignore the evidence of World War II. Catholic education was widespread in Germany. Nearly all of Germany’s Catholics – a majority of its population – went to Catholic school. Raised in Austria, Hitler was a product of Catholic education, and was even an altar boy. Did Merton think really believe their Catholic education contributed to world peace?
The Catholic Church was the first sovereign nation to recognize the Third Reich, and did so over the objections of many Protestant and secular nations. The Church’s Concordat with Hitler called for the suppression of Catholic political parties in Germany – which opposed Hitler. This Concordat, signaling the Church’s approval of Hitler, helped him extend and consolidate his power. Did Merton think really believe the Church’s Concordat with Hitler contributed to world peace?
Let’s take a longer view. The Catholic Church was established by the emperor Constantine and his successors. Christianity went from a relatively small sect to becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire, which ruled much of the world. Did Merton really believe that the Roman Empire under these Christian emperors was a better, more moral place than it was under the pagan emperor Augustus and his successors, who produced the Great Peace, the Pax Romana?
During the Middle Ages, the Church effectively co-ruled the Western World. How did that work out? This was rightly known as the Dark Ages. It was much worse than the eras preceding and succeeding it. Catholic education was the only education available. But the only positive achievements of that Catholic training were based on the rediscovery of the ancient classical writings of Plato and Aristotle - which the Church had previously lost or destroyed.
New secular knowledge was virtually always suppressed. The Church created the Office of the Inquisition to destroy such materials and persecute not only the authors, but those who possessed them. Galileo is the most widely cited example, but suppression of science or proto-science was widespread.
In the rare cases when the Church produced useful knowledge, this was dismissed. Gregor Mendel, who discovered the principles of genetics, might have sparked an agricultural revolution and eliminated much starvation. Mendel fared relatively well. The Church promoted him to an administrative job. But his peas were plowed under, and documentation of his experiments were consigned to purgatory. The Enlightenment, which initiated modern knowledge, came at the expense of the Church and its power.
Did Merton really think that Catholic education brought about peaceful coexistence with the Protestants?
Merton is typical of Catholic intellectuals. He produces lots of pious pronouncements, with no attempt at empirical support. Since empirical support is by definition secular, they consider it inferior to their divinely inspired wisdom. Unfortunately, these inspirations are almost uniformly what Saint Paul termed skybala, or dung, according to the euphemistic translators of the King James Bible.