When Catholicism Shaped Culture

Most American Catholics have very little idea about the richness and prominence of Catholicism in American culture prior to the great upheavals of the 1960s. The University of Notre Dame Press has just published a book that records just one strand of that rich tapestry: The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton, with annotations by Robert Samway, S.J.

The correspondence between these two Columbia University classmates reveals much about the public career and private character of Merton, from the death of his mother when he was seven years old, to his early education in Europe, to his spiritual journey – which led him to embrace life as a Cistercian monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Merton graduated from Columbia College in 1938, immediately entered the university’s M.A. program, and planned to do a doctorate with a dissertation on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. As a graduate student he attended lectures by Daniel Walsh, who introduced him to Thomas Aquinas and to the works of Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. Gilson’s History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages and Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism moved Merton, “I at once acquired an immense respect for Catholic philosophy and the Catholic faith.”


In August of that year, he began attending Mass and in November he was baptized and received his First Communion. Merton taught English composition at Columbia for a semester and shortly after taught English at St. Bonaventure University. At age 26 he entered Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey and took the religious name of Brother Maria Louis.

Some years before entering the monastery, Merton was browsing in a bookstore on New York’s Fifth Avenue and bumped into his classmate Robert Giroux. Merton had written several pieces of fiction and a book of poetry, but failed to secure a publisher. Giroux was already in the publishing business, working for Harcourt and Brace, where he would edit writers like T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, and dozens more. One thing led to another and Giroux was eventually to publish more than twenty-five titles by Merton.

Merton’s extensive correspondence goes well beyond this book, but there are glimpses of it in his and Giroux’s letters. Jacques Maritain became a lifelong correspondent, Evelyn Waugh writes to praise him for The Seven Story Mountain, Clare Booth Luce advises him about the intricacies of publishing.

For his part, Merton admonishes Aleksei Surkov, the head of the Soviet Writers Guild for not supporting Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago, which was not allowed to appear in Russia.

Waugh is effusive in his praise of Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, “I regard this as a book which may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience. No one can afford to neglect this clear account of religious experience.”

Americans, hungering for meaning and purpose after the horrors of World War II, seemed already to know that instinctively. The initial run of 600,000 quickly sold out and was followed by subsequent printings. Yet the New York Times refused to include it on the best-seller list because it was a “religious” book.

Other correspondents included Mark Van Doren and Daniel Walsh, Merton’s two favorite professors at Columbia; Fr. Martin’D’Arcy, Aldous Huxley, Gregory Zilbourg, and Baroness Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Merton’s correspondence with Dom Jean Leclercq, OSB of Clairvaux Abbey has been published separately as Survival or Prophecy.

On a personal note, perhaps as a result of such correspondence, while I was teaching in Louisville, I became an unofficial chauffeur for some of Merton’s distinguished guests. I got to know Merton and later, when I was organizing Bellarmine College’s annual faculty retreats, I held two at Gethsemani with Merton as retreat master and discussion leader.

As a result of his near global correspondence, Merton was well informed about current events. He closely followed the proceedings of Vatican II, for instance, in part by reading the reports of “Xavier Rynne,” which he asked me to excerpt for him from The New Yorker (the Abbey did not subscribe).

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Fr. M. Louis

At the faculty retreats it became clear that Merton and I were frequently at opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum on theological and social issues. And as we’ve learned since, he was less than a perfect monk. But he was an engaging opponent, and I published one of his presentations in a book that I edited: The Impact of Vatican II.

On one occasion I drove Mark van Doren, the great Columbia scholar and poet, who had been lecturing in Louisville, to Gethsemani. Merton, who at that time was Master of Novices, invited us to a lecture he was about to give them, a marvelous presentation of “John of the Cross’s Conception of the Dark Night of the Soul.” Van Doren followed with a lecture on the value of a liberal education.

This took place a week or so after Charles, Mark’s son, in a notorious episode, was exposed as an actor – and not the extremely erudite young Columbia University professor he was made out to be on the fraudulent television show, “The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question.” The first question Merton put to van Doren was, “How is Charles?” Van Doren replied simply, “Charles has learned very early in life neither to seek fame nor fortune.”

Still, those were great days for American Catholicism. At about the same time Merton produced The Seven Story Mountain, for example, a recent Harvard graduate, Avery Dulles, published A Testimonial to Grace. His conversion took a similar path to Merton’s and that of many others, “I found myself avidly reading modern Aristotelians – Catholic authors such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain – and adhering to the logic of their doctrine with a fervor I could not capture today.”

Dulles, of course, went on to become one of the greatest American theologians and biblical scholars of his generation, and was made a Cardinal by John Paul II in 2001.

Jude P. Dougherty, emeritus Dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, is the author, most recently, of Briefly Considered (St. Augustine’s Press, November 2015).