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Thomas Merton and Nuclear Weapons
Thomas Merton spent the last twenty-seven years of his life in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, during which time he wrote fifty-five books and established himself as one of the major Catholic theologians, cultural critics and pioneers in interfaith dialogue of the 20th century. One of his greatest contributions to the Peace Movement during the 1960s was his emphasis on the importance of Gandhi, whose nonviolent resistance he enthusiastically supported and whose teachings he deemed “required reading for anyone seriously interested in man’s fate in the nuclear age.”1
Although not an absolute pacifist, Merton wrote passionately and continuously in his journals and letters, in periodicals such as Commonweal and The Catholic Worker and in his books about the dangers of nuclear weapons. So much so that he was told in April 1962 that he could no longer publish anything on war. He continued nonetheless to write about these matters. We can find his views in the seven volumes of his journals (all published between 1995–1998), in The Hidden Ground of Love (1985) and in Cold War Letters (2006), a collection of 111 letters written between the Berlin crisis in October 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.2
For Merton, the existence of nuclear weapons constitutes the greatest problem ever faced by humanity, “the most serious crisis in Christian history” (CWL, p. 36), and one that has fundamentally changed “the entire rationale for war” (HGL, p. 328). The very idea of an all-out nuclear war demonstrates complete moral irresponsibility, for such a war could never be a “just war.” The only solution, he insists repeatedly, is multilateral disarmament, the abolition of war and the creation of non-violent methods of conflict resolution. He insists, too, that it is the Christian’s responsibility to protest actively against all preparations for global suicide.
From his monastery, Merton protested with his pen. In August 1962, he notes in his journal that there has been a total of “342 nuclear tests [229 by the USA] of which 282 were in the atmosphere” (TTW, p. 238). Hoping to catch the president’s ear, a year earlier, he had written to Ethel Kennedy to express his “very strong objection to the resumption of testing nuclear weapons” (HGL, p. 443). He would continue to protest against the testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, as well as the idea of a pre-emptive nuclear strike, arguing that nuclear weapons can never offer a “valid and rational form of self-defense”(HGL, p. 329). He asserted that “One could certainly wish that the Catholic position on nuclear war was half as strict as the Catholic position on birth control” (HGL, p. 349) and was particularly outraged that “some American theologians” held that “by Catholic standards a pre-emptive nuclear attack is really only defensive” (HGL, p. 176).
Hoping to get people to think clearly about issues of life and death, Merton continued provocatively to juxtapose opposition to birth control with acceptance of nuclear weapons. In a letter that still seems shocking decades later, he writes in April 1963 to his friend Gordon Zahn that, given “our all-out acceptance of nuclear weapons… our objection to birth control does not spring from a respect for life, or not as much as we seem to think it does. I think it more probably comes from a hatred of pleasure, and consequently of a fear of life” (HGL, p. 650).
Forty-two years after his death, with the ever increasing number of nuclear states and the uncertainty of the status of nuclear weapons in some countries, the nuclear problem, in our atmosphere of terrorism, is far worse than it had ever been during Merton’s lifetime. Since 1998, India, Pakistan and North Korea have tested nuclear weapons and Iran now seems determined to acquire them. All of these countries have missile programs related to their nuclear projects. Yet, despite the fact that the Vatican Council has condemned the use of nuclear weapons, we still have what Merton termed the “progressive deadening of conscience” (CWL, p. 48) and we remain blinded by “self-interest” because, even more so today, our economy is dependent upon the production of these weapons (CWL, p. 43).
As a result, Merton remains our contemporary who warns us that, like an alcoholic who knows that his drinking will eventually kill him but who always finds “good reasons” why he must continue to drink, our “fatal addiction to war” keeps us on a treacherous nuclear path that may very well lead us to our mutually assured destruction.3 His advice to voters in August 1962 should be ours in 2010: “…the duty of the Catholic… is to work for peace… it would mean not voting for belligerent politicians, it would mean supporting those who favor a moderate, reasonable and peaceful approach to international problems” (CWL, p. 176). Our prayers for peace, he counsels us elsewhere, must be two-fold: “not only that the enemies of [our] country may cease to want war, but above all that [our] own country will cease to do the things that make war inevitable.”4
Patrick Henry is Cushing Eells Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Literature at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington (USA).
  1. 1.Thomas Merton, “Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant,” Gandhi on Non-Violence, edited by Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964), p. 20.
  2. 2.Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love. The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, edited by William H. Shannon (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985). All references to this volume will be inserted parenthetically in the text as follows: (HGL, p.). Thomas Merton, Cold War Letters, edited by Christine M. Bochen and William H. Shannon (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006). All references will appear parenthetically in the text as follows: (CWL, p.). Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World. The Pivotal Years. The Journals of Thomas Merton. Volume Four 1960–1963, edited by Victor A. Kramer (New York: HarperCollins, 1996). All references will appear parenthetically as follows: (TTW, p.).Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life. Seeking Peace in the Hermitage. The Journals of Thomas Merton. Volume Five. 1963–1965, edited by Robert E. Daggy (New York: HarperCollins, 1997). All references will appear parenthetically as follows: (DWL, p.).
  3. 3.Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence. Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), p. 41.
  4. 4.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. 121.
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Thomas Merton and Nuclear Weapons
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