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MERTON-CATECHISM Jan-7-2005 (870 words) xxxn

Thomas Merton scholars upset by monk's absence in upcoming catechism

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A new catechism for adults, currently awaiting Vatican approval, has some scholars up in arms not over the actual text, but over what is missing.

Early editions of the upcoming "U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults," which went through four years of writing and fine-tuning, led off with a section on Trappist Father Thomas Merton. But the Kentucky monk, who became well known for his best-selling autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," about his conversion to Catholicism, is not in the final draft of the catechism. Instead, the 456-page book begins with a description of the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The replacement did not go unnoticed by Merton scholars who started a petition drive to get him back.

The catechism, which will be the first of its kind in the United States aimed specifically at adults, contains brief biographies of saints and other well-known people of faith, and is meant to be a complement to the universal "Catechism of the Catholic Church" issued in 1992 by Pope John Paul II.

Msgr. Daniel Kutys, deputy secretary for catechesis in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' education department, said that during early consultations on the text some suggested that it contained too many stories about men and not enough examples of women. Thus Elizabeth Ann Seton was chosen to replace the Thomas Merton entry, he said, not only for her gender, but because she, like Merton, was a convert to Catholicism.

"It was more a choice for Elizabeth Ann Seton than against Thomas Merton," Msgr. Kutys told Catholic News Service Jan. 5.

Thirty of the catechism's 36 chapters are introduced by the story of a saint or a person of faith; the rest are illustrated by Scriptural passages. The stories before each chapter, according to Msgr. Kutys, are meant to provide context and real-life examples.

The final draft of the catechism, approved by the U.S. bishops at their November meeting by a 218-10 vote, has been sent to Rome where it must receive a "recognitio," or confirmation, from the Holy See before it can be published as an official catechism.

The process could take a year or more, Msgr. Kutys said.

In the meantime, Merton scholars hope to generate support for the missing section.

A petition to Pittsburgh Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, chairman of the five-bishop editorial oversight board of the catechism, is posted on the International Thomas Merton Society Web site at www.merton.org. As of early January, the petition had more than 500 signers.

The petitions have been sent to Bishop Wuerl in two separate mailings and a third mailing is planned for Jan. 31, when the monk, who died in 1968, would have turned 90.

Patrick O'Connell, organizer of the petition drive, is an associate professor of theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pa., and editor of the quarterly publication, Merton Seasonal.

"It makes the catechism a less attractive document when you leave someone who is such a powerful role model out. It diminishes the power it could have," he told CNS by telephone Jan. 6.

Erlinda Paguio, president of the International Thomas Merton Society and associate director for development research at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky., said she was disappointed that Merton was omitted from the final draft, but she was also optimistic that his rejection might lead more people to learn about him.

"I hope more people will read his writings if even just to find out why he was not included," she said.

Paguio and other Merton scholars are concerned that the Trappist monk was rejected from the final draft not just because of his gender, but in part because of critics who questioned his explorations into Eastern religions at the end of his life.

A December 2002 article in Catholic World Report described some of the adult catechism's initial biography selections as "unfortunate models," particularly the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago and late labor leader Cesar Chavez, who both remain in the final draft.

The article also questioned the inclusion of Father Merton, describing him as a "lapsed monk" who "later left his monastery, and at the end of his life, was actually off wandering in the East, seeking consultations, apparently of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality."

Msgr. Bill Shannon, a Merton biographer and retired professor from Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., said the notion of Father Merton turning to Buddhism or other Eastern religions was simply false. On the contrary, he said, Father Merton made the point of saying that anyone who wanted to be involved in religious dialogue had to be rooted in their own faith traditions.

The priest, who spent more than 25 years teaching college students about the famous Trappist, said his message is still very much alive to today's young people because Father Merton was never afraid to ask questions. Above all, he said, Father Merton's writings show people that their Catholic faith "equips them to work through difficult issues."

The Merton scholars agreed that if the Kentucky monk were alive today he would most likely laugh about the whole situation.

"He encountered a lot of contradictions in his life," Paguio said. "This is probably just one of those contradictions."


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