Thomas Merton as intellectual

Michael Higgins looks beyond monk’s Trappist roots

When the English scholar and eminent Catholic intellectual, James M. Cameron, taught his graduate students—at Leeds, Canterbury or Toronto—he always made a point of underscoring the importance of attending to the media. Not infrequently you could discover him providing commentary on a public broadcasting radio programme, being interviewed on television, or writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. He did this because he believed that both those studying and those who made their livelihood in the academy had a moral obligation to be engaged with their culture—political, social, artistic and ecclesial—and that meant paying close attention to the popular media.

Cameron’s pedigree was impeccable—a Balliol College graduate, Terry Lecturer, respected philosopher and poet, author of several collections of essays, Newman authority, and regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and Commonweal—he was egalitarian in his concerns, non-elitist in sensibility, and a master of accessible prose.

Cameron’s validation of the role of the public intellectual—indeed, its urgency—has special resonance as we approach the centenary of Thomas Merton’s birth. Although we are inclined to think of Merton in the context of his monastic vocation, numerous publications on the contemplative life, ecumenical and interfaith challenges, and countless essays on both abstruse and popular subjects, his contributions to the intellectual life constitute the true barometer of his importance in the larger public arena. 


For not a few, Merton has become a sectarian figure, a tribal possession, a venerable memory, an icon we honour rather than an enduring prod to our spiritual and intellectual complacency. The resuscitation of his reputation as a public intellectual is critical to any comprehensive evaluation of his relevance to contemporary America, and indeed to the larger world.

If we accept university philosophy Professor John Haldane’s description of the Catholic public intellectual we can see Merton fits perfectly:

“The Catholic intellectual has a responsibility in two directions: firstly, a responsibility to the society of which they are a member to try to bring to bear in discussions on issues that affect that society the insights of their own tradition.  Secondly, to engage their own tradition, their church with that society, to be a channel of communication.”

In his Introduction to Thomas Merton: Selected Essays editor Patrick F. O’Connell compellingly argues in favour of assessing Merton under the heading of a broad, creative and organic thinker fully engaged with his diverse publics: While Merton certainly does more than simply raise questions in the profusion of articles on a vast range of issues that make up so considerable a proportion of his writing, particularly in the final decade of his life, his willingness to dispense with prefabricated conclusions, to consider all sides of a question, to bring his deeply spiritual, profoundly Catholic sensibility to bear on matters beyond the usual ‘religious’ and ‘monastic’ milieu, to write ‘essays’ in the etymological sense of efforts, attempts to reach greater clarity through the very process of reflection, make many of his works in this genre among the most characteristic, most challenging, most eloquent, and most significant of his writings.

Poet and monk to the very end, Merton sought in the Cambridge and Columbia traditions that shaped him—the universities that sharpened his intellectual curiosity—the grounding he needed for an intelligible and fearless engagement with the ideas and orthodoxies of his time.


His Cistercian formation and monastic expansiveness of insight ensured that no matter what terrain he found himself on, the spiritual foundations of his thinking would remain firm.

At a time when the ecclesiastical constraints of recent decades are being loosened, when the fear of delation has receded from the immediate horizon, when the pressures to conform to magisterial solicitude have been in part relaxed, the re-conceiving of Thomas Merton as an exemplar of the Catholic public intellectual is devoutly to be wished.

I can’t help but think that Professor Cameron would be very pleased.