In his speech to the U.S. Congress today, Pope Francis discussed the legacies of “four representatives of the American people”: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and two figures who may be less familiar to non-Catholic Americans—Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. That may be about to change: Merton.org, a website dedicated to the Trappist monk’s legacy, was loading awfully slowly this afternoon, probably due to increased who-the-heck-is-this-guy Google traffic.
So whoare they? Both Merton and Day are figures broadly associated with the Catholic left, both converted to Catholicism rather than being born into it, and both engaged in some behaviors that conservatives and traditionalists abhor.
Day, who Francis cited as representing “social justice and the rights of persons,” has also been called “the most famous radical in the history of the American Catholic Church” by the New Yorker. An anarchist writer, activist, and member of the early 20th century bohemian Greenwich Village scene that also included John Reed and Eugene O’Neill, Day converted to Catholicism after the birth of her daughter in 1927, after which she founded the Catholic Worker newspaper, still in print today, as well as a larger network of autonomous Catholic Worker communities that still runs soup kitchens and homeless shelters throughout the country. Day was active in the protest movements against both World Wars, segregation, and the Vietnam War. Though something of a hero today to leftists and anarchists, she was also recently cited by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks as an example of a person who successfully lived a moral life. Day also had an abortion before converting to Catholicism, which she later expressed regret for, something the pope may have had in mind given his recent pronouncements on that topic.
Merton, cited by Francis as an example of “the capacity for dialogue and openness to God,”was another bohemian turned Catholic. Born in France in 1915 to artist parents from the U.S. and New Zealand, Merton was a hard-partying student at Cambridge and then Columbia who converted to Catholicism then entered a Trappist monastery in Kentucky at the age of 26. The story of his conversion became the classic autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. A bestselling author throughout his life, Merton was a pacifist and strong supporter of the civil rights movement in the U.S. who was also an advocate for dialogue and openness to other religions. He had a strong interest in Zen Buddhism and Taoism and was close with the Dalai Lama. He also flouted his vows by having an affair with a nurse half his age later in life.
Both Merton and Day are considered long-shots for sainthood given their open left-wing politics and messy personal lives. But for a pope who has been pushing to shift the church’s focus toward social justice issues, touts forgiveness for those who stray from the path in their personal lives, and wants to convince secular Americans that Catholic spirituality and social doctrine still have something to offer them, putting the spotlight on Merton and Day make a lot of sense.