Thomas Merton, democracy, and St. Elizabeth

“It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?”

So wrote Thomas Merton decades ago, but I think his thoughts are an antidote to a love of self and of one’s own self-interests that a professed love of country often hides.

In the face of the economic downturns of the last few years, looking from outside, I believe that, in the US and other countries, an evil spirit of contention has replaced the love of the common good, of all God’s people.

In the early 1980s, a friend who knew of my rather strong anti-nationalism feelings, mentioned to me the insights of Georges Bernanos, in The Two Sources of Religion and Morality, (pp. 266-7) on the difference between the open and the closed society. I need to re-read the book, but these quotes give an idea of the difference between the two types:

“The closed society is that whose members hold together, caring nothing for the rest of humanity, on the alert for attack or defence, bound, in fact, to a perpetual readiness for battle.”

“The open society is the society which is deemed in principle to embrace all humanity.”

The open society is, as I see it, is the society that makes solidarity central, not as a mere feeling, but, as Pope John Paul II wrote in  On Social Concern,  ¶ 28:

Solidarity is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all….

Solidarity helps us to see the “other” — whether a person, people or nation — not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper”, to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.

Such a vision will lead to a concern for the common good and will break through the narrowness of our concerns that leads to war and injustice.

And so it is fitting that today is also the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal, Queen and Franciscan tertiary, noted for her care of the poor and her peacemaking efforts. In her words, set in the framework of medieval Portugal and Spain:

Do not forget that when sovereigns are at war they can no longer busy themselves with their administration; justice is not distributed; no care is taken of the people; and this alone is your sovereign charge, this it the main point of your duty as kings.

In a democracy that is an open society, focused on the common good, the solidarity of the children of God who are peacemakers and hunger and history will become the goal and the ideal.

May the US, Honduras, and other countries begin to work in this direction.

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One response to “Thomas Merton, democracy, and St. Elizabeth

  1. Well written piece! I just wonder why you refuse the next step latent in your argument and instead posit a confused utopian dream, “In a democracy that is an open society, focused on the common good, the solidarity of the children of God who are peacemakers and hunger and history will become the goal and the ideal.” Wouldn’t an open society already hold these principals and not be in need of becoming?

    Instead, you should realize through the quotes you have already analyzed that United States democracy (in so far as it is based upon an economics of capitalism–aka greed) will never be an open society, but rather a closed one.

    How then do the poor save the world in Bernanos’ theological imaginary? Certainly not through revolution (he is a conservative), certainly not even through voting (he is a monarchist), but rather through the intercession of their suffering on behalf of the world. Through the grace of God, the poor may be transformed into saints and save the rich, even though they oppress the poor. THIS is Bernanos’ understanding of mercy–the intercessions of the saints!

    How then, could we reconstruct Bernasonian politics for the present day? Don’t vote. Serve the poor if you have privilege, accept your poverty if you do not. Let love guide you, not reason. Refuse a corrupt political system which requires participation for legitimacy, just that–voting only furthers a closed society, no matter how perfect any candidate is. He / She is still complicit in a closed society. Society cannot be opened through politics, but rather only through grace and poverty.

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