03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thomas Merton and the Catholic Church Ban on Marriage

He's fifty-one. She's twenty-five. He's the most famous monk in the world. She's a student nurse with romance on her mind. The two meet, and presto, an intense, erotic love affair commences threatening scandal for the Catholic Church at every turn. As the affair blossoms into true love, the literary legend is forced to choose between the woman he calls "a miracle in my life," and the God who saved his soul.

For Merton, called by Dutch spiritualist Henri Nouwen, "the greatest spiritual writer of the twentieth century," and the one whom Anne Lamott said was a "source of light and comfort and humor" to her, he faced the same sticky issue in the 1960s that is debated yet today: should Catholic priests be able to be unchaste and marry? Like Alberto Cutie, the noted Miami priest who earlier this year faced choosing between the woman he loved, and the Catholic Church (he chose the former), Merton questioned the wisdom of priests being celibate. In "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander", one of seventy books the literary legend wrote, Merton presented a series of "conjectures" -- "more than guesses but less than definite positions" presented by Merton, who classified himself as a "guilty bystander."

Merton opened the book with a bold statement: "Man is most human, and most proves his humanity (I did not say his virility) by the quality of relationship with woman." He then decided, "obsession with virility and conquest makes a true and deep relationship impossible." The reason: "Men think today that there is no difference between the capacity to make conquests and the capacity to love." Merton then considered the female role: "Women respond accordingly, with elaborate deceit and thinly veiled harlotry--the role assigned to women by fashion--and there is a permanent battle between the sexes, sometimes covered over with the most atrocious and phony playacting."

Having tendered strong opinions that were based his pre-monastic romantic dalliances (Merton was quite the womanizer to the extent of fathering a child out of wedlock), Merton chastised both sexes: "In all this everyone completely forgets the need for love. A desperate need: not the need to receive it only, but the need to give love." Turning to thoughts about his own plight as of 1965, Merton explained, "In the monastery, with our vows of chastity, we are ideally supposed to go beyond married love into something more pure, more perfect, more totally oblative. This should then make us the most human of all people." This is terrific, Merton believed, "but that is the trouble: how can one go 'further' than something to which one has not yet attained?"

Elaborating, Merton noted, "this does not mean that one cannot validly embrace a life of virginity until he has first been married, a nice contradiction to put a person in!" But, he decided, "it does mean that we cannot love perfectly if we have not in some way loved maturely and truly." Wow! In two paragraphs, 222 words in all, Merton summed up his view of why it was essential for a monk to experience love and being loved, so as to have the potential to discover the ultimate goal: perfect love, of being with "God alone."

While Merton was a Trappist monk at the time and not a practicing priest in the Catholic Church, there is a natural extension to believe he would have included priests in the mix as well. His belief that such men could not really know the true meaning of love, and thus pass this knowledge on to others, unless they had experienced love through another, makes perfect, logical sense. Why then is the Vatican so hypocritical in permitting priests from the Eastern Catholic Churches, the "Eastern Rite" in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Ukraine, all under Vatican jurisdiction, and now apparently Anglicans dissatisfied with their faith, to be priests even though they may be, or have been, married? Merton would call this policy absurd, and rightfully so proving that his wisdom on the subject is just as relevant today as it was fifty-plus years ago.