Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Rosemary Radford Ruether,

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:01:06 - Merton's role in contemporary culture

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Partial Transcript: Um, a person like Merton, uh, was, as he liked to call himself a "man on the margins," et cetera, a social critic, spiritual thinker--what role does a person like that play in our culture?

Segment Synopsis: Reuther discusses Merton's impact on contemporary culture. She points out the timing of his work in regards to spirituality and social justice concerns. Reuther talks about comparisons between Merton and Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and whether such comparisons are apt. Reuther also briefly talks about the themes present in Merton's work.

Keywords: Cultural impact; Henry David Thoreau; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Social criticism

Subjects: Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monks; Social justice

00:04:58 - Correspondence with Merton

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Partial Transcript: Would you tell me how you began to correspond with him?

Segment Synopsis: Ruether discusses her correspondence with Merton and explains where she was in her life when she and Merton began communicating. She discusses wanting feedback on her first book, The Church Against Itself, from Catholic theologians. Ruether contextualizes her correspondence in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement and the Second Vatican Council. She describes their discussions as sounding boards for ideas and concerns.

Keywords: Anti-war movement; Correspondence; Second Vatican Council; The Church Against Itself

Subjects: Catholic Church; Civil Rights movements; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968; Monks; Peace movements; Social justice

00:12:00 - Merton's interests in the correspondence

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Partial Transcript: And, to the best of your memory, uh, what were the main concerns of his that emerged from the correspondence, that you felt like he was asking your advice?

Segment Synopsis: Ruether explores what Merton was concerned with during their correspondence. She talks about his desire for a change in his life. Ruether also discusses Merton's worries about his fame being exploited for material gain by others.

Keywords: Exploitation; Life changes; Transitions

Subjects: Fame; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.

00:16:36 - Women's inequality as a Roman Catholic

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Partial Transcript: You say that a question you wanted to settle was whether a person could be a Roman Catholic and a per--a person of integrity, and you felt that Merton could give you this answer.

Segment Synopsis: Ruether discusses the reception to her book, the Church Against Itself, by Catholics. She discusses her treatment in seeking feedback about her arguments. Ruether also discusses her impressions of Merton before they began writing to each other, as well as what type of transition Merton sought at the point they began corresponding.

Keywords: Roman Catholicism; Rosemary Radford Ruether; The Church Against Itself; Women's role in Catholic church

Subjects: Catholic Church; Monks; Sheen, Fulton J. (Fulton John), 1895-1979.

00:19:23 - Efficacy of Merton's social criticism

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Partial Transcript: Was his approach to social criticism effective? Effective in the way that, that the Berrigans were effective, or just a different type of effective?

Segment Synopsis: Ruether discusses Merton's role as a social critic. She compares Merton to other activists in the 1960s. Ruether emphasizes Merton as a resource meant to inspire, rather than as an activist.

Keywords: Activism; Social activism; Social criticism

Subjects: Berrigan, Daniel; Berrigan, Philip; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Social justice

00:23:13 - Obedience in monastic orders

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Partial Transcript: Uh, the role of obedience to the order plays a very big part in his life and his choices. Um, do you find that to be valid? Or do you think it is an unhealthy, oppressive structure that, that he acquiesced to?

Segment Synopsis: Ruether says she knew little about the role obedience played in Merton's life at the time of their correspondence. She discusses Merton's concerns that his vows could be used to silence or exploit him. Ruether describes the historical context behind the vows of obedience and stability that monks are required to make.

Keywords: Monastic orders; Vows of obedience; Vows of stability

Subjects: Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968; Monasteries; Monks; Nuns

00:27:51 - Proper role of monasticism

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Partial Transcript: You said, uh, to--either to him, or in your forward, "Withdrawal and solitude is not a life vocation." Would you say that to me, and explain why that is not the case?

Segment Synopsis: Ruether discusses her interpretation of the monastic life, citing Asian influences. She criticizes western views of monasticism for making monasticism an entire life calling, rather than a time or a season in one's life.

Keywords: Asian monasticism; Monasticism; Spirituality; Western monasticism

Subjects: Asia; Monasteries; Monks

00:30:32 - The Seven Storey Mountain's popularity

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Partial Transcript: Um, let me ask you one question about the Seven Storey Mountain. Um, does the success of that book in its era, say something about the times?

Segment Synopsis: Ruether examines the popularity of Merton's Seven Storey Mountain due to its perennial appeal, comparing it to St. Augustine's Confessions. She talks about its influence in her thinking.

Keywords: Confessions (St. Augustine); Saint Augustine; St. Augustine; The Seven Storey Mountain

Subjects: Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.

00:33:23 - Merton's insights and spiritual changes

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Partial Transcript: Has your -- Oh, uh, do you see what you refer to as "prophetic insight" in Merton's work?

Segment Synopsis: Ruether discusses Merton's interest in social issues such as the anti-war movement, and southern poverty. She also discusses having moved on from thinking about Merton or his work since they spoke, turning to feminist and liberation theologies. She questions whether Merton would have accepted liberation theology had he lived, she notes that Merton was moving more toward ecumenism and focus on monasticism.

Keywords: Anti-war movement; Ecumenism; Feminist theology; Liberation theology; Monasticism; Southern poverty

Subjects: Liberation theology; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Peace movements

00:35:56 - Nature of her relationship with Merton

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Partial Transcript: Well, the one thing was--you didn't ask me, which is fine, as far as I am concerned, um, is, like a false perception of some people from these letters, uh, that he had some intimate relationship with me, and verge of running off with me and so on, but none of that has anything to do with my perception, either of myself or him.

Segment Synopsis: Ruether uses the end of the interview to quash rumors of an intimate or romantic relationship with Merton. She says she does not know or care about Merton's other romantic attachment rumors. She clarifies that she never considered their correspondence as particular special, and downplayed any plans to meet Merton. Ruether describes their correspondence as "useful" at that particular moment in their lives.

Keywords: Correspondence; Relationships

Subjects: Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Ruether, Rosemary Radford