My Muddled Mentor
A past convert to Catholicism lost his faith many decades ago
“Karl Meyer On the Road Again” read a recent ad in The Catholic Worker. At 84 he was planning a cross country peace mission. I first met Karl in 1966 when he ran St. Stephen House of Hospitality in Chicago. I was an undergraduate, for a semester, at Loyola University of Chicago. That year he made a quick trip to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam. As a correspondent for the Catholic Worker, he unfurled a peace banner during a legislative session of the government, whereupon he was summarily ejected from the country. Still, his message made the front page of the Chicago Tribune.
Two years later, on our honeymoon, I introduced my wife to Karl. That was the last time I saw Karl, but over the years I’ve often cited his radical vision. I like to recall his insight that the only communities that last are communities of need. So it is with the Church: we survive as far as we recognize our need for Jesus.
Karl’s CW ad listed his phone number, and I decided to give him a call. After 55 years, why not check in? Well, we chatted for an hour and then exchanged a few emails. Plus, he sent me an inscribed copy of his limited edition autobiography Positively Dazzling Realism (a great title, borrowed from Camus). I sent him a pair of my papers inspired by Elizabeth Anscombe, along with Chesterton’s essay on rash vows.
So what have I gleaned from checking in with a mentor of yesteryear?
There is much that is encouraging. Karl continues his commitment to radical peacemaking, including tax resistance. He still labors for a saner world, doing so “from the bottom up.” He looks to the needs of those on the peripheries, including the cognitively impaired. Now living in Nashville, he brings his ecological vision to “urban farming.” Most of all, he is a truth-teller. Indeed, in this regard he reminds me of Vaclav Havel.
There is a terrible sadness as well. Like Dorothy Day, Karl Meyer was a convert to Catholicism. But Karl, for many decades, has no longer been a believer and now wonders if he ever was. When he told Dorothy about his break with the faith, she wrote to him that “To me you have been someone of absolute honesty and integrity and this sudden blocking out of one aspect of your life comes to me as a shock.”
Why this change of heart? Science, he tells us, is incompatible with faith. “Each scientific extension in the known horizons of the universe…and each advance in knowledge about the biology of the earth makes it more difficult to explain reality within the framework of traditional religious beliefs about God.” Ah, my mentor now channels Carl Sagan. Of course, empirical science cannot address the question of why there is something rather than nothing at all. For this we need the theology of the Creation.
Nor can Meyer’s pop-version of scientific naturalism explain the inviolable dignity of the human person. If there is no God, we are hardly made in His image and likeness. Indeed, if there is no God, the complacent secularist is left with “the problem of the good,” that is explaining how the impersonal and the material gives rise to persons who love and cherish one another and so transcend the natural world.
And something else led to Meyer’s reconsiderations. He rejects the Catholic understanding of sexuality. The core of that understanding is that marriage is a two-in-one-flesh sexual union that is open to life and directed to its nurturing. In its place, Meyer touts the expressive individualism of serial polygamy. But this kind of pairing, however earnest, can never be more than a contract. It can never be a Covenant of self-giving, and it cannot reflect God’s love for His people.
But enough for a single blog post. I hope to say a good deal more. Karl Meyer, I’m sure, will not be pleased with this first installment. But he might be interested in a dialogue — that is, a kind of community in need of the truth. I’ll send him this “starter” post and see what he thinks.