The face of peaceful resistance

May 9, 2016

The veteran antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan died at the end of April. Guy Miller, a participant in the movement against the Vietnam War, celebrates his life.

THE ROMAN Catholic Church is a Janus-faced colossus. For most of its nearly 2,000-year history, from Constantine to the Crusades to the Spanish Civil War, the face that points toward reaction and defense of established power has dominated.

However, for brief periods in its long history, a window of reform and renewal has opened, and another face peeks out. When that window opened a crack during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Jesuit priest, poet and activist Father Daniel Berrigan was there, already primed, to move on its conclusions. Berrigan died on April 30 at the age of 94.

Daniel was born the fifth of six sons of Frieda Fromhart and Thomas Berrigan. Thomas was a locomotive engineer, a union activist and a Catholic socialist. The family moved from Minnesota to Syracuse, New York, when Daniel was 5 years old.

When a teenaged Daniel decided to join the priesthood, he chose the Society of Jesus, commonly known as Jesuits, as the place to fulfill his vocation. If the Catholic Church has a cadre organization, the Jesuits are it. Founded in 1540, the Society of Jesus is a highly disciplined, educated and dedicated order of priests. The Jesuits have often served as the political shock troops of the papacy.

Father Daniel Berrigan (seated) joins a solidarity demonstration for Occupy activists facing charges for civil disobedience
Father Daniel Berrigan (seated) joins a solidarity demonstration for Occupy activists facing charges for civil disobedience

After a thorough Jesuit education, Berrigan was ordained a priest in 1952. Even in those early years, Berrigan was influenced by Catholic forces outside of the strict confines of the Jesuit order. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and well-known writer on Christian ethics and spirituality, was one such influence, as was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. From both of these sources, Father Berrigan developed a theory of social justice and an understanding of the importance of commitment.


1963 WAS a pivotal year in Berrigan's life. After 10 years of teaching in prep schools and at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit institution in Syracuse, he took a yearlong sabbatical and traveled to Europe and South Africa. Visiting France, he stayed in the Jesuit motherhouse in Paris. There, he encountered a number of young fellow priests who were passionately concerned with the war in Southeast Asia.

The conversations in Paris convinced him that the burgeoning U.S. involvement in Vietnam was wrong politically and, more importantly for him, morally as well. Returning to the U.S. in 1964, Father Berrigan was determined to, he later wrote, say "NO to the war" as "loudly as I could." He went on, "From that point, there would be simply no turning back."

Back in New York, it didn't take long for Father Berrigan to run up against the other face of the Catholic Church, the reactionary face of the hierarchy. In New York in the early 1960s, the hierarchy meant Cardinal Francis Spellman.

In 1949, Spellman, a virulent Cold Warrior, enlisted seminarians to break a strike by gravediggers in Catholic New York cemeteries. The long, bitter strike was finally settled when the gravediggers agreed to quit--in Spellman's point of view--the communist CIO and affiliate with the less radical AFL.

In November 1965, a young Catholic antiwar activist named Roger LaPorte, inspired by Buddhist monks in Vietnam, set himself on fire in front of the United Nations building in Manhattan. Father Berrigan delivered the eulogy at LaPorte's funeral. This did not please Spellman, who condemned LaPorte's act of moral conscience, calling it a "sinful suicide."

For his compassion, Father Berrigan was punished with exile to Latin America. His time spent in Peru and Brazil only made Berrigan more militant, not less. He was unable to reconcile the wealth of the Church with the poverty of the people.

Pressure from many liberals in the American Catholic Church soon brought Father Berrigan back to the U.S. several months later. By this time, the Vietnam War was escalating on an almost daily basis. Berrigan's younger brother Philip played a leading role in taking action against the war.

Philip, who was also a priest, but a Josephite rather than a Jesuit, was one of the Baltimore Four who destroyed draft records at the offices of the Selective Service Board in Baltimore on October 27, 1967. The protest by the "Baltimore Four" was the first of what were to be more than 100 draft board actions between 1967 and 1972.

Impressed by his brother's heroism, Daniel helped to form and lead a group that became known as the "Catonsville Nine." On May 17, in that momentous year of 1968, Daniel, Philip and seven other Catholic antiwar activists walked into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, carted more than 300 draft records down to the parking lot, and burned them.

Ironically, they used homemade napalm to set them on fire--and even more ironically, they found the recipe for napalm in a book from the Georgetown University Library.

Father Berrigan was sentenced to two years in federal prison, but he was able to escape before beginning his sentence. Soon, he landed on top of the FBI's Most Wanted list, a distinction he shared with famous bank robbers John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow.

Eventually, he was captured on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, and served almost two years in Lewisburg, a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania. During his lifetime, Daniel Berrigan was to spend almost seven years behind bars for his political activities.


ALONG WITH the mass antiwar mobilizations and the brave resistance of the Vietnamese people, Father Berrigan and others who engaged in civil disobedience helped galvanize a movement that eventually brought an end to the Vietnam War. Herculano Fecteau, who was a teenager during the Vietnam War, wrote:

I was radicalized as a first-year Catholic seminarian by the Vietnam War...Daniel and Philip were my personal heroes and their radical Catholic activism helped me transition quickly from liberalism to Marxism. For years, I had a poster on my bedroom wall of a smiling Dan Berrigan, his arms linked on either side by two dour and unfriendly FBI agents.

A quarter of a century later, Father Berrigan had a similar impact on a young activist named Jeremy Scahill, who would later become an important filmmaker and investigative reporter. In 1995, he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. After hitchhiking to Washington, D.C., for a Hiroshima Day demonstration, Scahill was introduced to Father Berrigan. This proved to be the start of a long friendship.

Last week, Scahill told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!: "Without you two, meaning you and Dan Berrigan, I would not be who I am today."

Berrigan's involvement in the antiwar and social justice movements didn't end with Vietnam. He later helped found the Plowshares Movement. The Plowshares Movement engages in actions wherever U.S. militarism raises its ugly head. The movement takes its inspiration from Isaiah 2:4: "They will beat their swords into plowshares."

In 1980, the "King of Prussia Eight," taking its name from the town in Pennsylvania where the action happened, broke into a General Electric nuclear arms facility where they proceeded to literally beat Mk-12a nuclear warheads with hammers.

In his later years, Berrigan never wavered from the ideals of his youth. Living in a Jesuit house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he spent many years ministering to and advocating for AIDS victims in New York. Already in his 90s, he also went to Zuccotti Park where he expressed his solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.

Until his dying day, Father Berrigan stayed true to what he saw as the better face of the Catholic Church--the face that points away from the rich and powerful and toward the poor and afflicted.

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