Remembering Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016): Priest, Poet, and Pacifist

By Shawn F. Peters | May 17, 2016

(Lee Lockwood/Getty/LIFE Images)

(Lee Lockwood/Getty/LIFE Images)

Daniel Berrigan, the radical priest who helped to redefine what it means to be a Roman Catholic in post-Vatican II America, died on April 30 at age 94. Berrigan’s work transcended his religious faith, and his death represents an enormous loss to those who treasure basic principles of human dignity. His legacy, grounded in his unflinching commitment to peace and social justice, will continue to influence the way we think about dissent, resistance to war, and acts of conscience.

Berrigan, a Jesuit, had a long and rich ministry devoted to promoting peace and nonviolence, and he also was an accomplished poet and author. He is perhaps best remembered for his participation in a raid on a military draft board in suburban Baltimore on May 17, 1968. His actions that day in Catonsville, Maryland, typified Berrigan’s intrepid commitment to the peace movement and transformed him into a major public figure—a kind of celebrity “radical priest.”

In a bold demonstration undertaken in broad daylight, Berrigan and eight other Catholics (including his brother Philip, also a priest) seized and burned more than 350 draft files from the Selective Service office in Catonsville. The subsequent trial of the Catonsville Nine in federal court, at which they all were found guilty on all counts, was an event so uniquely dramatic and intense that a play and film later were based on it.

None of the Catonsville Nine had any illusions that their protest, which involved destroying a few hundred individual draft files with homemade napalm, would immediately halt the war. However, they hoped that the symbolism of their witness—using a notoriously brutal weapon of war to destroy what they called “death certificates”—would grab public attention and spark a sustained and meaningful dialogue about the connections between war, imperialism, and poverty. These profoundly important issues affected not only people in Vietnam but also millions of Americans.

“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house,” Berrigan wrote in a statement on the protest group’s motives. “We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.”

The war in Vietnam wasn’t an abstraction to Dan Berrigan. He had traveled with the historian Howard Zinn to North Vietnam a few months before the Catonsville protest in an effort (ultimately successful) to secure the release of some American airmen who had been captured behind enemy lines. His experiences in Hanoi had been searing: Berrigan had seen firsthand the devastation caused by his own country’s misguided obsession with eradicating communism in Southeast Asia.

Determined to expose the folly of that foreign policy, Berrigan and his confederates succeeded in using the Catonsville action to initiate a broader conversation about the war in Vietnam and how that conflict represented the myriad ills plaguing American society. Their protest drew widespread attention, as did their subsequent trial in federal court in Baltimore. (Officials in the Kremlin even took note of the proceedings.)

Thanks to the wide latitude granted by the presiding judge, Roszel Thomsen, the court proceedings provided a remarkable forum for the Nine to address the many ailments afflicting the American body politic. Their moving testimony touched on matters ranging from domestic race relations and economic inequality to the role of United States in supporting the Guatemalan oligarchy. Few trials in American history have provided such wide-ranging and riveting commentary on such a variety of significant issues.

Dan Berrigan was at his best at the trial—provocative, profound, poetic. When asked why he had decided to burn the draft records, he said that he had realized that he “could not announce the gospel from a pedestal.” Pressed about his intentions that day in Catonsville, he explained, “I did not want the children or grandchildren of the jury or of the judge to be burned by napalm.” After the jury had retired, he led everyone in the courtroom in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Among peace activists, Berrigan and his fellow demonstrators received fulsome praise for their actions in Catonsville and their moving trial testimony. One student activist, voicing the sentiments of many supporters, wrote, “These people are crazy. Crazy like Jesus. Crazy like Che Guevara. Crazy like all of us said we would be had we lived in Germany under Hitler.”

However, while some liberal Catholics cheered the anti-draft protest as a justified blow against the war, many members of the faith were appalled by the demonstration, thinking it a glaring betrayal of both church and country. One notable Catholic—the novelist Walker Percy—publicly compared the Nine’s fiery protest to the incendiary tactics of the Ku Klux Klan. Even some allies of the Catonsville Nine questioned their provocative tactics. Many wondered how the actual details of the protest squared with the activists’ professed allegiance to the norms of civil disobedience. After all, the Nine didn’t merely stage a sit-in at the Catonsville draft office; they charged in, restrained, and grappled with the clerks (one of whom later was treated for minor injuries), and then demolished the federal property they had seized. Esteemed Catholic peace activists such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton voiced their support for the Nine but refrained from fully endorsing their irregular methods, questioning if they really could be characterized as nonviolent.

There also was some criticism of the decision by four of the Nine, including Dan Berrigan, to refuse to surrender to the federal government for their prison sentences. (Berrigan would remain “underground” for several months before the FBI finally caught up with him late in the summer of 1970.) For some, this wasn’t in line with traditional notions of civil disobedience, which called for submission to the punishment meted out by the state.

Berrigan met such criticism head-on. In an interview with Philip Nobile of The New York Times Magazine, conducted while he was underground, he said that it was pointless to feel bound by the constraints imposed by a rigid understanding of the law. “There is very little you can do now within the law,” he explained. The times called for “new actions outside the law which will create larger and larger communities dedicated to large nonviolent resistance. We simply must offer alternatives to the slavery and killing done in our name.” And, given his view of the savagery and immorality of the war in Vietnam, one had to move beyond traditional conceptions of civil disobedience. “Before Catonsville, it was important to consider breaking human law for the sake of peace and decency,” Berrigan said. “Now we are saying it is important deliberately to reject punishment for this lawbreaking.”

After serving 18 months in federal prison for the Catonsville protest, Berrigan continued to witness for peace and social justice. He published poetry and prose, protested imperialism and social injustice, and tended to victims of AIDS at a New York City hospice. Over time, the priest became a kind of living saint for many liberal Catholics. The New York Times praised him as “the granddaddy of the Catholic protest movement,” and a celebratory book honored him as nothing less than an apostle of peace. But Berrigan was not one to rest on his laurels. Indeed, he never seemed to slow down. At age 91 and in failing health, he joined with participants in the Occupy Movement and appeared in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to speak out against Trinity Church, which was backing the criminal prosecution of several protesters who had occupied one of its empty lots.

Back in 2001, Berrigan said that he would stop agitating the day after he was embalmed. With war and injustice still so widespread, he felt that there remained a desperate need for such witnessing. “This is really the most dangerous time of my life,” he told The Progressive in 2004. “I have never seen this degree of irresponsibility, naked power, high-level duplicity, or the will to just own the world. I’ve never seen such blindness, and I’m scared, but it keeps me moving.”

Today, Daniel Berrigan finally is at rest, but there seems little doubt that his revolutionary spirit will live on.

Shawn F. Peters teaches at the University of Wisconsin and is the author of The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era. Follow him @shfrpeters.

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