Father Daniel Berrigan Found Fame in the Pursuit of Justice

COMMENTARY: The controversial Jesuit who recently died at age 94 was one of the prominent leaders of the anti-Vietnam War and pacifist movements in the Church in the United States.

This 1982 photo shows Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan marching with about 40 others outside of the Riverside Research Center in New York. Father Berrigan, 94, died on April 30 at a Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University.
This 1982 photo shows Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan marching with about 40 others outside of the Riverside Research Center in New York. Father Berrigan, 94, died on April 30 at a Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University. (photo: AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

Time tends to blur passions. Conflicts from even a few years back can come to seem as nothing. And any human being is deeper and more complex than even he or she knows.

Which bring us to the case of Father Daniel Berrigan — the radical Jesuit who died on April 30 at 94 and who, in the 1960s and 1970s, was one of the prominent leaders of the anti-Vietnam War and pacifist movements in the American Church. Father Berrigan also railed tirelessly against American militarism and capitalism and American society as a whole. He was highly praised in various quarters for his “witness,” even appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1971, partly as a result of his involvement in burning military draft records in Catonsville, Md., and his subsequent trial and imprisonment as one of the “Catonsville Nine.”

In 1980, as a member of the Ploughshares Movement, which he helped found, he broke into a nuclear-weapons facility in King of Prussia, Pa., damaged a nosecone and poured blood on security files. He became a fugitive, was pursued by the FBI, caught and did another stretch in prison.

Somehow during all this, he also found the time and energy to publish 50 books, deliver numberless lectures, write poetry and involve himself in various other causes.

During all of this, I myself thought his politics simplistic and unbalanced, and even morally irresponsible, in a world where tyrants and totalitarianism were rampant. But if you were young in those days, as I was, you had many friends and acquaintances with similar views, and the craziness of the time — which our own age is coming to resemble — drove people to far worse. You listened, but weren’t much convinced.

My deeper wariness towards Father Berrigan, however, stemmed from a remark he made in the early 1970s, which I have never forgotten. It did not have to do with the Vietnam War or the alleged sins of capitalist America. It had to do with the Catholic faith, specifically the sacrament that Vatican II called “the source and summit of the Christian life.” In a book he published with Robert Coles in 1971, Father Berrigan remarked that he would not die for the Eucharist, except in “an extraordinarily secularized kind of context.”

If he ever repudiated this — and I hope he did — it never came to my attention. It was an odd, arrogant thing for a priest to say, even in those odd-and-arrogant days, especially for a Jesuit whose predecessors in that order had often died, in England and far-distant mission lands, in order to bring the Good News and the Mystical Body of Christ to the whole world.

No one would deny that Daniel Berrigan was sincere in his beliefs; even people like me, who disagreed with him about virtually everything, had to admire the passion and energy. And he was willing to put his own freedom and peace of mind on the line. Still, it is puzzling for a Catholic priest to limit the ultimate defense of the Eucharist to a secular context, yet to be willing to go to jail to protest passing domestic and foreign policies and military decisions.

But then, Father Daniel Berrigan was the oddest kind of Jesuit: not an intellectual in the ways of the order; unskilled and unsuited to systematic philosophy and theology, as he admitted; dismissive of the Jesuit intellectual tradition, which he pronounced “dead”; and almost a poster child for the kind of casual disregard of much that had existed in the Church prior to Vatican II, in some cases going back to the first century.

At least he did not focus, for the most part, on changing sexual morality, as is often the case with dissenters today. And he certainly thought abortion vile — though he, of course, associated it with the crass materialism of America, rather than the broader human tendency to try to deny doing evil when it conflicts with our desires.

It’s difficult to re-create the tenor of America in his heyday, but suffice to say that there were impure spirits abroad, inside and outside of the Church. The Vietnam War, for instance, was deeply unpopular: partly because it seemed a stretch, at the time, that a small country in Southeast Asia, a former French colony threatened by communist revolutionaries who had studied in Paris, was vital to U.S. interests during the Cold War; partly because the draft forced large numbers of people who were opposed to the war into combat. But all that was nothing compared to people who actually saw Vietnam as a revelation of America’s sins — and then went further, to the point of virtually siding with a current enemy.

Many still remember Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam and the outrageous picture of her sitting in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun. Fewer remember that Father Berrigan went there as well, in the company of Howard Zinn — whose People’s History of the United States, though still widely used in classrooms, reads as if it were written by some party hack in one of the world’s sad “People’s Republics.” They went to Vietnam ostensibly to bring home three U.S. prisoners of war — a seeming humanitarian mission that any 2-year-old would understand was a propaganda ploy by the Vietnamese communists.

When he was in jail for burning draft records at Catonsville, Father Berrigan was reading books by Che Guevara, Herbert Marcuse and Regis Debray — radical leftist intellectual stars at the time, whose lasting intellectual value has for no little time been rapidly approaching zero.

The recent New York Times obituary called him an “intellectual star of the Roman Catholic ‘new left,’ articulating a view that racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society.” And the Times further dubbed this an “essentially religious position based on a stringent reading of the Scriptures.”

But this is cheerleading of a deliberately amnesiac sort. America was not, is not and never will be the unalloyed “city of God.” But given human wickedness, there was and is a more balanced case to be made, especially given the alternatives. That many people, drunk on the new wine of pacifism, thought otherwise in the 1960s just shows how many different ways we can go astray. It was in the 1960s, after all, and prior to the protests of Father Berrigan and other critics, that civil-rights legislations finally passed, poverty programs grew (if with mixed success), and America even first reached the moon.

Father Berrigan read, wrote and spoke a lot, and with passion. But he was more a celebrity than a thinker, at a time when a certain type of “radical” was quite popular in certain sectors of society, the way, say, Bernie Sanders is today. Joining together such large and complex issues as racism, poverty, militarism and capitalism, as if they all reflect one sinister thing, was intellectual and moral laziness, better left to the more innocent sort of Marxist. The fact that there were nuggets of truth in this undifferentiated mass did not make the whole any more true. Even allies such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton thought Father Berrigan went too far at times. His very “clerical” garb sent a kind message: He often wore a black turtleneck, with a peace symbol as a kind of pectoral cross, as if he’d founded a newer, hipper religious order.

It’s worth recalling that, just a few years earlier, another Jesuit, Father John Courtney Murray, was making a very solid and sophisticated set of arguments about how a just social order, even the “American proposition,” rightly understood, might be connected to and perhaps even more firmly established in the great tradition of natural law, even amidst the confusions and errors, sins and inevitable failures of the Cold War.

You could argue — many have — that Father Murray was far too optimistic about the prospects for America and Western civilization more generally. But Father Berrigan, for all his passion, was far too negative, to the point of being unjust in the pursuit of justice. Father Murray never became quite so great a celebrity, but the broader Catholic tradition he and others have tried to bring to bear on our confusions were and are a much better guide for the perplexed.

Robert Royal, Ph.D., is the founder and president

of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington

and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing website.