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Dialogue Underground: Inside and Outside the Church

The following is the concluding excerpt from conversations between Daniel Berrigan and Robert Coles which were held last July, two weeks before Dan Berrigan was captured on Block Island. The complete text will be published in September as The Geography of Faith.

The Editors

COLES: We are now being told on radio and television and in newspapers and magazines that this is the first time that a Catholic priest has been a fugitive from justice. As I read and listen to those accounts I find myself thinking of our past, our history. What do we in fact know about our history? We are only now beginning to realize how distorted our history books have been so far as blacks and Indians are concerned. The issue often is one of blatant misrepresentation by historians; but, more subtly, a certain tone or shade of emphasis can also lead the reader far along into an ideological position which he confuses with a statement of “fact.” So, I wonder about the history of the underground in America and other countries. I wonder how unique and surprising and unprecedented your behavior is.

I have the impression that this country was founded by people from England who had been in the underground. Not only were many of our first settlers in the underground in England, but in addition they fled, they became exiles; so it was exiles and ex-members of a religious underground who started the United States of America. And then one wonders whether, apart from the underground railroad in the nineteenth century, there isn’t a tradition in this country of dissent similar to yours, a tradition whereby people not only say controversial things, but take action that challenges the society in a more significant way, a more comprehensive or unnerving way—and do so without immediately surrendering themselves to sheriffs and judges. I am thinking of the South and Appalachia and the Southwest, where the needs of “justice” as well as “banditry” have prompted men to defy authorities believed to be corrupt or worse.

BERRIGAN: I do believe very much that what I am doing has a tradition behind it. As for what you now hear about me, I believe in this country one constantly has to contend with the ahistorical and sensational aspects of our news media. We see every day how a “folklore” of sorts is created, how the words and acts of particular individuals are written about and talked about wildly, uncritically, hysterically, romantically, foolishly. And certainly in our culture religion and the words or deeds of religious men are just more grist for the mills that the media run.

I mean, every breakaway from the so-called “norm” is going to be a headline for the media, who obviously are interested in all kinds of grotesquerie and deviation. I really don’t know whether it’s useful any longer to consider my status or that of my brother in the light of the Roman Catholic segment of the population. It seems to me that it’s much more useful to consider what I am doing in relation to a broad spectrum of dissent that goes back, as you just said, to the act of leaving Europe and settling here, then waging a revolution against England, a colonial power.

While we were in jail in Catonsville I learned about the career of a seventeenth-century American priest whose real name is not even known; evidently he used the alias John Urey. Very little is known about him except by hearsay and by reports and comments written after his death. He was executed and his execution was not recorded; his trial was blacked out, and the very disposition of his body was never revealed. But during those years before the American Revolution, when we were well into our terrible and brutal treatment of blacks, this man (who as far as I can piece it together was an émigré from Ireland) landed in Manhattan and shortly thereafter launched himself on a career of harboring fugitive slaves from the West Indies, and getting them north through Manhattan.

He is said to have settled in the back room of an Irish pub in the lower East Side of Manhattan, and operated by night out of there. When runaway slaves were caught they were drawn and quartered, burned and lynched. And eventually he, too—after some six years of “illegal activity”—shared the fate of the slaves; he was swiftly killed.

So there was an inspiring, mysterious figure out of our national mists for us to think about when we were in jail. At our sentencing I had composed a poem in his honor and read it that day; I hoped to link our fate with his, even though we had not been tested as he was, or shown his degree of lonely courage—and, yes, willingness to defy the established “law and order” and “tradition” of his day.

But in general, alas, one can’t make very great claims about the heroism of religious figures in American history. I think especially the Catholic Church has been very late in catching up with anything that remotely might be called its own tradition. Catholics in large numbers came to this country relatively late and came as large “ethnic” groups, each impoverished and frightened and essentially oriented toward winning its own place in the sun; for these reasons I think social and political radicalism could not take root.

Up until very recently, say five or ten years ago, not only the hierarchy but the overwhelming majority of the Church’s intellectual and theological leaders were intensely loyal to America’s foreign policy. I think in this regard the death of Cardinal Spellman was particularly significant. For a quarter of a century Spellman stood loyally, arm in arm, with the John Foster Dulleses of this nation. Spellman’s international prestige, his connection with figures like Churchill and Pius XII and Roosevelt—all of that militated against anything very powerful rising from beneath. And of course I had a firsthand taste of his ideas and his power. He exiled me from New York and from the country.

C: You had a personal encounter with him?

B: It was personal in the sense that he found even so unexciting an organization as Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam a very personal affront. He and his subalterns were outraged. It was simply intolerable that a priest in his own diocese would make a beginning like this with Jews and Protestants. So I was very quickly got rid of. On the other hand, one can point to the fact that there has been, at least since the Twenties, through the Catholic Worker movement especially, a very solid tradition of Biblical dissent from war; and one can also reflect that the first symbolic draft card burnings were centered in the Catholic community, and that as protest advanced into assaults upon draft boards it was in the beginning also a Catholic enterprise.

So, I guess one might remember, as Francine Gray has noted, that out of the worst something very new and inspiring can emerge, such is the irony of history. Of course, our Protestant communities have never been under the type of suppression that Catholics have on these social issues; whereas we Catholics have been subjected to the iron hand of authority. Again and again we have heard the Church speak—on an astonishing range of subjects—and we have been told that once the Church has spoken, one must bow one’s head and say yes, yes, yes. As an American Catholic, an American priest, one could always point to the fine and progressive statements that have come out of Rome on social issues; but the Church here for decades and decades never really responded to those papal encyclicals.

I guess that’s a long way of saying a very simple thing: more and more Catholics, a distinct minority but still a significant minority, are finally able to see their place in the tradition of Christianity, and able to gain a much wider and more enlightened perspective on their place, and able to go ahead and work at what they believe right (rather than obey blindly the Spellmans of this land) and do that work with their brothers from other faiths.

So in the last five years of this war we Catholics have been able to offer a certain leavening, a certain direction, to the peace movement. Not that Protestants and Jews haven’t also had their moral and ethical struggles. Even recently we would hear in only half-jest that churches like the Episcopal Church could be depended upon to lend us their real estate for actions like Catonsville, but they were often unwilling to participate in an effort like Catonsville.

In any event, in spite of the tremendous hold on Catholics that the Church has, and in spite of the tight discipline of the priesthood and of religious orders, something was evidently gathering, some waters of human passion and concern were rising—were reaching a boiling point—and then, suddenly (it seems to me concurrently with Pope John’s whole breakthrough) the kettle tipped over, the brew spilled, and—well, things will never be exactly the same again.

But it seems to me that Roman Catholic identity as such is unimportant, given the times and the real issues. My brother and I have no continuing interest whatsoever in what you might call the internal questions of the Catholic community, whether that be the question of parochial schools or the question of birth control or the question of celibacy; we look upon such matters as in essence retarded questions of a community that still has to catch up with Christ’s invitation that all men come join Him, and be with Him—in all their variety. And how sad it is that in the face of the terrible, terrible issues which face this planet’s two billion human beings, some in the Church, priests and bishops as well as laymen, continue to be so utterly self-centered, so narrow, so uninterested in others, so aggrandizing—in the name of Jesus Christ!

So let the Church “catch up” through the efforts of others; and I say that not to be arrogant, but to emphasize how urgent are the tasks that all too few of us are taking the trouble to attend to. My brother Phil and I are interested in a kind of raw fundamentalism that has to do with the stance of the Church before mankind; we want to help the Church make that stance, we want to do what we can in that direction. We will join with other communities, Catholic or non-Catholic, religous or thoroughly secular—so long as their seriousness and passion are manifest.

C: But you are loyal to the Church, which is, after all, an institution.

B: I hope so.

C: I suppose I should say that you are loyal to what you conceive to be the spirit of the Church, or loyal to what you would want the Church to be. You are not ready to stop being a Catholic.

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