Newtown Town Hall
March 18, 1971
Newtown, Connecticut, where this talk was given, borders on Danbury, where the Berrigans are in Federal Prison.
Brothers and sisters. Fellow Democrats. Fellow Americans. Last summer, when the FBI finally captured Father Daniel Berrigan after he had successfully avoided them for four months in the underground, one of the FBI men is said to have muttered under his breath, as he put the shackles on, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” the Jesuit motto which means “To the greater glory of God.” Although our notion of the average FBI man does not include a fluent knowledge of Latin, the story rings true to me—some 70 percent of FBI men are Catholics, and this particular one is said to have been a Fordham graduate. And after all I can’t think of any men who have been a more profound embarrassment than the Berrigans to the Nixon Administration and to the FBI and to the Catholic Church—three entities of society which I, as an American and a Catholic, feel are in great need of being embarrassed still further.
When the recent indictment was handed down on Philip Berrigan and other Catholic peace activists on charges of conspiring to sabotage and kidnap, many persons speculated that it was precisely this embarrassment caused to the FBI by Daniel Berrigan’s stay underground that triggered the government to bring an indictment. But although Daniel Berrigan’s underground evasion was as bad a loss of face as the FBI has ever experienced, I think this view is blatantly flippant and incomplete. I tend to take a much more historical view of this indictment and I’d like to state at once its historical significance, because I think it has very grave implications for both political and religious freedom in this country.
I think this indictment is nothing more or less than the United States government’s effort to purge the Catholic Church of a radical, reformist movement which, for the first time in American history, has become a challenge and a menace to the secular establishment. Let’s not forget that the Catholic community in the United States, since its beginning, has always been a community remarkable for its docility, its conservatism, its often blind patriotism, its political predictability. These characteristics of the Catholic community were more than understandable in the context of early American society. Catholics had come into a predominantly Protestant culture whose origins were tinged with Calvinist intransigence. And for two centuries Catholics were trying to get accepted in an alien value system, striving to prove their Americanism and their patriotism by being super-American, super-patriots, ultra-flag waving, eager to produce as many Gold-Star mothers and All-Star football players as any Protestant group in the country.
Their ethos was most succinctly symbolized by Cardinal Spellman’s tours to Vietnam and his often repeated motto, “My country right or wrong,” and their classical prototype was the law enforcement officer. As Patrick Moynihan once put it, “It’s always …