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 the Harvard men who are being checked for security, and it’s the Fordham graduates who do the checking.”
This is the attitude of support that the American government has always received from the Church, has always counted upon the Church to give. And you need not stretch your imagination far to realize the shock and the discomfiture on the part of our government when all of a sudden, three years ago, it found that the most profound dissent movement to have rocked the United States since the slavery issue—I’m referring to the anti-Vietnam war movement—was being led, to a great extent, by Irish Catholic priests.
Well, what do you do when you are a group of intelligent and heavy-handed leaders faced with this force of dissent within the enormously powerful establishment that is the Catholic Church? You attempt to purge, the way Louis XIV purged the Church of Jansenists in the seventeenth century. Jansenism, although it was theologically dissimilar to contemporary Catholic radicalism, was akin to it politically, being the hotbed of anti-Royalist, antigovernment sentiment. The pattern of secular governments purging churches of their progressive leadership is not singular to us. It prevails most notably today in two other countries, Brazil and South Africa. Charming company.
A lot of people these days are asking why are Catholics taking such extreme stands, what has happened to that once sheepishly docile community? Well, I think that it is due in part to what is called the tradition of moral absolutism in our Church. If you’re brought up to believe that it’s a mortal sin to indulge in soul kissing and to eat meat on Friday, if you’re brought up to believe that you’ll burn in hell for these actions if you don’t confess them in that brown confessional booth, you’re apt to have very violent and passionate reactions to historical events.
It is perhaps because of this moral absolutism that Catholics are apt to take either the leadership of opposition or the position of greatest support in any polarized situation. In the 1940s in France, the Catholic priests played a major role of leadership in the anti-Nazi underground. In the 1930s in Germany, on the other hand, the Catholic Church was more abysmally absolute in its support of Hitler than any other religious body: not one German Catholic bishop ever spoke out. In the 1950s in this country, it was the Catholics, led by Joe McCarthy, who satanized Communism more militantly than any other group in the US, and we all bitterly remember how the Catholic hierarchy, led by Cardinal Spellman, played a leading role in supporting President Diem of South Vietnam and in formulating our present policy of counter-insurgency in Indochina.
And now in 1970 it is a group of Catholics who have demonized, satanized the Vietnam war more passionately and militantly than any other group in the country. A part of the Catholic Church has come of age, has lost its immigrant jitters, and has finally become a potentially radical, dissenting force in American society. Some of its members can finally feel free to prove their patriotism by protesting. I think that the concurrence of Pope John’s revolution and John Kennedy’s Presidency played a major role in liberalizing American Catholicism—John’s theological radicalism occurred simultaneously with the symbolic integration offered to Catholics by the first Catholic President.
I’d like to give you a brief biography of the two men who are the leaders of this extraordinary sociological phenomenon called American Catholic radicalism: the Berrigans. Daniel is forty-nine years old and a Jesuit; Philip is forty-seven and a member of the Society of St. Joseph, an order founded in the nineteenth century to work with the blacks. They are the two youngest of six sons. Their father was a second generation Irishman who worked as an electrical engineer in Minnesota and later in Syracuse, New York, where the Berrigans were brought up in conditions of some poverty.
Daniel joined the Jesuits at the age of seventeen and went on to get some MAs in theology and in philosophy; he taught at several Jesuit schools and colleges; he is the foremost poet in the Church today. He won the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1959 and just last year, in 1970, was nominated for the National Book Award.
Philip was an officer in World War II, saw active combat in France and in Germany, was a model soldier, won several decorations. When he came back he was graduated from Holy Cross College, where he wrote his senior thesis on “The Psychology of Nathaniel Hawthorne,” and continued on into the seminary and the priesthood.
I would guess that, until 1960 or so, the Berrigans were both fairly average Catholic priests—a bit more liberal than most because Daniel had been much influenced by the French worker-priest movement when he was stationed in France in the 1950s, but not so vastly different from all the other priests who used to sit in their rectories reminding you that you were in a state of mortal sin if you ate meat on a Friday or missed a Holy Day mass. Like many other Christians, the Berrigans were jolted out of this pleasant state of affairs by the series of crises that began to arise in the US in the 1960s.
By that time both Berrigans had become total pacifists because they believed it was the only ideology to hold in a nuclear age, and they had become militant on the subject of civil rights. In 1963 Philip Berrigan tried to become the first Catholic priest in the country to go on a freedom ride, but the Bishop of Alabama heard about his plan, had him paged in Atlanta where his plane had made a stop, and ordered him off the plane. Two years later, in 1965, both Berrigans lost their teaching jobs for the simple fact that they were the first Catholic priests to sign a petition against the Vietnam war. And a few months later Daniel was exiled to Latin America for four months for being one of the three cofounders of a very middle-ground organization called Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. I hold the Catholic hierarchy as ultimately responsible for the Berrigans’ so-called radicalism. Such heavy-handed bungling is obviously going to make rebels out of the most obedient sons.
In October of 1967 I opened a New York Times and there on the front page was a photograph of Phil Berrigan, a very tall, very distinguished looking man who looks rather like a chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, pouring blood on draft files in the Baltimore Draft Board in protest against the Vietnam war. It was an action which, for reasons that I will give you later, struck me as being an extraordinarily Biblical, traditional gesture, but for which he was sentenced to six years in jail. The following May, Philip Berrigan went back to another draft board, in the company of his brother Daniel and seven other Catholic priests and laymen, and destroyed 378 more draft files with homemade napalm, the recipe for which, let us note, they had found in a US army handbook. The recipe called for an emulsion of the purest available soap; and so the group used Ivory soap.
In April of 1970 the Supreme Court turned down the appeal of the Catonsville Nine, as the group was called, and several of the Nine went underground. Philip stayed under for two weeks and was apprehended in the vestry of a Catholic church in New York City. Daniel stayed underground for four months and was apprehended by the FBI on Block Island at the home of his friend William Stringfellow, a Protestant lawyer and lay theologian. His exile had not been devoid of humor. It is reported that the FBI had swarmed through numerous convents during Daniel’s underground exile, looking in closets, in bathrooms, under beds. And always keeping their impeccable Catholic manners, they would shout, “Are you there, Father Dan, are you there?” The Fordham graduates never forget to say Father, they never forget their Latin.