Roman Catholic Priests and Peace Activists
The Berrigan brothers gained fame in the 1960s as vocal clerical foes of the Vietnam War. As leaders of the Catholic New Left, Daniel and Philip Berrigan attracted national news media attention for such actions as raiding Selective Service offices. They also stood trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1972 on charges of conspiring to kidnap Sec. of State Henry Kissinger, although the brothers denied that their kidnapping plot had progressed to the point of action. The Berrigans continued to protest U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s and 1990s, even after Philip Berrigan renounced his religious vows to marry Sister Elizabeth McAlister, a Catholic college professor, in 1969.
Daniel and Philip Berrigan were the youngest of six sons born on a Minnesota farm. Their father, Thomas, was a deeply religious Catholic of Irish descent, a strict disciplinarian, and a critic of political radicalism. Seeking escape from what they considered to be a drab, nonintellectual existence, Daniel went to study with the Jesuits while Philip excelled in collegiate sports at St. Michael’s in Toronto.
Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, Philip served with an artillery battery in the European theater (Daniel, as a seminary student, was exempt). Philip later disparaged his military service and claimed that his exposure to southern white racism while in the Army led him to join the Society of St. Joseph (Josephites), a religious order devoted to missionary work among African Americans. Daniel was ordained a Jesuit in 1952 and Philip a Josephite in 1955.
Both the Jesuits and the Josephites were Catholic religious orders that advocated religious engagement with secular political issues. The Josephites had long been unambiguous defenders of African American civil rights. The Jesuits had many members who were avowed critics of international and domestic communism, and even some who regarded the United States as equally culpable in the Cold War and exploitation of the Third World. The bishops who led the American Catholic Church did not become politically engaged until the 1930s, when they began to champion the rights of organized labor. Not all church leaders, however, supported labor unions. The crisis of the Great Depression revealed a political schism within the church that widened in the 1960s with the escalation of the Vietnam War. Within this controversial context the Berrigans began their own social activism.
Taking their cue from the encyclical Peace on Earth (1963), in which Pope John XXIII condemned the nuclear arms race and urged the United States to coexist peacefully with the Soviet Union, the Berrigans flung themselves into the antiwar movement. In 1964 they joined with young members of the Catholic Worker Movement (established in 1933) to form the radical pacifist Catholic Peace Fellowship. A year later, Daniel helped found Clergy and Laymen (later Laity) Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). Given the paucity of Catholics and the abundance of mainline Protestant and Reform Jewish clerics in CALCAV, Daniel became a media sensation.
Responding to criticism from within the Catholic church, Daniel contended that white working-class Catholics—themselves once objects of Protestant discrimination—were now representing themselves as patriotic and anticommunist in order to be accepted as fully American. Catholic critics retorted that the Berrigans, and their predominantly middle-class, college-educated constituency, were simply seeking acceptance among the cultural elite. The Berrigans also found, to their chagrin, that radical members of other antiwar coalitions such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS; established 1962) harbored suspicions about nonviolent religious activists.
In 1968 the Berrigans entered the Selective Service offices in Catonsville, Maryland, where they poured blood on stolen Selective Service files and then torched them with homemade napalm. The Catonsville raid and subsequent trial (also in 1968) inspired at least 53 similar incidents across the country. Actor and liberal activist Gregory Peck produced a sympathetic film in 1972, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, that documented their efforts.
Sentenced to three years each, Daniel and Philip, while out on bail pending their appeals, went underground. Law enforcement officers quickly captured Philip while Daniel remained at large somewhat longer. While in prison Philip smuggled letters to Sister McAlister. The FBI obtained copies of Philip’s letters, quickly exposing his marriage to McAlister. Based upon these same letters, as well as the testimony of a FBI informant within the ranks of Catholic antiwar activists, both Berrigans stood trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1972 for conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger. Their jury deadlocked, forcing a mistrial, and leading the federal government to drop its case.
After being acquitted in 1972 of plotting to kidnap Kissinger, the Berrigans resumed their protest activities. In 1980 the brothers raided a General Electric plant at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in an attempt to cripple the guidance system of a nuclear missile. Convicted in 1981 of burglary, conspiracy, and criminal mischief, they were sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from 5 to 10 years. After nine years of court appeals, the “Plowshares Eight,” as the defendants came to be known, were credited with completing 23 months of their sentences and given parole. The trial of the Plowshares Eight also became a media and film event, with actor Martin Sheen participating in the resulting film project, In the King of Prussia (1982).
The Berrigans subsequently mounted symbolic protests against a number of American policy initiatives abroad until Philip’s death in 2002. In the 21st century, Daniel remains a fixture at protests against the war on terror. Just after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he described the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as “symbols of idolatry” and U.S. imperialism that had received biblical retribution. While lamenting the loss of lives on September 11, Daniel Berrigan insisted that the evil the United States had been doing overseas for decades had at last come home to roost.
The activism of Daniel and Philip Berrigan reflected, even as it influenced, the growth of a religious Left in the United States and especially within the Roman Catholic church. Since the 1960s American Catholic bishops have become more vocal in their opposition to U.S. defense spending, racism, and welfare cuts. However, in reaction to this activism, tens of thousands of middle- and working-class Catholics have left the Catholic church for more politically conservative Protestant denominations. Relations between activist American bishops and a more conservative papacy in Rome have remained strained as well.
Antiwar Movements; Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam; Conscientious Objection; Just War Theory; Pacifism
Two Catholic priests, Philip Berrigan (1923–2002) and Daniel Berrigan (1921–), were known as anti-war protestors. They are especially...
Roman Catholic Priests and Peace Activists The Berrigan brothers gained fame in the 1960s as vocal clerical foes of the Vietnam War. As...