Father Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit, died on Saturday April 30, 2016 in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in New York City.
Berrigan was a pivotal figure in the history of American Catholicism as he epitomized the new phenomenon of the Activist Priest. While the Catholic Clergy in the United States had a long history of providing intellectual and academic backing for social reform with figures like Monsignor John Ryan and Monsignor George Higgins and while Bishop Frank Haas, Monsignor Geno Baroni, and Monsignor John Boland were priests who worked closely with politicians to effect change, all were priests who stayed well within the defined role of the clergy and the limits of the law. With Daniel Berrigan we get the priest who is not afraid to step out in a prophetic model and demand attention for the Truth he burns to speak.
To appreciate Berrigan’s significance, we need to go back to the placid days of Dwight Eisenhower and pre-Vatican II Catholicism. The Church stood with the establishment, or at least did not bite the hand that was feeding it. The civil turmoil that has marked our nation was just starting sixty years ago. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were still young. Catholics were not getting on bus of Civil Rights, we kept our nose out of other people’s issues. Due to the opposition to the Civil Rights Movement of such powerful Catholic hierarchs as Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile and Francis Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angles, Catholic clergy were long embarrassingly absent from the front lines of Dr. King’s protests. Local Bishops and religious superiors prohibited their subjects from taking any direct action in Civil Disobedience though they were often more tolerant of their preaching on the subject. It was seen that the role of the clergy and religious was preaching and teaching rather than social activism. Some, like Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, appealed to their audiences through their writing. But when, on May 17th 1968 Daniel Berrigan, his brother Phil (then a member of Josephite Fathers), Brother David Darst of the Christian Brothers, and six lay associates went into the Selective Service Office in Catonsville MD and removed about 600 Draft Files to the parking lot where they were burned with homemade napalm, it was a new day for the role of the clergy as social activists and not merely theoreticians and teachers. (Actually this was Philip Berrigan’s second act of civil disobedience; he had the year before poured blood on Selective Service Records in Baltimore. Daniel was not involved in that action.) Even though there were others involved, and Daniel did not seek the spotlight, he was from the beginning the center of interest. He had a certain charism that drew your attention. Not everyone was happy with Daniel Berrigan of course. Cardinal Spellman, who was also the Bishop for the US military, would not permit him in the Archdiocese of New York. Most Catholic institutions were afraid to host him. He was convicted for the Catonsville Action and fled into hiding. Captured at the Block Island home of Episcopalian theologian William Stringfellow he served three years in prison. But his prison term seemed only to enhance his standing.
I think Berrigan’s deeply thoughtful personality, sound Jesuit spirituality, and natural gentleness gave him a moral credibility that he was able to transfer over to the causes he was associated with. In 1980 he was one of the founders of the Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear weapons group. They broke into a General Electric facility in Pennsylvania where they hammered nuclear missile nose cones and poured blood on files. Back to jail. I think his willingness to take the punishment for his crimes also gave him a certain moral credibility.
The story of the Plowshares Movement attack on the nuclear missile warheads was the subject of the 1983 film In the King of Prussia directed and written by Emile de Antonio starring Martin Sheen—and the Plowshares eight playing themselves. Emile de Antonio was a maker of socio-political documentaries, perhaps the most significant director of social-political documentaries in the second half of the twentieth Century America, and the film made people stop and rethink the action of Plowshares activists from a moral perspective that gave it a different nuance.
Daniel Berrigan had a close friendship with and mutual admiration for Buddhist mystic Thich Nhat Hanh. Both were committed deeply to the path of non-violence and Hanh writes of Berrigan’s influence on him in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ. Berrigan seems not to have been too scrupulous about following some Catholic limitations on Inter-Religious Dialogue but Hanh writes a particularly surprising (and moving) description of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Of course, that is the problem with Berrigan. He was not a rules follower. Even by Jesuit standards, he was a pretty free agent.
Daniel Berrigan was also an outspoken opponent of abortion and of the death penalty, espousing a true pacifist’s commitment to the Seamless Garment theology.
Below are three quotes from Daniel Berrigan:
But how shall we educate men to goodness, to a sense of one another, to a love of the truth? And more urgently, how shall we do this in a bad time?
One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible.
Spirituality was the main issue. Connection with God was the main issue