Faithful to the end, Fr Daniel Berrigan never lost Jesuit zeal in opposing US warmongering and oppression
The life and work of American priest show the huge contribution of Christians - and people of all religions - to the worldwide struggle for human rights, says Eamonn McCann.
Daniel Berrigan died last Saturday, April 30, the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. He was 94. A spokesman for the Jesuit healthcare centre in New York City, where he had spent his last years, announced that he had “died peacefully”.
And, of course, he had. How else would Daniel Berrigan have left the life that he had devoted to peacemongering and opposing war for more than 50 years?
Back in the 1960s, it seemed strange to many just entering radical politics that there was a priest among us not just preaching peace, but in the leadership of the movement and urging more militant tactics.
He was accurately seen — by both political activists and the Washington establishment — as a sidekick of anarchists and Trotskyists, Panthers, hippies, yippies and assorted elements from the ranks of the discontented.
Many were also disorientated by the fact that he was a strong, if non-judgmental, supporter of the “pro-life” position with regard to abortion.
But I cannot recall anybody casting doubt on his credentials as a campaigner for what seemed, on the surface, an entirely secular cause.
His commitment and courage was evident to all.
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It is interesting to note that many of the self-proclaimed materialists who marched and broke the law alongside him had, 20 years or less later, moved into the political centre and well-paid jobs and were presenting their early activism as an adolescent aberration indicating a certain, attractive idealism.
But Berrigan stayed the course unbowed.
Asked in 2009, when he was 87 and already ailing, what he regretted about his years of marching, sitting-in and destruction of government property, he replied: “I could have done sooner the things I did, like Catonsville.”
He was, with his brother, Philip, also a Jesuit, one of the Catonsville Nine who, in May 1968, broke into the offices of the draft board in Maryland, removed the records of young men about to be called up and burned them in a bin outside with home-made napalm.
At the trial the court tried to present the Nine as idealists who shared the aim of a peaceful resolution of the conflict with mainstream politicians in Washington, differing only about the best means to achieve the objective.
Daniel would have none of it: “Our intention... was to be useful to the poor of the world, to the black people of the world and of our own country, and to the people in the prisons who have no voice.
“We do not wish that primary blade of intention to be honed down to no edge at all by a gentleman’s agreement, whereby you agree with us and we agree with you.
“We do not agree with you.”
All were sentenced to prison. Daniel served two years, Philip two-and-a-half. Philip, likewise unrepentant, died in 2002 aged 79.
A film of the Catonsville events was later produced by Gregory Peck and photographed by two-time Oscar winner Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, In The Heat Of The Night).
Asked for public condemnation of the Weather Underground Organisation (“You don’t need a Weatherman ... ”), which had launched a bombing campaign against arms manufacturers and military institutions, Daniel directed his reply to the WUO: “Do only that which you cannot not do”, which might be taken as a general truth and guide to action compatible with religious, socialist and any other ethical system of morality.
After the Catonsville sentences were confirmed at appeal the Berrigans and three of the other defendants went on the run.
Daniel appeared at political meetings and delivered sermons at churches of various denominations before making a rapid getaway.
He was recaptured after four months at the Rhode Island home of the distinguished Episcopalian theologian William Stringfellow.
On the 40th anniversary of the Catonsville action, in May 2008, Daniel lamented that the activism and idealism of the Sixties and Seventies seemed to have faded.
“The short fuse of the American Left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life,” he said.
“It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognisable form without a spiritual base.”
The spiritual life of the engaged atheist can be as tumultuously rich as anything rooted in religion.
But disbelief in religion shouldn’t blind us to the huge contribution and inspiration of Christians — and Jews, Muslims and people of all religions — to the struggle synonymous with the legacy of Daniel Berrigan to cleanse the world of evil, oppression and violence.