“How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened . . . When, at what point, will you say no to this war?”
– Daniel Berrigan, SJ
This week dealt with the complications that occur for Catholic Americans regarding their moral duty against what they perceive as unjust and the idea of patriotism during wartime. When religious identity and national identity are not aligned, Catholics are forced to make political decisions–and the results can be quite radical. Principally, after attending several events at The Hank Center’s Berrigan Week, I found many connections between the speakers and our class reading on Reverend William Au’s article, “American Catholics and the Dilemma of War, 1960-1980.”
The first event that I attended was led by Bill Wylie-Kellerman, who was a personal friend of both William Stringfellow and Dan Berrigan. Knowing very little about Catholic protesters beforehand, his description and personal anecdotes opened my eyes into the community of theologians who advocate for peace during war. In my opinion, many of these scholars and religious people are heavily influenced by the Catholic Workers Movement and Dorothy Day. Similarly, I learned about Father Daniel Berrigan’s involvement in the Catonsville Nine, which was an act of protest wherein him and 8 others broke into the United States’ draft center and burned the files of the men most vulnerable to be deployed. Symbolically, they scorched these documents with homemade Napalm. But Kellerman mostly discussed the ways in which Berrigan relied on scripture to interpret the lack of ethics within the war. Au’s statement on how the Berrigans saw Vietnam as a representation of “the fruit of what had always been the dominant values of American society,” (Au 72) became more apparent as Kellerman spoke. Moreover, Berrigan was critical of both the Republican and Democratic parties because he saw the faults of both political parties as incorrigible. His faith promoted ideas of pacifism, and he was willing to sacrifice his American freedom in the name of his Catholic freedom.
I also viewed the film Seeking Shelter: A Story of Place, Faith, and Resistance, directed by Susan Hagedorn. The documentary gave more evidence of Berrigan’s political persona within the small island community. Using the island as a hideaway from the FBI, he often hosted guests and created an environment for him and other Catholics to discuss politics in an open dialogue. Eventually, Berrigan was found and arrested in Block Island and went on to serve two years in prison. I found it fascinating how Berrigan did not discern faith and politics as separate entities. Rather, he depended on scripture, notably from the book of Revelations, and applied it to the Vietnam War. I thoroughly appreciated the forum afterward, where the audience established the need for community building during this age of political unrest. Following the film, I visited the exhibit on Daniel Berrigan and Catholic protesters, which was informative and summarized Catholic resistance efforts.
After hearing multiple stories praising Berrigan’s activism, it was refreshing to hear a critical analysis of the Catholic protest movement. Kenneth Woodward, a journalist and former Theology editor for Newsweek during the war, briefly interjected in the middle of the Berrigan Week Symposium. He posed the question of whether or not Berrigan’s efforts enhanced or inhibited the general Protest movement. Clearly, Berrigan is a prominent name in liberal Catholicism; however, he is generally unknown to the American public. I do not think he transcended religious boundaries because his legacy seems concentrated to the Catholic Left. Certainly, not all Catholics opposed the Vietnam War, and there was little said about the majority of Catholic Realists and supporters of the war during Berrigan Week. Essentially, the acts of radicals did not fully represent the way that all Catholics felt. Catholic Realists believed that preserving Western liberal democracy was “wedded to their ecclesiastical priority of preserving Catholicism as a significant part of that society” (Au 61). This explains why President JFK, a Catholic himself, entered the Vietnam War to contain communism.
Au describes how the terminology of ‘the Catholic Left’ was borne out of “the activities of the Berrigans and a growing following of peace activists who engaged in similar acts of civil disobedience” (Au 70). At the Symposium, I listened to two Catholic leftists share the ways in which they protested. First, Fred Marchant revealed that he enlisted in the Marines and opted out after seeing the horrors and mutilation of Vietnamese civilians. As a poet, he resonated with much of Berrigan’s philosophy and recalled reading The National Catholic Reporter denounce the war while he was in Vietnam. The NCR initially supported the war effort, but eventually condemned it in 1967 on the grounds that the war was ruining America as a moral symbol for the world (Au 64). The second story was extremely engaging, as it was a personal account from Kathleen ‘Cookie’ Ridolfi, a member of the Camden 28. She narrated the process of breaking into a federal building to steal draft files and being caught by the FBI. Cookie read a chilling witness testimony by the mother of one of the 28, who lost her son in Vietnam and approved of their actions. Ridolfi and Marchant failed to offer their views on the future of the Catholic Left, but their experiences left an impression on me and my peers nonetheless.
Concluding Berrigan Week, I listened to a selection of songs and poems of protesters following the Symposium. The peace songs and poems illustrated the individual turmoil that war leaves behind. Chiefly, Fred Marchant recited poems that showed how his transition out of the war was an internal battle. Peace hymns were another component that unified protesters, and I felt a spirit of solidarity when the room sang “Down by the Riverside”. In addition, Berrigan used poetry as an extension of his activism, as seen through the poem, “Children in the Shelter”:
I picked up the littlest
a boy, his face
breaded with rice (His sister calmly feeding him
as we climbed down)
In my arms, fathered
in a moment’s grace, the messiah
of all my tears. I bore, reborn
a Hiroshima child from hell.
In summary, this week solidified my suspicions on the division of Catholics surrounding the Vietnam War. Radical Catholic peace activists, like Daniel Berrigan, deserve more recognition for their powerful acts of civil disobedience. At the same time, there are many Catholics that do not endorse these actions. If I were to walk into my local parish, I could spot several Vietnam War Veterans that would defend their service for the United States. I guess the question is whether they are considered more Catholic or more American.