[Marxism] Daniel J. Berrigan, Defiant Priest Who Preached Pacifism, Dies at 94

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 30 18:47:42 MDT 2016

NY Times, Apr. 30 2016
Daniel J. Berrigan, Defiant Priest Who Preached Pacifism, Dies at 94

Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan gave an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick’s 
Cathedral in New York, 1972. Credit William E. Sauro/The New York Times
The Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and poet whose defiant 
protests helped shape the tactics of opposition to the Vietnam War and 
landed him in prison, died on Saturday in New York City. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and 
editor at large at American magazine, a national Catholic magazine 
published by Jesuits. Father Berrigan died at Murray-Weigel Hall, the 
Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx.

The United States was tearing itself apart over civil rights and the war 
in Southeast Asia when Father Berrigan emerged in the 1960s as an 
intellectual star of the Roman Catholic “new left,” articulating a view 
that racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed were 
interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society.

It was an essentially religious position, based on a stringent reading 
of the Scriptures that some called pure and others radical. But it would 
have explosive political consequences as Father Berrigan; his brother 
Philip, a Josephite priest; and their allies took their case to the 
streets with rising disregard for the law or their personal fortunes.

A defining point was the burning of Selective Service draft records in 
Catonsville, Md., and the subsequent trial of the so-called Catonsville 
Nine, a sequence of events that inspired an escalation of protests 
across the country; there were marches, sit-ins, the public burning of 
draft cards and other acts of civil disobedience.

The catalyzing episode occurred on May 17, 1968, six weeks after the 
murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the outbreak of new 
riots in dozens of cities. Nine Catholic activists, led by Daniel and 
Philip Berrigan, entered a Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville 
and went up to the second floor, where the local draft board had 
offices. In front of astonished clerks, they seized hundreds of draft 
records, carried them down to the parking lot and set them on fire with 
homemade napalm.

Some reporters had been told of the raid in advance. They were given a 
statement that said in part, “We destroy these draft records not only 
because they exploit our young men but because they represent misplaced 
power concentrated in the ruling class of America.” It added, “We 
confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues 
of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s 

In a year sick with images of destruction, from the Tet offensive in 
Vietnam to the murder of Dr. King, a scene was recorded that had been 
contrived to shock people to attention, and did so. When the police 
came, the trespassers were praying in the parking lot, led by two 
middle-aged men in clerical collars: the big, craggy Philip, a decorated 
hero of World War II, and the ascetic Daniel, waiting peacefully to be 
led into the van.

Protests and Arrests

In the years to come, well into his 80s, Daniel Berrigan was arrested 
time and again, for greater or lesser offenses: in 1980, for taking part 
in the Plowshares raid on a General Electric missile plant in King of 
Prussia, Pa., where the Berrigan brothers and others rained hammer blows 
on missile warheads; in 2006, for blocking the entrance to the Intrepid 
naval museum in Manhattan.

“The day after I’m embalmed,” he said in 2001, on his 80th birthday, 
“that’s when I’ll give it up.”

It was not for lack of other things to do. In his long career of writing 
and teaching at Fordham and other universities, Father Berrigan 
published a torrent of essays and broadsides and, on average, a book a 
year, almost to the time of his death.

Among the more than 50 books were 15 volumes of poetry — the first of 
which, “Time Without Number,” won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize, 
given by the Academy of American Poets, in 1957 — as well as 
autobiography, social criticism, commentaries on the Old Testament 
prophets and indictments of the established order, both secular and 

While he was known for his wry wit, there was a darkness in much of what 
Father Berrigan wrote and said, the burden of which was that one had to 
keep trying to do the right thing regardless of the near certainty that 
it would make no difference. In the withering of the pacifist movement 
and the country’s general support for the fighting in Iraq and 
Afghanistan, he saw proof that it was folly to expect lasting results.

“This is the worst time of my long life,” he said in an interview with 
The Nation in 2008. “I have never had such meager expectations of the 

What made it bearable, he wrote elsewhere, was a disciplined, implicitly 
difficult belief in God as the key to sanity and survival.

Many books by and about Father Berrigan remain in print, and a 
collection of his work over half a century, “Daniel Berrigan: Essential 
Writings,” was published in 2009.

He also had a way of popping up in the wider culture: as the “radical 
priest” in Paul Simon’s song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”; as 
inspiration for the character Father Corrigan in Colum McCann’s 2009 
novel, “Let the Great World Spin.” He even had a small movie role, 
appearing as a Jesuit priest in “The Mission” in 1989.

But his place in the public imagination was pretty much fixed at the 
time of the Catonsville raid, as the impish-looking half of the Berrigan 
brothers — traitors and anarchists in the minds of a great many 
Americans, exemplars to those who formed what some called the 

After a trial that served as a platform for their antiwar message, the 
Berrigans were convicted of destroying government property and sentenced 
to three years each in the federal prison in Danbury, Conn. Having 
exhausted their appeals, they were to begin serving their terms on April 
10, 1970.

Instead, they raised the stakes by going underground. The men who had 
been on the cover of Time were now on the Federal Bureau of 
Investigation’s most-wanted list. As Daniel explained in a letter to the 
French magazine Africasia, he was not buying the “mythology” fostered by 
American liberals that there was a “moral necessity of joining illegal 
action to legal consequences.” In any case, both brothers were tracked 
down and sent to prison.

Philip Berrigan had been the main force behind Catonsville, but it was 
mostly Daniel who mined the incident and its aftermath for literary 
meaning — a process already underway when the F.B.I. caught up with him 
on Block Island, off the Rhode Island coast, on Aug. 11, 1970. There was 
“The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” a one-act play in free verse drawn 
directly from the court transcripts, and “Prison Poems,” written during 
his incarceration in Danbury.

In “My Father,” he wrote:

I sit here in the prison ward
nervously dickering with my ulcer
a half-tamed animal
raising hell in its living space

But in 500 lines the poem talks as well about the politics of 
resistance, memories of childhood terror and, most of all, the 
overbearing weight of his dead father:

I wonder if I ever loved him
if he ever loved us
if he ever loved me.

The father was Thomas William Berrigan, a man full of words and 
grievances who got by as a railroad engineer, labor union officer and 
farmer. He married Frida Fromhart and had six sons with her. Daniel, the 
fourth, was born on May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minn.

When he was a young boy, the family moved to a farm near Syracuse to be 
close to his father’s family.

In his autobiography, “To Dwell in Peace,” Daniel Berrigan described his 
father as “an incendiary without a cause,” a subscriber to Catholic 
liberal periodicals and the frustrated writer of poems of no distinction.

“Early on,” he wrote, “we grew inured, as the price of survival, to 
violence as a norm of existence. I remember, my eyes open to the lives 
of neighbors, my astonishment at seeing that wives and husbands were not 
natural enemies.”

Battles With the Church

Born with weak ankles, Daniel could not walk until he was 4. His frailty 
spared him the heavy lifting demanded of his brothers; instead he helped 
his mother around the house. Thus he seemed to absorb not only his 
father’s sense of life’s unfairness but also an intimate knowledge of 
how a man’s rage can play out in the victimization of women.

At an early age, he wrote, he believed that the church condoned his 
father’s treatment of his mother. Yet he wanted to be a priest. After 
high school he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 from St. 
Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary in Hyde Park, N.Y., and a master’s 
from Woodstock College in Baltimore in 1952. He was ordained that year.

Sent for a year of study and ministerial work in France, he met some 
worker-priests who gave him “a practical vision of the Church as she 
should be,” he wrote. Afterward he spent three years at the Jesuits’ 
Brooklyn Preparatory School, teaching theology and French, while 
absorbing the poetry of Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings and the 
19th-century Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. His own early work often 
combined elements of nature with religious symbols.

But he was not to become a pastoral poet or live the retiring life he 
had imagined. His ideas were simply turning too hot, sometimes even for 
friends and mentors like Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic 
Worker Movement, and the Trappist intellectual Thomas Merton.

At Le Moyne College in Syracuse, where he was a popular professor of New 
Testament studies from 1957 to 1963, Father Berrigan formed friendships 
with his students that other faculty members disapproved of, inculcating 
in them his ideas about pacifism and civil rights. (One student, David 
Miller, became the first draft-card burner to be convicted under a 1965 

Father Berrigan was effectively exiled in 1965, after angering the 
hawkish Cardinal Francis Spellman in New York. Besides Father Berrigan’s 
work in organizing antiwar groups like the interdenominational Clergy 
and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, there was the matter of the death of 
Roger La Porte, a young man with whom Father Berrigan said he was 
slightly acquainted. To protest American involvement in Southeast Asia, 
Mr. La Porte set himself on fire outside the United Nations building in 
November 1965.

Soon, according to Father Berrigan, “the most atrocious rumors were 
linking his death to his friendship with me.” He spoke at a service for 
Mr. La Porte, and soon thereafter the Jesuits, widely believed to have 
been pressured by Cardinal Spellman, sent him on a “fact-finding” 
mission among poor workers in South America. An outcry from Catholic 
liberals brought him back after only three months, enough time for him 
to have been radicalized even further by the facts he had found.

For the Jesuits, Father Berrigan was both a magnet to bright young 
seminarians and a troublemaker who could not be kept in any one faculty 
job too long.

At onetime or another he held faculty positions or ran programs at Union 
Seminary, Loyola University New Orleans, Columbia, Cornell and Yale. 
Eventually he settled into a long tenure at Fordham, the Jesuit 
university in the Bronx, where for a time he had the title of poet in 

Father Berrigan was released from the Danbury penitentiary in 1972; the 
Jesuits, alarmed at his failing health, managed to get him out early. He 
then resumed his travels.

After visiting the Middle East, he bluntly accused Israel of 
“militarism” and the “domestic repressions” of Palestinians. His remarks 
angered many American Jews. “Let us call this by its right name,” wrote 
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, himself a contentious figure among religious 
scholars: “old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism.”

Nor was Father Berrigan universally admired by Catholics. Many faulted 
him for not singling out repressive Communist states in his diatribes 
against the world order, and later for not lending his voice to the 
outcry over sexual abuse by priests. There was also a sense that his 
notoriety was a distraction from the religious work that needed to be done.

Not the least of his long-running battles was with the church hierarchy. 
He was scathing about the shift to conservatism under Pope John Paul II 
and the “company men” he appointed to high positions.

Much of Father Berrigan’s later work was concentrated on helping AIDS 
patients in New York City. In 2012, he appeared in Zuccotti Park in 
Lower Manhattan to support the Occupy Wall Street protest.

He also devoted himself to writing biblical studies. He felt a special 
affinity for the Hebrew prophets, especially Jeremiah, who was chosen by 
God to warn of impending disaster and commanded to keep at it, even 
though no one would listen for 40 years.

Father Berrigan seemed to reach a poet’s awareness of his place in the 
scheme of things, and that of his brother Philip, who left the 
priesthood for a married life of service to the poor and spent a total 
of 11 years in prison for disturbing the peace in one way or another 
before his death from cancer in 2002. While they both still lived, 
Daniel Berrigan wrote:

My brother and I stand like the fences
of abandoned farms, changed times
too loosely webbed against
deicide homicide
A really powerful blow
would bring us down like scarecrows.
Nature, knowing this, finding us mildly useful
indulging also
her backhanded love of freakishness
allows us to stand.

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