[Marxism] Daniel J. Berrigan, Defiant Priest Who Preached Pacifism, Dies at 94
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Sat Apr 30 18:47:42 MDT 2016
NY Times, Apr. 30 2016
Daniel J. Berrigan, Defiant Priest Who Preached Pacifism, Dies at 94
By DANIEL LEWIS
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
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
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
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
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
A really powerful blow
would bring us down like scarecrows.
Nature, knowing this, finding us mildly useful
her backhanded love of freakishness
allows us to stand.
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