Daniel Berrigan: Forty Years After Catonsville

Daniel Berrigan: Forty Years After Catonsville

Daniel Berrigan: Forty Years After Catonsville

In this 2008 interview, neither time nor age had blunted Berrigan’s fierce critique of American empire and his radical interpretation of the Gospels.


Forty years ago this month, Father Daniel Berrigan walked into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, with eight other activists, including his brother, Father Philip Berrigan, and removed draft files of young men who were about to be sent to Vietnam. The group carted the files outside and burned them in two garbage cans with homemade napalm. Father Berrigan was tried, found guilty, spent four months as a fugitive from the FBI, was apprehended and sent to prison for eighteen months.

Father Berrigan, unbowed at 87, sat primly in a straight-backed wooden chair as the afternoon light slanted in from the windows, illuminating the collection of watercolors and religious icons on the walls of his small apartment in upper Manhattan. Time and age have not blunted this Jesuit priest’s fierce critique of the American empire or his radical interpretation of the Gospels. There would be many more “actions” and jail time after his release from prison, including a sentence for his illegal entry into a General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on September 9, 1980, with seven other activists, where they poured blood and hammered on Mark 12A warheads.

“This is the worst time of my long life,” he said with a sigh. “I have never had such meager expectations of the system. I find those expectations verified in the paucity and shallowness every day I live.”

The trial of the Catonsville Nine altered resistance to the Vietnam War, moving activists from street protests to repeated acts of civil disobedience, including the burning of draft cards. It also signaled a seismic shift within the Catholic Church, propelling radical priests and nuns led by the Berrigans, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day to the center of a religiously inspired social movement that challenged not only church and state authority but the myths Americans used to define themselves.

“Dorothy Day taught me more than all the theologians,” he says of the founder of the pacifist Catholic Worker Movement. “She awakened me to connections I had not thought of or been instructed in, the equation of human misery and poverty and warmaking. She had a basic hope that God created the world with enough for everyone, but there was not enough for everyone and warmaking.”

Berrigan’s relationship with Day led to a close friendship with the writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Merton’s “great contribution to the religious left,” he says, “was to gather us for days of prayer and discussion of the sacramental life. He told us, ‘Stay with these, stay with these, these are your tools and discipline and these are your strengths.'”

“He could be very tough,” Berrigan says of Merton. “He said you are not going to survive America unless you are faithful to your discipline and tradition.”

Merton’s death at 53 a few weeks after the trial left Berrigan “deaf and dumb.” “I could not talk or write about him for ten years,” he says. “He was with me when I was shipped out of the country, and he was with me in jail. He was with his friend.”

The distractions of the world are for him just that–distractions. The current election campaign does not preoccupy him, and he quotes his brother, Philip, who said that “if voting made any difference it would be illegal.” He is critical off the Catholic Church, saying that Pope John Paul II, who marginalized and silenced radical priests and nuns like the Berrigans, “introduced Soviet methods into the Catholic Church,” including “anonymous delations, removals, scrutiny and secrecy and the placing of company men into positions of great power.” He estimates that “it is going to take at least a generation to undo appointments of John Paul II.” He despairs of universities, especially Boston College’s decision last year to give an honorary degree to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and this year to invite the new Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, to address the law school. “It is a portrayal of shabby lives as exemplary and to be honored,” he says. And he has little time for secular radicals who stood with him forty years ago but who have now “disappeared into the matrix of money and regular jobs or gave up on their initial discipline.”

“The short fuse of the American left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life,” he says. “It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognizable form without a spiritual base.”

All empires, Berrigan cautions, rise and fall. It is the religious and moral values of compassion, simplicity and justice that endure and alone demand fealty. The current decline of American power is part of the cycle of human existence, although he says ruefully, “the tragedy across the globe is that we are pulling down so many others. We are not falling gracefully. Many, many people are paying with their lives for this.”

“The fall of the towers [on 9/11] was symbolic as well as actual,” he adds. “We are bringing ourselves down by a willful blindness that is astonishing.”

Berrigan argues that those who seek a just society, who seek to defy war and violence, who decry the assault of globalization and degradation of the environment, who care about the plight of the poor, should stop worrying about the practical, short-term effects of their resistance.

“The good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere,” he says. “I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don’t know where. I don’t think the Bible grants us to know where goodness goes, what direction, what force. I have never been seriously interested in the outcome. I was interested in trying to do it humanly and carefully and nonviolently and let it go.”

“We have not lost everything because we lost today,” he adds.

A resistance movement, Berrigan says, cannot survive without the spiritual core pounded into him by Merton. He is sustained, he said, by the Eucharist, his faith and his religious community.

“The reason we are celebrating forty years of Catonsville and we are still at it, those of us who are still living—the reason people went through all this and came out on their feet—was due to a spiritual discipline that went on for months before these actions took place,” he says. “We went into situations in court and in prison and in the underground that could easily have destroyed us and that did destroy others who did not have our preparation.”

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