Daniel Berrigan, a Leader of Peaceful Opposition to Vietnam War, Inspired a Generation of Activists

At a funeral mass in New York City, Berrigan, who was jailed for destroying draft office files, was hailed as an enemy to both church and state during the Vietnam War era.

ITHACA, NY - CIRCA 1970: Daniel Berrigan at Cornell University circa 1970 in Ithaca, New York. (Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images)
ITHACA, NY - CIRCA 1970: Daniel Berrigan at Cornell University circa 1970 in Ithaca, New York. (Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images) Photo: PL Gould/Getty Images

Daniel Berrigan was many things — Jesuit priest, poet, teacher, fine cook, good listener, radical thinker, antiwar activist, pacifist. And, for his opposition to the Vietnam War, he was considered an enemy of both state and church.

Of everything he wrote, including more than 40 books, these words stand out as the most memorable and most emblematic of his life: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. … 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?”

That is what Berrigan said in May 1968 as he and his brother, the late Philip Berrigan, and seven other activists, most of them nuns and priests, burned draft files they had just removed from the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and waited for police to arrive to arrest them. These words appear in Berrigan’s most famous writing, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a play based on the transcript of the trial. It has been staged throughout the world.

When Berrigan’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth McAllister, read those words at his funeral mass today, the more than 1,000 people in attendance at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in New York City responded with a thunderous and sustained standing ovation. They had come from near and far to say farewell. For many of them, these words he spoke at Catonsville had moved them into civil disobedience and resistance many years ago.

By the time Berrigan went to Catonsville, he had become the most visible embodiment of something that had not been seen before: Catholic priests who publicly opposed a war in which the United States was engaged. In response to his calls for an end to the war, top church officials sent him away from the U.S., and a top government official lied about him in congressional testimony that was designed to paint him as a bomber and kidnapper. Ultimately these extraordinary efforts, by church and state, failed to silence Berrigan. After exile abroad and imprisonment at home, he remained a strong voice against war and other violence, official and unofficial, until his death last week at age 94.

The actions that publicly defined Berrigan — non-violent resistance to the Vietnam War and to the use of nuclear weapons — were born in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the historic international gathering of bishops convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, who was very similar to Pope Francis. The council’s actions, which included a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism, were considered radical in the post-World War II Catholic Church. One of the council’s reforms urged Catholics to work for peace, including with people outside the church. The church hierarchy in America refused to accept that mandate at first. Berrigan, however, was eager to work for peace.

With his brother Philip and others, Daniel Berrigan helped establish the Catholic peace movement, a very large and amorphous group located primarily throughout the Northeast and northern Midwest. Officials in both the church and the government saw the movement as dangerous.

Francis Cardinal Spellman — the archbishop of New York, the most powerful Catholic official in the United States, and the most visible symbol of the U.S. Catholic Church’s strong official support for the Vietnam War — staunchly opposed the peace movement, especially the participation of Catholics in it. In the earliest days of American involvement in Vietnam, in fact, Spellman was one of the leading voices outside government who urged the U.S. to go to war there.

Deeply angered by Berrigan’s public calls for peace, Spellman in 1965 ordered Berrigan’s Jesuit superiors to exile him to Latin America and ordered him to stop engaging in peace work. The Jesuits did so and kept the priest’s whereabouts a secret. When Berrigan was permitted to return to the U.S. several months later, he and his supporters defiantly marched for peace in New York City, stopping to pray in front of churches and synagogues, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Cardinal Spellman presided.

In 1970, Spellman’s friend and ally inside the government in matters of protest and war, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, took the extraordinary step of publicly and falsely accusing Daniel and Philip Berrigan of conspiring to blow up tunnels under federal buildings in Washington, D.C., and to kidnap President Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Hoover did this despite knowing that FBI investigators and Department of Justice officials had officially concluded there was no such conspiracy. But to save Hoover’s reputation after his public comments, Justice officials convinced a grand jury to bring charges against Philip Berrigan and others; Daniel Berrigan was named an unindicted co-conspirator. The 1972 trial ended in a hung jury.

For a while, Hoover succeeded in recasting the public image of the Berrigans and the Catholic peace movement into a group of violent extremists. The effort helped Hoover get the extra $14.5 million he wanted from Congress that year to hire a thousand new agents he said were needed because of the crisis created by these activists. But that effort backfired. Within the bureau, these new agents were known as “the Berrigan 1,000” because they resisted spying on political dissidents and asked to be assigned instead to organized crime and other criminal cases — areas of investigation in which, strangely, Hoover had little interest.

It was the writings of Daniel Berrigan that inspired William Davidon, a physics professor at Haverford College, to think of breaking into an FBI office in 1971 to search for evidence of whether Hoover’s FBI was suppressing dissent. That break-in, conducted at great risk by Davidon and seven other people who called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, led to the historic revelations of Hoover’s widespread suppression of dissent. Years later, Davidon said, “I don’t think I would have even considered such steps had it not been for Dan Berrigan.” Those steps ultimately led, in 1975, to the first congressional investigations of all intelligence agencies and to the establishment of the first permanent congressional oversight of such agencies.

Berrigan was both fierce and gentle. I saw those qualities the first time I met him — for an interview for the Washington Post while he was living in the underground. By that time, early August 1970, he had been moving from place to place for four months, sheltered in friends’ homes in both rural and urban areas. The day before the interview I drove from Washington to New York and waited at a friend’s house on Staten Island for a promised call from an unidentified person. It came the following afternoon. I was told to take a ferry to Manhattan. As I got off the ferry, I was met by someone I didn’t know and driven by him to an address in Manhattan I didn’t know. He drove in circuitous ways so I would not know where I was. That was unnecessary, for I was completely unfamiliar with Manhattan then.

(Original Caption) 8/11/1970- Providence, RI- The Reverand Daniel J. Berrigan is taken into the Federal Building in Providence on August 11th, after he was found at a summer home on Block Island. Berrigan, convicted of burning draft records, went underground in April, to avoid imprisonment on the draft-burning conviction.

Daniel Berrigan is taken into the Federal Building in Providence on Aug. 11, 1970, after he was found at a summer home on Block Island.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
The interview, in an apartment, went well. Berrigan explained why he had chosen to escape to the underground. He was determined, like his brother Philip and others in the Catonsville Nine, to refuse, as long as he could, the punishment of the war makers. In doing so, he also hoped to draw more attention to the tragic mistake of continuing the war. At one point as we talked, shots rang out in the street outside the apartment building. He smiled. I did not. Two weeks later he was arrested at the home of his friend William Stringfellow on Block Island. One of the iconic photographs of Daniel Berrigan is of him handcuffed but smiling brightly as the two agents are looking grim.

Berrigan’s opposition to all violence, no matter the source, was evident in a letter he wrote to the Weather Underground in 1970, after three members of the group were killed when a bomb exploded in a house where some of them were living in Greenwich Village. He wrote the letter while living in the underground. The letter demonstrates his consistent condemnation of violence by both the government and the peace movement. Like Davidon, he was deeply concerned about the fact that a fragment of the antiwar movement, out of deep despair that the war had continued for years, was engaging in violence. The letter began, “Dear Brothers and Sisters”:

How shall we speak … to the people? We must never refuse, in spite of their refusal of us, to call them our brothers. I must say to you as simply as I know how: if the people are not the main issue, there simply is no main issue and you and I are fooling ourselves. … No principle is worth the sacrificing of a single human being. That’s a very hard statement. At various stages of the movement some have acted as if almost the opposite were true, as people got purer and purer. …

… When madness is the acceptable public state of mind, we’re all in danger … for madness is an infection in the air. And I submit that we all breathe the infection and that the movement has at times been sickened by it too. … In or out of the military, in or out of the movement, it seems to me that we had best call things by their name, and the name of this thing, it seems to me, is the death game, no matter where it appears. And as for myself, I would as soon be under the heel of former masters as under the heel of new ones. …

… I feel at your side across the miles, and I hope that sometime in this mad world … it will be possible for us to … find that our hopes and our sweat, and the hopes and sweat and death and tears and blood of our brothers and sisters throughout the world, have brought to birth that for which we began. Shalom to you.

Asked in 2008 to reflect on his lifetime of lectures on peace, hundreds of poems for peace, and a long rap sheet of arrests for participating in peace protests, Berrigan assessed its meaning with these words: “The good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere. I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don’t know where. … I have never been seriously interested in the outcome. I was interested in trying to do it humanely and carefully and nonviolently and let it go.”

The Jesuits have come a long way since the days when they obeyed Cardinal Spellman’s order for Berrigan to be exiled to Latin America. Jesuit priests presided at his funeral mass today and spoke repeatedly of justice and peace, and of what they had learned from him. One of his close friends, Father Steve Kelly, who is based in California, gave the homily. The audience laughed and applauded when Kelly evoked Hoover’s ghost. After welcoming friends and family to the service, Kelly also welcomed the FBI agents who had been “assigned here today to validate that it is Daniel Berrigan’s funeral mass … so they can complete and perhaps close their files.”

Betty Medsger is the author of “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.”

Top photo: Daniel Berrigan speaking at Cornell University in 1970.

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