November 3, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Fathers Phil and Dan Berrigan were anti-war activists in the 1960s

John F. FinkLast week, I wrote about some of the ways our country and Church changed during the 1960s, one of the most tumultuous decades in U.S. history. This was also the period when the controversial Vietnam War was taking place. This week, I’ll write about some Catholics’ opposition to this war—specifically, about the Berrigan brothers.

Philip and Daniel Berrigan were both priests—Phil a Josephite and Dan a Jesuit. Phil began their symbolic acts against the war on Oct. 27, 1967, when he and three others sneaked into a draft board office in Baltimore and poured blood, some of it their own, on some draft files. The blood was supposed to conflate Christ’s sacrifice on the cross with the lives sacrificed in the war. Phil was sentenced to six years in prison for that act.

However, on May 17, 1968, while Phil was out on bail, both brothers and seven others broke into another draft board office, in Catonsville, Md., and seized some 600 files that they burned in the parking lot, using napalm. Then they waited to be arrested, hoping to dramatize the connections they saw between resistance to the Vietnam War and Christ’s passion.

This ignited “the Catholic Left,” composed mainly of anti-war clergy, nuns and laity associated with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement, aided by the writings of Thomas Merton. They staged more than 100 raids in various parts of the country.

The Catonsville Nine were tried in Baltimore. During the trial, Dan Berrigan, a gifted poet and writer, took notes that he turned into a play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. It ran for 29 days on Broadway. The defendants were sentenced to up to three-and-a-half years in prison.

After an appeal failed, five of them, including the Berrigans, went underground, immediately being put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. Phil surrendered in two weeks, but Dan was a fugitive for another four months, appearing from time to time in his black sweater and beret at anti-war rallies. He was eventually captured in Rhode Island and sent to prison for two years.

Meanwhile, Phil, while in prison, was discovered exchanging letters with a nun, Sister Elizabeth McAlister, about blowing up steam tunnels under the Pentagon. Their trial ended in a hung jury, but the news leaked out that Phil and Liz had “married” in a private exchange of vows (later renewed in Danbury prison with Dan as a witness).

The Berrigan brothers were to continue their protests against war after their release from prison, even after the Vietnam War was over. In 1980, they organized the Ploughshares Movement. That year, too, they and six others hammered on two nose cones at a G.E. missile plant and poured blood on documents. Ten years of trials and appeals followed, but they didn’t go back to prison.

Phil died on Dec. 6, 2002. Dan went on to teach poetry at Fordham University and assisted AIDS patients, but always remained an activist. Besides protesting nuclear war, he was a pro-life activist and an opponent of capital punishment. He died on April 30, 2016. †

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