Philip Berrigan died yesterday. As a young person growing up in the Catholic faith during the 1960s and 1970s, this man, his brother and those like them were all that convinced me to give the Church a try. In the long run, their inspiration was not enough to keep me in the fold, but their moral sense guides me to this day. Philip’s consistency of moral conviction and his willingness to put his freedom on the line showed me (and many others) who saw the contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and the practice of the Catholic hierarchy, that even the Church was subject to well-deserved criticism. Nowadays, this is not much of a revelation, especially in light of the sex abuse scandal rocking the American church. In 1968, it was a revelation of a very high order, what with Cardinal O’Connor blessing the mass murder in Vietnam and parish priests blasting the rebel theologians who dared to see Jesus as a revolutionary figure who would have challenged the Vatican if he was alive.
I remember reading the Washington Post the day after the two brothers and seven of their friends poured blood and napalm on the draft board files in Catonsville, Md. My father was appalled. A military officer and a conscientious Catholic, this act must have torn at his soul. He was getting ready to go to Vietnam that year. I’m pretty certain that he had asked for, and received, some counsel from our parish priests and perhaps a military chaplain or two. From what I remember of the parish priests, chances are he was told that he must do as he was commanded. As for the military chaplains, well, I never understood how they could be in the military and in the priesthood at the same time. If Jesus was the Prince of Peace, then how the hell could they be encouraging men to go to war. There was a song that came out around that time by Eric Burdon and the Animals called “Sky Pilot.” This song pointed out that very contradiction.
As for my reaction to the Catonsville action. Let’s say I was intrigued. The boldness of it proved to me that these men and women were not wimps. After all, it required a certain amount of gall to remove files from their storage place and destroy them in front of the whole world. You knew you were facing some serious federal charges. In addition, it was nonviolent. Nobody was hurt and some information that was important to the government’s war machine had been destroyed. If only this could be done throughout the country_ maybe the entire Selective Service system would collapse.
As I became more politically involved, I understood the limitations of these types of acts. Moral witness had its purpose. It stirred the moral conscience of those citizens who had a conscience. Hopefully, it stirred these folks to take some kind of action of their own. The downside to these types of acts is that the masters of war have no conscience. Symbolic acts of conscience do nothing to change their minds. This doesn’t mean they do not have a purpose in any movement for social justice. It only means they have their limitations.
As it turned out, Philip Berrigan left the priesthood. Perhaps he too found the Catholic religion unable to support his moral convictions. In the long run, his departure from the Church made little difference to his public life. He continued fighting against war and the structure that it feeds until the end.
RON JACOBS lives in Burlington, VT. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org