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Father Daniel Berrigan, Anti-war Hero With a Huge Blindspot

Father Daniel Berrigan was legendary in the peace movement of the 1960s and early 1970s and beyond. He was a giant in terms of bringing the issues of war and peace into action and through his influential writings. He motivated untold numbers of men and women to act in accordance with their consciences in movements including the Vietnam anti-war movement and the nuclear freeze movement. And he needs to be mourned by those influenced by his acts of faith and goodwill and who were convinced to act to repair a broken world. But, Father Berrigan had a blind spot that was as big as the sky in the far West of the US.

“Despite his image as a radical leftist, Berrigan was also an outspoken opponent of abortion” (“Daniel Berrigan, leading Catholic pacifist, dead at 94,” Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse, May 1, 2016). At a Catholic parish in Milwaukee in 1984, he described his “theory of allowable murder” in society. He explained that Christians need to have no part in “abortion, war, paying taxes for war [or] disposing of people on death row or warehousing the aged.” He continued that “One cannot be pro-life and against a nuclear freeze… or be a peace activist and defend abortion.”

As Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks so eloquently: “ay, there’s the rub,” in his famous monologue about life and death, issues not so far removed from the heroic life of Daniel Berrigan. But the “rub,” or the blind spot, was indeed as big and ironic as the open sky.

Perfection is not possible for either the ordinary or the extraordinary. The blind spot of what some label as perfection is an important concept to the history of the left and the basic human right of women to have control over their own lives. And part of that control means being able to make informed decisions about whether or not to have children and how many children constitute a life worth living that is meaningful. But the hierarchy of  the Catholic Church, and many other fundamentalist and other orthodox religious persuasions don’t get it when it comes to women’s rights in general.  Their belief system is anchored in the ancient past of myth when the earth mother was the unreal and holy personification of what it meant and means to be a woman. The mythical earth mother must be firmly placed on some pedestal in the lofty climes of some heavenly abode and is certainly not of this imperfect Earth. And it can be a dangerous myth as is evidenced in the lethal outcomes of how some radical extremists interpret those myths.

But those myths are far removed from what it means to live a life with work requirements, bills, demands of a relationship, and a host of other life’s issues to which the idealized existence of the mythical earth mother has little, or absolutely no, resemblance.

Indeed, a person can be the most committed of peace activists and protesters and be firmly on the side of a woman’s right to abortion. One can be firmly opposed to state-sponsored executions and stand in solidarity with women seeking to exercise their human rights and control their own destinies. A leftist can work assiduously for the elimination of nuclear weapons and stand for the right to access medical care without the fear of being harmed by those zealots who wish to maintain that lofty and nonsensical concept of the idealized woman, and not as equals living lives that are meaningful and fulfilling.

The tributes were many to the memory and life of Daniel Berrigan over the past several days.  And indeed he needs to be remembered for his extraordinary contributions to peace and writing.

But other tributes missed a full discussion of the issues of Father Berrigan’s life. Democracy Now ran a segment titled “Jeremy Scahill Remembers His Longtime Friend, Father Daniel Berrigan: ‘The Man was a Moral Giant’” (May 3, 2016). On the same program, Bernie Sanders anti-war record is justifiably critiqued, but scant attention was paid to other aspects of his political record, including his strong support for women’s rights.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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