The Life and Witness of Dan Berrigan

It will surprise some that I have a certain admiration for the late Father Daniel Berrigan, the controversial Catholic peace activist who was born 100 years ago this month, and died just five years ago.

Certainly, I differed with much of Father Berrigan’s world view. But I’ve long felt—a feeling further affirmed when I read Jim Forest’s 2017 Berrigan biography, “At Play in the Lion’s Den”—that our goals, from a Catholic perspective, were not so different.

Father Berrigan believed that living the Gospel of Christ required working for peace and justice, and consistently opposing war, violence, oppression, and injustice. So do I—although I could never lay claim to the courage and sacrifice he lived in service to those beliefs, and that made him an icon to some and a pariah to others, within and outside the Church.

We differed not on those worthy objectives, but on how to get there—how best to achieve peace with justice, how best to alleviate poverty and human suffering, and which systems—economic, social, political—best advance human flourishing amid the trials of our earthly journey.  

Dan Berrigan rejected Catholic just war teaching—which is not obligatory for Catholics—holding that no war could be just, given the wanton destruction and untold suffering war inevitably visits upon not only combatants, but whole populations. In living that belief, he demonstrated that true pacifism is not passivity. He acted to protest war and injustice, spending time in prison and in dangerous war zones to draw attention to what he saw as the immorality of weapons production, arms sales, and military conflict.

I too deplore arms profiteering, and the dangers of the military industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned about. But I also recognize that in a dangerous world, military preparedness is necessary to maintain the peace. “Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”

I accept just war teaching, properly understood. That teaching requires not simply an immediate “just cause,” as many Catholics mistakenly believe. It involves a wide range of requirements that must be met, both in the decision to go to war and in the subsequent conduct of the war, before it can be deemed “just” according to Catholic teaching.

Understanding that war, even for just cause, is fraught with untold suffering and unintended consequences—an “adventure with no return,” in St. John Paul II’s words—I appreciate that Catholic peace activists like Dan Berrigan ceaselessly call us—even when we feel forced to fight for a just cause—to the urgency of seeking peaceful solutions to human conflicts.

I found problematic the contrast between Father Berrigan’s characterization of America as aggressively imperialistic, and his embrace of “people’s movements” in Vietnam, Central America and elsewhere that were in fact violent revolutions sponsored by the imperialist Communist regimes of China and the Soviet Union.

And, while he courageously condemned subsequent repression by the Marxist governments those revolutions produced—drawing the wrath of some of his fellow peace activists—he seemed unable to grasp that such oppression is inherent in Marxism, whose core principles include violent repression of all dissent.

But I admired Berrigan’s consistency—a consistency the Catholic left often demands of the pro-life movement, but seldom demonstrates itself. Dan Berrigan was different. He did not just oppose abortion with lip service, he opposed it as he opposed war—with direct action. Indeed, when the Vietnam war ended, Forest writes, Berrigan appealed to peace activists “to focus their energies on saving unborn lives from abortion.”

That did not happen, of course. Too many in the peace movement were pro-abortion— “Abortion,” Berrigan told Forest, “is the one form of killing humans that most pacifists now support”—and even among those who were pro-life, there was a reluctance to alienate those who were not. Berrigan himself did not ultimately make it his priority issue. But he did speak out, forcefully and repeatedly, against the injustice of abortion; and, as with his anti-war activism, he backed up his words with action, getting arrested for trying to protect the unborn by blocking access to abortion clinics.

Among his arguments against abortion were that it would lead to euthanasia. And he backed up that conviction, too, with action, volunteering in hospice care to provide love and comfort—and the peace of Christ—to destitute patients dying of cancer, helping them experience true death with dignity.

I also admired his courage in the face of those—including among his fellow Jesuits—who, while claiming to share his anti-war views, were embarrassed or made uncomfortable by his activism, and rebuked him for it.   

Pro-life activists have experienced similar rebuke, from within and outside the Church, by those who are happy to identify as pro-life as long as it doesn’t require any personal risk or sacrifice. Not everyone is called to direct action, to civil disobedience and arrest, to jeopardizing their livelihoods or social standing. But we should honor those who have the courage to take such risks and make such sacrifices; not vilify them because they disturb our comfort level.  

Finally, I admired Father Berrigan for his fidelity to his priestly vows, through a turbulent time when so many forsook those vows.

So I am grateful for Dan Berrigan’s lifelong witness: to his priesthood; to the sanctity of every human life; to nonviolent resistance to, not just lip service against, injustice.

I am grateful because his witness challenges me—even when I reach different conclusions than he did—to never stop discerning how best to apply the teachings of Jesus in service to life and justice.

Published by Rick Hinshaw

I have spent the last three decades in primarily Catholic communications work: as a reporter, news editor, columnist, and for eight years editor of The Long Island Catholic; several years as co-host and co-producer of The Catholic Forum program on the diocesan Telecare channel; two stints as Director of Communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and a year as Associate Director for Communications at the New York State Catholic Conference. I also served for three years as Public Information Officer for the late Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, a staunchly Catholic and active pro-life leader. Over that more than 30-year career, I have gained an ever deeper understanding of and appreciation for the moral and social teachings of our Church. In my various roles I have lent my voice to articulating those teachings and their applicability to the critical issues of our time. That is what I intend to do with this blog. Moreover, at a time when our political and social disagreements seem to have degenerated into constant vitriol, vilification, verbal abuse and intolerance of those who hold differing opinions, I hope that this blog can contribute, in some small way, to a restoration of respectful debate and discussion, where we can defend our beliefs forcefully without demonizing any who disagree with us. As a Catholic commentator, that is what I have always striven to do--remembering that even as we are called to stand firmly in defense of our Church, her teachings, and our right to be heard in the public square, we are also called always to be the face of Christ to the world--most especially to those with whom we disagree.

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