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Daniel Berrigan and Non-Violence

May 10, 2016


Last week Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. passed away at the age of 94. Though many younger Catholics might not remember him, Fr. Berrigan was one of the most provocative and controversial religious figures of his time. Standing in the tradition of principled non-violence proposed by Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and others, Berrigan led the charge against America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict and its on-going participation in the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. He was most famous, of course, for his leadership of the “Catonsville Nine,” a group of protestors who, in the spring of 1968, broke into a building and burned draft records with homemade napalm. To say that he was, during that tumultuous time in American history, a polarizing figure would be an understatement.

I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Fr. Berrigan when he came to Mundelein Seminary in the mid 1990’s. By that time, he was in his seventies, and much of the fire-brand quality that so marked him in his prime had evanesced. I found him very quiet and ruminative. I asked him about the film The Mission, in which he played a small role. As you might recall, that great movie ends ambiguously. When the peaceful and religiously vibrant mission was being forcibly closed by corrupt powers, Robert De Niro’s character, a Jesuit priest, resisted violently, while Jeremy Irons’s character, also a Jesuit priest, resisted non-violently, holding up the Blessed Sacrament in the midst of his people. Since both men were killed, and the mission destroyed, the film doesn’t really decide which of them was “correct;” rather it shows two paths, and invites the viewers to make up their own minds. Well, I asked Daniel Berrigan what he thought of the ending, and he said, with a bit of a weary smile, that it reflected the director’s views not his own. I took him to mean that he didn’t fully approve of the unresolved tension between the two paths of resistance to evil, preferring a clear endorsement of non-violence.   

Not many years after I met Fr. Berrigan, I heard Cardinal Francis George speak at the University of Notre Dame. In the course of a question and answer period, he was asked about the theory and practice of non-violent resistance. The Cardinal gave an answer that I had never heard before and frankly have never heard since, namely, that the Church needs pacifists the same way it needs celibates, in order to witness to the eschaton even now in the midst of a fallen world. At the consummation of all things, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage, for marriage will have been transfigured into a mode of love intimate beyond our imagination. The celibacy of clergy and religious here below witnesses to this strange and beguiling state of affairs, which is why it always seems to the citizens of the fallen world a little “off.” In a very similar manner, the Cardinal was implying, those who live in radical non-violence even now bear witness to that time beyond time when “the lion will lie down with the lamb” and when “men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” “Now,” Cardinal George went on, “just as I don’t want everyone to be celibate, I don’t want everyone to be a pacifist!” He meant that it would be irresponsible for police departments, standing armies, and rightly constituted political authorities utterly to eschew violence, since this would be tantamount to a renunciation of their responsibility to protect the innocent. He was, of course, speaking out of the venerable Catholic tradition of just war, which teaches that, under certain stringent conditions, war is permitted so as to secure justice and security.

What I particularly appreciated about Cardinal George’s intervention was the deft manner in which he exhibited the Catholic both/and in regard to this famously controverted issue. Even as we hold to the legitimacy of violence under prescribed circumstances, so we hold to the legitimacy of non-violent forms of resistance, again, under the right circumstances. And to give the advocates of pacifism their due, non-violence is not tantamount to passivity or dreamy resignation in the face of evil. What becomes eminently clear in the social action of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and John Paul II is that pacifism can constitute a massively efficacious means of battling evil and bringing about real change. Precisely by living now as we will all live in the eschaton, advocates of non-violence plant the seeds of eternal life in the soil of the fallen world.

In point of fact, Cardinal George’s clarification is in rather striking accord with the ending of The Mission. The Catholic tradition sides unambiguously with neither Jesuit, and it stands ready to affirm both Jesuits—again according to circumstances. And therefore is it appropriate to honor the radical and prophetic non-violence advocated by Fr. Berrigan? Absolutely—as long as we affirm, at the same time, that we don’t want everyone to be Fr. Berrigan.