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The Priest Who Practiced Radical Direct Action: Father Daniel J. Berrigan

By Bernardine Dohrn

Father Daniel Berrigan
Father Daniel Berrigan. Photo credit: Flickr user Jim Forest

In 1970, we received a “Letter from the Underground” from Father Daniel Berrigan, printed in the New York Review of Books. It was a note from a comrade, for Dan too was a “most wanted” fugitive from the FBI and federal law enforcement officials at that time. A Jesuit priest, an acclaimed poet, a committed anti-war activist, his “Letter” was delivered, as was much communication then, not by mail or (landline) telephone, but via the media.

Father Dan wrote that “Outlawry is the normal condition in which decent men and women are called upon to live today.” Dan and his brother, Father Philip Berrigan, and Mary Moylan, were three of the Catonsville Nine activists who broke into a local draft board office in Maryland in 1968, and then carried paper draft files out into the parking lot where they set them on fire with homemade napalm. Their federal trial was an appeal to higher law, God’s law, and Nuremberg responsibility. The defendants were found guilty of destruction of US property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interfering with the Selective Service Act of 1967.  They were sentenced to a total of eighteen years in prison, Father Dan to three years.

Dan Berrigan refused to report to prison, and during his time “underground” he repeatedly appeared publically to conduct church sermons or to give anti-war speeches, further infuriating FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. His was both a playful “underground” and a passionately moral one. He wrote, of the Catonsville action: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children...”

The Weather Underground responded with a much less eloquent “communiqué” to “Brother Dan,” just after he was arrested in 1970. “We watched you, Dan, on TV when they took you to jail, smiling and with hands raised, handcuffed, giving the sign of peace. You have refused the corruption of your generation.

Mary Moylan would pursue her own path as a fugitive, joining the women of the WUO for a brief period. Phil Berrigan served six years in federal prison, often in solitary confinement; Dan served a year and a half. Their courageous direct actions against the Vietnam War became a catalyst for lay Catholic activism against the military draft and the machinery of war that mushroomed to include some twenty draft board break-ins across the country, and the 1971 “burglary” of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. This creative, bold activism against US military aggression, powerfully told in the documentary Hit and Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance (by Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk), took place during an era when the Catholic Archbishops of New York City, Cardinal Francis Spellman and Cardinal Terence Cooke, were vehement anti-communists and outspoken champions of the Vietnam War.

Like many, Dan Berrigan did not stop with the dramatic defeat of the US military in Vietnam. Father Dan and most of his early cohorts accelerated and refined their radical, non-violent, very direct action, anti-war activism. In tandem with the yeasty Catholic activism of Central and Latin American liberation theology, the Berrigans and the vibrant US Catholic peace movement began to focus on abolishing nuclear weapons and forged the Ploughshares Movement. 

In 1980, the Berrigan brothers and six friends broke into the memorably named King of Prussia, Pennsylvania nuclear missile factory owned by General Electric and took ball-peen hammers to the warhead cones. The militants poured their own blood over the war materials and then waited for the police to arrive. This time, the legal battle raged over a decade, and Father Berrigan served some twenty-three months, including time in detention awaiting trial. In total, Dan Berrigan spent seven years incarcerated for his direct action activism against U.S. wars. The wars he opposed themselves amount to a litany of carnage, war crimes, and the human agony of permanent war: Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Palestine (after visiting the Middle East, he accused Israel of “militarism” and the “domestic repression” of Palestinians), Afghanistan, Guantánamo torture, and CIA drone attacks. He has been a consistent opponent of all forms of social inequality in the US—and of the tyranny of his own Jesuit order.

No modern war can be just, because it’s indiscriminate and because it’s launched against the people and the world…Man is at war with the global ecosystem and with his fellow man, and I denounce it.” 

Dan Berrigan extended and made contemporary the fervor of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker movement, liberation theology, and the Christian anarchist movement. His art, his intellectual depth, his training could not predict his lifelong practice of refusing to let his life be a mockery of his values. He acted with his teams, and with imagination and focus. He was willing, even insistent, on taking the consequences of his defiant and illegal actions. He remained an active rebel within his Jesuit order and his church, and within his own country, challenging its ongoing, rapacious addiction to warfare. 

Father Dan, Presente. 


About the Author 

Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, international child rights and women’s advocate, is retired Clinical Associate Professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and founding director of the Children and Family Justice Center for twenty-four years. Dohrn is an author/co-editor of three books: Race Course: Against White Supremacy; A Century of Juvenile Justice; Zero Tolerance:  Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Our Schools. Dohrn was a Lecturer at the University of Chicago (where she graduated from the College and Law School) and is visiting professor, Leiden University faculty of law, the Netherlands.