To wed, even for a day, one’s beliefs with corresponding acts is perhaps the most difficult, dangerous, and noble endeavor any person can undertake. This is all the more so when said convictions run counter to the given order, laws, and culture of the age. To integrate one’s principles in such a fashion over the course of a lifetime is thus at the very least extraordinary, if not sublime. Exactly such an endeavor, however, has been the life’s work of Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who now enters the ninth decade of his life as vital as ever. Along with his brother Philip, a former Josephite priest who has spent 10 of his last 30 years in federal prisons for various acts of civil disobedience (and who is currently serving a two-year stint in Ohio for “vandalizing” a Navy guided missile destroyer), Daniel has for the past 40 years strived, regardless of personal cost, to force America to live up to its ideals and to forge a new, higher, and truly spiritual consciousness unto this land which, for some reason, never tires of calling itself “Christian.” In the process, like few before them, the Berrigan brothers have scandalized church as well as state, drawing the wrath of both—a revealing and interesting double whammy if there ever was one.
Indeed, in what would set off one of the most disgraceful judicial actions of the past century, the brothers Berrigan drove the normally staid and silently vicious J. Edgar Hoover into a state of frenzy. With no evidence other than some purloined personal letters and the word of a paid F.B.I. convict informant, and in direct violation of the Bill of Rights, the F.B.I. king publicly denounced them at a U.S. Senate hearing, thus successfully forcing their indictments as leaders of a conspiracy to kidnap then Presidential Advisor (and hopefully future convicted war criminal) Henry Kissinger. That Hoover came close to succeeding—despite the fact that at the time of the alleged conspiracy both Daniel and Philip were imprisoned (for invading a Baltimore Selective Service Office and ritualistically burning hundreds of draft cards)—was nothing short of disturbing. (See The F.B.I. and the Berrigans: the Making of a Conspiracy, by Jack Nelson and Ronald Ostrow.) The brothers, however, prevailed.
The fifth of six sons of a German mother and an Irish father, Daniel was born in 1921 in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and raised in upstate New York. Accepted by the Jesuit order at 18 and ordained as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church at 27, Berrigan had his first brush with activism while living among the Worker Priests movement of France in the mid-1940s. Two decades later, Berrigan’s own activism against the war and for the poor found him exiled to South America by superiors in his own Jesuit order. The exile ended due to a sustained public outcry by Berrigan’s supporters, and upon his return his activism dramatically increased, as did his arrests and imprisonments. After the Vietnam War ended, the brothers Berrigan soon founded the Plowshares Movement, and they continue to lead anti-nuclear protests around the country.
It’s been said that one can tell the make of a man by the company he keeps. Among Daniel’s dearest friends and allies were Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and César Chávez, to name but a few. More importantly, there is virtually no humane and intelligent movement of the last four decades—from civil rights to the death penalty, from Vietnam to the Irish Hunger Strikers, from the suffering of AIDS victims to the starvation of the children of Iraq, where Daniel has not lent his presence, his voice and, if need be, his freedom. Daniel Berrigan served two years at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut for his activities opposing the Vietnam War. Despite strident government efforts and a near fatal illness while incarcerated, Daniel was not corrected. Indeed, like his Biblical namesake, who was sent to hungry lions for refusing to obey idiot laws and kneel before human gods, Berrigan has withstood all pressure to break his will and get him to betray his beliefs. Along the way, Berrigan has also found time to become (in no particular order) a prize-winning poet, revolutionary, acclaimed playwright, fugitive, convict, professor, theologian, actor, author of 50-odd books, and always and ever the rarest form of human being: a man of almost frightening and certainly humbling integrity and a fearless, indomitable friend to those in need.
The Rail met Fr. Berrigan at his small but comfortable flat among the Jesuit Community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he’s resided for the past two decades. Asked to describe his work these days, Fr. Berrigan replied casually that he spends “lots of time writing and teaching and doing retreat work—and getting arrested, which is the one I’m proudest of.”
Tall, graceful, and capable of moving from utter seriousness to the mischievous and back again in a matter of moments, Daniel Berrigan keeps one on his toes in a most delightful and witty manner. For one who has devoted his life to the eradication of the suffering of others, Daniel Berrigan has suffered enormously and does so these days each time he contemplates that, once again, his beloved brother and friend Philip is imprisoned, that once again needless afflictions are cast upon the already afflicted, that once again the Church fails to live up to its creed, that once again America has acted barbarically. But Daniel Berrigan likes to laugh and Daniel Berrigan does so often. Above all, Daniel Berrigan believes, and in believing, acts.
Patrick Walsh (Rail): The Roman Catholic Church arguably has been both the most emancipatory and the most repressive force in Western or even world history. The same force that brought a St. Francis also yielded a Torquemada and a Borgia Pope, and in your lifetime produced both a Father Coughlin and a Dorothy Day. How would you explain that?
Daniel Berrigan: [Laughs] I’m gonna run for the john! I don’t know, but it just seems to me that this is the biggest show in town. Under that umbrella is every human species, every human exemplar, every human scoundrel, and, you know, it’s all there. And I think that it’s inevitable, that it all be there. Even though we should cringe. I never thought I would see what I’m seeing today as far as the church is concerned. I never thought that I would see Jesuits murdered around the world and this kind of Pope, and certainly in my younger years I never dreamed I would meet the likes of Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton or César Chávez or so many others. And I never dreamed of being in a (Jesuit) community of this quality. So you really run the spectrum of emotional life and hope and near despair and it’s really kind of rough at times but it’s also very wonderful. Let me give you an example of how hard it can be and how marvelous. I have a Jesuit brother in prison out of this community (Stephen Kelly S.J.) and my own brother (Philip) is in prison and that’s very tough. It’s almost beyond my vocabulary to tell you how tough it is. At the same time it’s a lifeline and it’s important and crucial to this community that this go on. It makes us all dig deeper. It makes us more serious about our place in the world as well as in the Church. And it brings home to us the pain of being human.
Rail: Has your relationship to the mainstream institutionalized church changed greatly or have you always been outside the mainstream?
Berrigan: Well, everything about the church is filtered through the Jesuits, which is a great protection and gives us (Jesuits) a lot of room. In fact, I often felt that we (Jesuits) have really as much freedom as we can stomach and some of us can’t stomach a great deal of it. But that’s our problem, not that of the Church.
Rail: What kinds of freedom do they not want to take advantage of?
Berrigan: I think that’s a very large question because it moves in so many directions. What we rejoice in most among one another is intellectual curiosity and some kind of stirring of the imagination about life today and about what we are in the scheme of things, and that’s one kind of freedom. You have to take the official rhetoric as a kind of blueprint for life and kind of work through things yourself with others. I think there is a level of trust here that’s really quite extraordinary. And then there’s this freedom from the law that I think everyone in the community honors. Not everybody gets arrested but they support those who do with all their heart.
Rail: Before its institutionalization, Christianity may well have been the first religion to grant women equal spiritual status. It seems a fact that in the formative years of the church, women served as leaders and even as bishops. And yet, over time, women became simultaneously demeaned and exalted in a way that is somehow different and weirder than a mere contradiction. The same organization that eventually worshipped the Virgin Mary and referred to itself with utter sincerity as Mother Church held that women’s place in it was small and utterly powerless and even evil.
Berrigan: Someone like myself is constantly encountering extraordinary women who feel to the marrow this kind of exclusion, or what one Jesuit called “apartheid around the altar.” And it’s a bitter pill—some take it and walk away, some take it and stand there. A friend of mine is an ordained Protestant woman who runs a retreat where I go twice a year in Pennsylvania—she’s ordained in the United Church of Christ and says the most interesting people who come to that retreat house both as presenters and as participants are Catholic women. She concludes that as ordained women there is a certain strength and virtue that comes from being at the edge rather in the center, and that Catholic women in many ways are proceeding with their own agenda, which is higher education, especially theological education, and making all sorts of liturgical innovations among themselves. In no sense could I justify what is going on from above but it seems to me that it does have certain compensations that I have tasted that in my own life. Not to be on the front end of power and privilege keeps one lean and mean. My fathers used to say, “Well boys,” he would address us oracularly, “a lean horse for a long race.” And he lived to be well over 90 and he was lean. And mean. [Laughs.]
Rail: In my experience, Catholicism seems to affect people more deeply than the other Christian sects. Do you agree?
Berrigan: Oh it does and you can’t walk abroad without ricocheting off it. I can’t say that it ever leaves one unaffected, whatever the decision, whatever the direction one takes. It’s like being a Jesuit. I mean, one can never be the same even if you walk away. It brands the soul.
Rail: James Joyce was asked if he were a Catholic and he answered, indignantly, “Oh no, I’m a Jesuit!”
Berrigan: [Laughs] What a nice saying! I once went looking for some memento of his in Clongowes, his Jesuit school in Dublin. Interestingly enough, I couldn’t find any record on the wall and I was very stirred up by this kind of ignorance and fear or dread. I love the Irish Jesuits, but somebody, or some officials, somewhere, agreed that for all these years Joyce would not be commemorated there.
Rail: You write about the “trivializing of evil and its secular counterpart, Gnostic psychoanalysis.” Could you explain that?
Berrigan: I always said during the Vietnam War that I couldn’t win because the Catholics, right till maybe 1968, were fiercely against abortion and pro-war. And when I faced a secular audience it was exactly the opposite. And I was speaking for a way that would protect the unborn as well as the adults, and that was very, very tough for quite a while. I run for the hills when psychoanalysis starts in a conversation. I love to ask these people what is their definition of a healthy person and you really can’t get very far. It all kind of squeezed into “Me, I, and Mine.” That’s not really very close to the way I see a healthy person, which I would see largely in terms of lifelines and connections.
Rail: And the things that people do in their lives, is that what you mean by lifelines and connections? A rootedness in the world?
Berrigan: Well, yeah, I would put it a little differently. I mean standing by one another—especially in cruel circumstances. It’s another point of view of non-betrayal because that’s really the style of the hour, betrayal.
Rail: But betrayal is no longer seen as betrayal. All the time I hear things like, “Well, that’s the way it is,” or get a look that says, “ O poor child you don’t yet understand the world.” As if that kind of attitude is superior to the one that you’re speaking about.
Berrigan: It seems to me it implies the same thing when it’s betraying the other by putting down these accusations of immaturity or romanticism or whatever.
Rail: What is your idea of the demonic? Is it a physical thing, a spiritual thing, or both?
Berrigan: It seems to have been crazily real to Jesus and what one is to make of it, again, I guess what we call the demonic can be psychologized out of existence. I like the Protestant theologian (William) Stringfellow’s view. He would say simply that the demonic is the spirit of death, and the pursuit of death as a social or personal goal. And when this gets into a huge apparatus like the military or the White House and those kind of monsters you’ve got the active and virulent and institutionalized pursuit of death as a goal. Get rid of some people and you’ll get rid of problems. So, let’s go.
Rail: You mean like the war machine and the death penalty?
Berrigan: All that stuff. Yes. None of it makes any sense and it makes less and less of it all the time. There’s a little bit of coming out now about Kissinger in Harper’s.
Rail: [Sarcastically] You were part of a plot to kill Kissinger, right? [Laughs.]
Berrigan: Oh no! Kidnap him. As I understand it, we were going to do a citizen’s arrest. Of course I was in prison at the time so I’m not sure how I was supposed to do it. But I thought it would have been a good idea. But it always takes a long time, doesn’t it, for anything approaching clarity or justice? A whole generation of wicked officials is dead and he’s still hanging around but…
Rail: You’ve written that “Every Christian requires the shadow or light of a Jew upon life: a presence, a Shekinah, a friendship something of the ancient blood mingling with his own, as blood parent and child mingle.” Could you talk about this?
Berrigan: Well, you could start with Jesus and go right up to my Jesuit friend Steve Kelly who’s in prison, in fact in solitary. He and my brother Philip and two others poured their blood on depleted uranium shells in Maryland. But I brought Kelly up because I was around him a good deal. I’m missing this guy who really is quite a number and everything about him, his body language, his sense of humor, gestures, and all that stuff wasn’t Irish at all. And I’m sort of watching this guy and listening to him and I said, “Kelly, what is it with this name Kelly? You’re not Irish at all. You’re Jewish.” And he said, “You know I was adopted by the Kellys,” right? Now I think there’s a certain continuity here about the people I’m attracted to, the people that’ll walk with me. It’s very Jewish. It’s very single minded. Even the guards down there in Maryland, they have this kind of grudging admiration for this guy. “Hey, he don’t give in, does he?” And, of course, we know Kelly very well and he sure doesn’t give in. It’s not to make an ethnic thing out of it but to recognize a sort of bloodline of the spirit which I feel very deeply about and which I constantly find to be a very fine experience.
Rail: Over the last few decades you’ve spoken out frequently on behalf of rights for the Palestinians. Can you tell us about your recent observations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Berrigan: I’m not very proud of the state of Israel right now—that’s the understatement of the millennium. Recently I was at this thing right here in the city with James Carroll who’s just written this enormous tome, called The Sword of Constantine, on Jews and Catholics, Judaism and the church. Anyway he was in town, the book was making a big splash and he gave this talk and then there was this panel which included a Jewish woman and a Catholic woman and I’m sitting there in the front row because Carroll and I have been friends for 30 years and I’m listening in a stupor of disbelief because for two and a half hours the word “Palestinian” is never mentioned and this is so outrageous. He called the next day and said thanks for coming and asked what I thought of the evening and all that and I said what I just said and he agreed but I let it drop, just let it drop. I was also reading this Palestinian essay by Dr. Said and the remarkable thing about it was his sadness for the state of Israel.
Rail: How did you first encounter (Catholic Worker founder) Dorothy Day?
Berrigan: Well, we pretty much grew up with the Catholic Worker paper. It always ended up in our house somewhere, probably through relatives. But that started it. And there was a very close affinity, without anyone ever formulating it between the ethos of the paper and the way we were living, that “we” being my mother. The open door policy and the hungry man at the table and people overnight, and for longer periods during the depression. Now as far as meeting her, I was teaching in Jersey and I would bring students over to the Worker. That was in the late ‘40s and she was still very vigorous and youthful. I was sort of on the edge of things but then I came back after being in Europe for a while and started teaching in Brooklyn and then I got very close to her, bringing students to her.
Rail: Where in Brooklyn?
Berrigan: A Jesuit school called Brooklyn Prep which is now Medgar Evers College. This was around the time of Pope John (XXIII) in the early ‘60s when those encyclicals came out (Peace on Earth and Christianity and Social Programs). Dorothy was really so moved and exalted by those writings. I was teaching them in college by then. And we got together in the city here and had a panel on the Upper West Side here on Pope John and his writings, his worldview and all that. So that was very nice and I felt honored to be in her presence, yapping away. Then she came to my college and we had a community going called the International House, I was living with the students and we had built a chapel in the basement. We were having liturgies that were held nowhere else with the table facing outward and all that. And that was a very lovely time and she came for that Mass and was a great hit with the students. I still remember that we were sitting around eating afterwards, I think ham and eggs or something like, I noticed her afterward quietly taking this cold toast and making a sandwich with the cold eggs, wrapping it in a napkin and she announced, “This is to eat on the bus on the way home.” [Laughs] And I thought this is so terrific. She was so consistent and unobtrusive. But clear.
Rail: Francis Cardinal Spellman would have been the leading relate for a lengthy period of her life and he was, to be diplomatic, very conservative. What did he make of her and did he ever actively attempt to undermine her work?
Berrigan: Well, as nearly as I remember he called Dorothy in only once and he wanted her to drop the word “Catholic” but he never gave her a direct command to do so. She later said, “If the Cardinal had said drop it, I would have dropped it.” Somehow she got him off the topic. He (Spellman) didn’t know what to make of this woman. She had him off kilter.
Rail: The Catholic worker seems a real anomaly in today’s ultra-material world—especially when there are many Catholics who are doing well financially. Can you explain how this one group manages to hold on to this tradition?
Berrigan: Well, we’re not just holding on to the tradition, it’s flourishing. They’ve doubled the number of houses they had when Dorothy was alive. They’re springing up all over the world. It’s the aversion to (traditional) Catholicism.
Patrick Walsh is a writer and contributor for the Brooklyn Rail.