Daniel J. Berrigan

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Daniel J. Berrigan

Called "the priest who stayed out in the cold" and "holy outlaw," Father Daniel J. Berrigan (born 1921) never came to terms with the conservatism of the Catholic Church or with the militarism of the American nation. He lived his life as a militant servant of the Christian faith.

Daniel Berrigan was born in Virginia, Minnesota, on May 9, 1921. His father was a socialist farmer and railroad engineer who wrote poetry and raised his six sons in the brawling, argumentative atmosphere of a small farm near Syracuse, New York. Daniel was the frailest of the boys and from childhood had determined to enter the Catholic priesthood. When he was 18 he joined the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits. In 1952, after 13 years of training ("a most unfinished man"), he was ordained a priest. His brother Philip had also become a Catholic priest, though of a different order.

"The priesthood," wrote Berrigan, was "a sheepfold for sheep." Both he and Philip were influenced deeply by the activist theology that emerged from the concentration camps and resistance movements of World War II Europe. Soon after his ordination, the Church sent Berrigan to France. It was here that he was captivated by examples of worker-socialist-priests, ideas of civil disobedience, and by the notion that his task was to bring the Church to the world.

Returning to New York in 1954, he was assigned to teach theology at the Jesuit Brooklyn Preparatory School. In 1957 he was appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. That same year he won the Lamont Prize for his book of poems Time Without Number. His personal style was that of an earnest, chubby priest with well-shined shoes and a clean, white collar. But beneath this style was the substance of a church radical who burned to alleviate poverty and to bridge the traditionally awkward relationship between priests and laypersons. Conservative students began to whisper "subversive," but others adored him.

War Protestor

He returned to France during the summer of 1963, but it was not Paris that shattered the last remnants of Berrigan's outer respectability. Instead, it was the priests and parishioners whom he visited in communist Hungary, Russia, and Czechoslovakia. Churches in the eastern nations were all but illicit, and they survived at the edge of persecution and martyrdom—an impoverished dissenting minority. This was the Church of his ideals. He returned to America in 1964 so changed that friends failed to recognize him. His face was gaunt but serene. He wore turtleneck sweaters, ski jackets, cropped hair, and a puckish smile which belied his intensity.

Almost immediately he became embroiled in protest against America's burgeoning intervention in Vietnam. He and his brother Philip were among the first Catholic priests to speak out against the war. But, like others, they soon discovered that words were inadequate to their purpose. In 1964, with pacifist David Dellinger, they helped to draft a "declaration of conscience" to urge young men to resist the draft. A year later they joined with Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and others in a coalition of churchmen called Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. Gradually both Daniel and Philip became more incensed at their own impotence to stop the war, or even to change peoples' patriotic support of the war. On October 27, 1967, a week after the famed March on the Pentagon where Daniel had been arrested, Philip Berrigan and three other men poured blood over draft records in the Baltimore, Maryland, Customs House.

Berrigan, along with Howard Zinn, a Boston University political science professor, and Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam, to receive three prisoners of war who had been released on the eve of the Tet offensive.

In May 1968 Daniel and Philip Berrigan and seven others calmly walked into the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland. Before the horrified eyes of the office clerks, they emptied the contents of draft files into wire trash baskets, carried them out to a nearby parking lot, doused them with home-made napalm, and burned them. Then they joined hands and prayed as they awaited their arrests.


The trial of the "Catonsville Nine" was a legal rite which served to draw American attention to an increasingly unpopular war, openly opposed by Roman Catholic priests and nuns. Daniel Berrigan used the event to create a dramatic play which soon was being performed all over the nation. In spite of their efforts to put the war itself on trial, the court convicted the Berrigans and gave them two-year sentences. They appealed the decision and, while free on bail, dropped from sight. Philip was captured 11 days later, but Daniel remained at liberty for four months, even making public appearances while the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chased him around the country. In August 1970 he was finally captured and sent to the Danbury, Connecticut, correctional facility. There he spent his time writing several volumes of poetry. Enraged over its own failures, the FBI accused the Berrigan brothers of conspiring to blow up parts of Washington, D.C., and of attempting to kidnap government officials. The charges were all thrown out of court in 1972.

After his release from prison in February 1972, Berrigan continued his "witness-bearing" against militarism, nuclear arms, racism, and injustice. Calling his post-Catonsville pacifist efforts "Plowshares," as in the Biblical injunction "to beat your swords into plowshares," Berrigan and his brother repeatedly pitted their freedom against the power of the state. During the late 1980s and early 90s, their protests included breaking into a defense contractor's plant to douse blood on nuclear missile nose cones, the disarming of two cruise missile launchers at a submarine construction site, and illegal entry aboard a destroyer under construction. From 1970 to 1995 Berrigan spent a total of nearly seven years in prison for various offenses related to his protests. In later years he regretted the level of American apathy and often complained that his protests received scant attention in the press.

Further Reading

Two quite similar books have been written about Daniel and Philip Berrigan: Francine DuPlessix Gray, Divine Disobedience (1970), and Richard Curtis, The Berrigan Brothers (1974). For autobiography of a sort see Daniel Berrigan, Night Flight to Hanoi (1968); The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1970); and Time Without Number (1957). For a more recent account of the Berrigans' protests see Fighting the Lamb's War: Skirmishes With the American Empire: The Autobiography of Philip Berrigan. For an imformative interview with Father Daniel Berrigan see U.S. Catholic (August, 1996). □

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