Berrigan, Daniel J. and Berrigan, Philip

views updated

Daniel J. Berrigan and Philip Berrigan

Daniel J. Berrigan

BORN: May 9, 1921 • Virginia, Minnesota

American activist; author; poet; priest

Philip Berrigan

BORN: October 5, 1923 • Two Harbors, Minnesota

DIED: December 6, 2002 • Baltimore, Maryland

American activist; author; priest

Daniel J. Berrigan and Philip Berrigan rose to prominence in the late 1960s as protesters of American involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75). Both were Roman Catholic priests at the time. The leading role they played in this and a number of other public acts of opposition earned them official rebukes, or reprimands, from church authorities. Their activism also landed them in prison for a time. Philip eventually left the priesthood, but both he and Daniel continued their work as peace activists and advocates for social justice.

"We destroy these draft records not only because they represent misplaced power, concentrated in the ruling class of America. Their power threatens the peace of the world and is aloof from public dissent and parliamentary process. The draft reduces young men to cost efficiency items. The rulers of America want their global wars fought as cheaply as possible."

       —Official statement of the Catonsville Nine, May 17, 1968.

Roman Catholic roots

The Berrigan brothers were both born in Minnesota. Daniel was the elder of the two, born in 1921, with Philip following two years later. They were the last of six sons born in the family. Their brother Jerry also became a priest. Their father Thomas, however, had left the Roman Catholic church because of his left-leaning political beliefs. Thomas advocated socialism, and that had cost him his job. Socialism is a political philosophy based on the idea of a cooperative government that works toward serving the good of the entire population. The family eventually relocated to the Syracuse, New York, area where they settled on a farm. Thomas Berrigan became one of the founders of the Electrical Workers Union.

Despite the conservative nature of the Roman Catholic church, when the Berrigan boys were young there was a growing interest among some American Catholics in the Catholic Worker movement. The movement's socially progressive ideas were spread through a newspaper of the same name, which the Berrigans received weekly at their home. Based in New York City, the movement was led by renowned social activist Dorothy Day (1897–1980), who believed that the teachings of Jesus Christ (4? bce–29? ce) could be more effectively used to end poverty in America.

Daniel entered a Roman Catholic seminary in Poughkeepsie, New York, immediately after he finished high school. He chose the Jesuit order of priests, which had been founded by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) in France in 1534. Philip played semiprofessional baseball for a time before entering St. Michael's College in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II (1939–45), a conflict in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan.

On to boot camp

Philip was sent to boot camp, where new recruits are trained, at a military base in the southern United States. Philip was shocked to see the poverty and racial discrimination that African Americans suffered there, both in the community near the base and within the army itself. In the army, the units were segregated, or separated, into white and black units. Sent overseas for combat duty, he witnessed bloodshed and violence there that turned him into a committed antiwar activist for the rest of his life.

Cindy Sheehan: Protesting the war in Iraq

Like the Berrigans, Cindy Sheehan rose to fame as an antiwar activist. In 2005 she launched a protest of the war in Iraq outside the Crawford, Texas, ranch that serves as the summer home of President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–). She wanted to meet with the president to urge him to end the war, which had claimed the life of her son. Sheehan's son Casey was twenty-four when he died during the war in 2004. Her grief over the loss led her to become one of the most visible figures in the effort to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

Born in 1957, Sheehan was a married mother of four nearly grown children when Casey, her oldest, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2000. Casey was attracted by the army's offer of a college-tuition grant in exchange for military service. Both Sheehan and her husband discouraged him from signing up. She later explained to Eve Ensler of O, The Oprah Magazine that army recruiters "told him he would get a $20,000 signing bonus. He got $4,500. They promised a laptop. It never came. They promised he would finish college while in the service. He never took a class…. Casey did not believe in the war; he wanted the future that the army promised."

Casey became a service vehicle mechanic and was sent to Iraq in March 2004. He died on his fifth day there, when his unit was ambushed. Two months later, Sheehan and her husband met with President Bush in a visit arranged to show support for families who had lost loved ones in the war. However, the meeting left her uneasy. She told Ensler that she asked the Republican president why he had invited them, lifelong Democrats, to participate in the visit. "He said, 'Mom, it's not about politics.' He clearly didn't even know my name."

Sheehan joined an antiwar group called Military Families Speak Out. In early 2005, she founded her own support group for families who had lost relatives in the war. By then, reports had surfaced questioning whether the Bush administration had misled the public about the alleged supply of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) was said to have hidden. Concerns about WMD had been the Bush administration's main reason for invading Iraq in March 2003. Sheehan grew increasingly frustrated with the White House's response about why American men and women were being sent overseas under what some Americans believed to be false pretenses for the invasion. In addition, American servicemen and women were still facing great danger from a growing Iraqi opposition. So, Sheehan decided to go to Crawford, Texas, in early August, to speak to the president directly.

Sheehan was soon joined by dozens of other parents whose children had died in Iraq as well as others who opposed the war. By the end of August, some five thousand people had come to "Camp Casey," as her roadside protest site became known, to show their support and hold nightly candlelight vigils. She was interviewed daily by news organizations from around the world. A counter protest, made up of military families who supported U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, soon chimed in. Sheehan spent twenty-five days in Crawford, but was not allowed to meet with Bush.

On January 31, 2006, Sheehan was a guest of California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey at Bush's State of the Union address. She wore a T-shirt stating "2,245 Dead. How Many More?" Police arrested her and removed her, along with the wife of a Florida Republican who had worn a shirt bearing the slogan "Support the Troops." Both women were released hours later, and Capitol police publicly apologized. The incident failed to discourage Sheehan from her mission to stop the daily toll of American casualties in Iraq. "I'm not afraid of anything," she earlier told Time, "since my son was killed."

Active in the peace movement

After the war, Philip followed his brother Jerry into the Society of St. Joseph, a religious order that primarily serves the African American community. He entered its seminary in Newburgh, New York, and was ordained a Josephite priest in 1955. Daniel, meanwhile, had been ordained a Jesuit priest in 1952. He had spent some time in Lyon, France, where he met Roman Catholic priests who had been active members of the French resistance network during World War II. These were priests who risked their own lives to save French Jews from being sent to death camps during the war. The death camps were established by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and the Nazi Party, who rose to power in Germany in 1933 and later began World War II. Germany had occupied France during much of the war. Like Philip, Daniel also formed firm opinions on political matters.

Daniel followed the Jesuit tradition of scholarship. He earned his graduate degree and began teaching theology at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York. He wrote poetry, which was published in collections beginning with Time without Number in 1957. He also discussed theological topics and the church's role in the modern world in essay form. In 1964 he became one of the founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF), which was formed to oppose the military draft. The draft was conducted by the U.S. Selective Service System, a government agency that randomly chose American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six to participate in compulsory (required) military service. Young men had to register with their local draft boards and be available for a year of military service.

The draft had been in place since the World War II era and even during earlier wars in U.S. history. By the early 1960s, U.S. servicemen were being sent overseas for combat duty once again, this time in Southeast Asia. The United States was involved in a war to stop a communist uprising in Vietnam. U.S. military aid was provided to the South Vietnamese army, which was battling a communist insurgency—members of an irregular armed force who fight through sabotage and harassment—that had taken control of the northern half of the country. The conflict escalated into what became known as the Vietnam War. At that time, U.S. foreign policy was dedicated to halting the spread of communism throughout the world.

Opposing draft laws

The draft highlighted some class differences in American life at the time. A draft deferment, or postponement of eligibility for military duty, could be obtained if one was enrolled in college. Teens with poor high school grades, or from families who could not afford to pay for college tuition, did not have the deferment option. Thus, the draft and the war casualties that followed affected a larger number of poor families, and subsequently, a higher than normal percentage of African American and Latino families. Daniel Berrigan and the CPF worked to help potential draftees learn about their options, which included filing for conscientious objector status. A conscientious objector is a person whose personal or religious beliefs keep him or her from participating in military service or military action. Being granted conscientious objector status could excuse the draftee from performing combat duty at least, if not military service.

The CPF supported and spoke out on behalf of Roman Catholic men eligible for military service. It was one of the many organizations that worked for peace as the antiwar movement gained momentum in the United States during that era. Daniel was also one of the founders of the group, Clergy Concerned about Vietnam, along with another Catholic priest and a rabbi. Then, one of Berrigan's former students became among the first young American men to publicly burn his draft card in a symbolic protest. Berrigan's superior, the head of the Archdiocese of New York, responded by sending Berrigan out of the country in 1965. There was a major outpouring of pro-Berrigan support from Roman Catholic priests, nuns, and seminary students who also questioned American involvement in Vietnam. The cardinal eventually yielded to pressure and brought Berrigan back from Latin America.

Philip Berrigan, meanwhile, was also becoming increasingly involved in the antiwar movement. He founded a group called Peace Mission, which picketed outside the homes of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (1916–) and Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1909–1994) in 1966. By this time Philip was serving as a priest at a Roman Catholic parish in Baltimore, Maryland, and was one of the most active antiwar protesters in the city. In October 1967, he and three others entered a local draft board office and poured blood over the files. This action was intended to symbolize the blood that had already been shed in Vietnam. He was arrested and became the first U.S. Roman Catholic priest ever arrested for an act of civil disobedience.

The Catonsville incident

In May 1968, both Berrigans took part in what would be their most famous act of protest. With seven others, they entered a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, and carried its files out to the parking lot. They set them on fire with napalm, the same agent that was used by U.S. forces in chemical attacks on the Vietnamese. Napalm, a highly corrosive substance, usually caused terrible burns to its victims. The Catonsville protesters had made their own napalm from soap and gasoline. During the incident, they released an official statement. As quoted on the Fire and Faith: The Catonsville Nine File Web site, the activists stated: "We destroy these draft records not only because they represent misplaced power, concentrated in the ruling class of America. Their power threatens the peace of the world and is aloof [detached] from public dissent [opposition] and parliamentary process. The draft reduces young men to cost efficiency items. The rulers of America want their global wars fought as cheaply as possible."

Elsewhere in the statement, the protesters noted that with their actions, "we confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues [Jewish houses of worship] of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in war and is hostile to the poor…. May God have mercy on our nation."

The Catonsville act resulted in the arrests of all the activists, who became known as the Catonsville Nine. It also turned the Berrigans into household names since television reporters were on the scene. Images of the bonfire soon aired on newscasts across the United States. The brothers also appeared on the cover of Time magazine. They became heroes to the antiwar movement. But many working-class Roman Catholics in America were upset by the Berrigans' activism and criticized them for what was seen as taking on an inappropriate public role in political argument.

The Catonsville Nine were tried and convicted, with both Berrigans receiving jail terms. They appealed the verdicts, but lost, then refused to turn themselves in to law enforcement officials in order to begin serving their jail sentences. In hiding for several months, both men appeared on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Most Wanted" posters. Their actions were condemned by some people who believed the brothers had overstepped their roles as priests by breaking the law. But many others sheltered them, and they occasionally even made a brief appearance at a protest and then vanished again. Eventually, both were captured. Philip served three years at a Pennsylvania prison. Daniel was sent to a Connecticut facility, where he served just under two years.

"No Nukes"

Philip Berrigan wrote a great deal during his time in jail. His books from this era include Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary and Widen the Prison Gates: Writings from Jails, April 1970–December 1972. Daniel also penned a number of books, including No Bars to Manhood and The Dark Night of Resistance. By the time the Berrigans were released from jail, the U.S. military was stepping away from its active role in the Vietnam conflict. By March of 1973, almost all American troops had been removed from Vietnam. The Berrigans' mission, however, would continue on several other fronts.

Philip left the priesthood in 1973 and married Elizabeth McAlister, a former nun. They founded a commune, called Jonah House, in Baltimore. Philip and Daniel began devoting their energies to the nuclear disarmament movement—the movement to reduce or abolish nuclear weaponry. They were among the founders of the Plowshares group of antinuclear activists. Its name was borrowed from biblical passages that urged warring nations to turn their swords into plowshares, which refers to a type of agricultural tool. In a larger sense, the phrase "swords into plowshares" means a call to turn weapons that destroy human life into tools that can benefit all humankind instead.

The Berrigan brothers were again featured in news headlines in September 1980, when they and six other Plowshares activists entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The plant was where the nose cones for nuclear warheads (the explosive heads of the missiles) were made. They used hammers to dent two cones and once again poured blood on documents. While inside the plant, they offered prayers for peace. All activists were arrested, and a ten-year court battle followed. It ended in a decision that gave the Berrigans credit for time already served and a period of parole.

Commitment to nonviolence and peace

Philip Berrigan explained why the nuclear disarmament movement was closely linked to his religious faith in an article he wrote for Tikkun in 1998. "Disarmament is roughly [the same as] nonviolence," he noted. "In fact, it adds a new dimension to nonviolence. God's people are a weaponless people, because the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ is weaponless, loving us with a passion … beyond imagining." He wrote those words from jail, after having been arrested again at a Plowshares act of protest. He served more time in 2001 for trespassing on the grounds of a military base and denting two planes.

Philip Berrigan died of cancer on December 6, 2002. His last words, which he dictated to his wife Elizabeth, were published in various newspapers when his death was announced. "I die with the conviction that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the Earth," he stated, as quoted in Progressive magazine. He further noted that "to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the Earth itself."

Daniel Berrigan remained a Jesuit priest as well as a professor of theology and a published poet. In his eighties, he continued to speak at public events a few times a year on the topic of world peace. In early 2004, he gave an interview to the Progressive in which journalist Carl Kozlowski asked him his opinions on current events. At that time, the war in Iraq was in its second year. "This is really the most dangerous time of my life," Daniel Berrigan declared. "I have never seen this degree of irresponsibility, naked power, high level duplicity [deceit], or the will to just own the world."

For More Information


Anderson, George M. "Daniel Berrigan at 75: An Interview." America (April 27, 1996): p. 14.

Berrigan, Phillip. "Fighting for Disarmament." Tikkun (May-June 1998): p. 23.

Ensler, Eve. "'My Son Brought Me Here.'" O, The Oprah Magazine (November 2005): p. 215.

Kirkpatrick, David D. "Two T-Shirts, Two Messages and Two Capitol Ejections." New York Times (February 2, 2006): p. A20.

Kozlowski, Carl. "Q&A." Progressive (March 2004): p. 15.

Lewis, Daniel. "Philip Berrigan, Former Priest and Peace Advocate in the Vietnam War Era, Dies at 79." New York Times (December 8, 2002): p. 36.

"A Mother and the President." Time (August 22, 2005): p. 22.

Roberts, Tom. "Soon 75, Berrigan's Is Still an Edgy God." National Catholic Reporter (January 26, 1996): p. 10.

Zinn, Howard. "A Holy Outlaw." Progressive (February 2003): p. 14.


Fire and Faith: The Catonsville Nine File. (accessed on May 25, 2006).

Military Families Speak Out. (accessed on May 25, 2006).

About this article

Berrigan, Daniel J. and Berrigan, Philip

Updated About content Print Article