Daniel Berrigan, antiwar priest of the sixties, dies at 94

May 1, 2016 • 9:06 am

If you didn’t live through the antiwar protests of the Sixties, you may well not have heard of Daniel Berrigan or his brother Philip, activist Catholic priests (the former a Jesuit, the latter a Josephite). But to my generation they were heroes of a sort. Passionately antiwar and devoted to social causes like civil rights and the abolition of nuclear weapons, they were most famous for invading the Catonsville, Maryland Selective Service office on May 17, 1968, absconding with draft files, and then burning them with homemade napalm in the parking lot. That’s shown in the photo below, Philip is on the left and Daniel on the right. Seven other Catholic activists were arrested along with them—the so-called “Catonsville Nine.”

Photo credit: UPI

This got all of them three years in prison. After sentencing, Daniel became a fugitive (not a good move for one practicing civil disobedience), but was soon caught and served two years in prison. Over the years, he and Philip were arrested many times for their activities, including trying to damage nuclear warheads. Philip, who secretly married a Catholic nun, died in 2002, but his older brother Daniel, it was announced today, died yesterday at 94 in a Jesuit infirmary in New York. So passes a left-wing icon.

Here’s an image that really brings those times back: Daniel Berrigan, on the right, with his radical attorney William Kunstler after the Catonsville trial. Kunstler was most famous for his defense of the “Chicago Seven“, a radical group indicted for antigovernment activities in 1968.

Photo: AP

Daniel was something of a polymath, author of more than fifty books, including works of poetry, and taught at several universities, most notably Fordham. His and Philip’s actions of course angered the Catholic Church, though the brothers said that their political acts derived directly from Catholic teachings.  Archbishop Spellman of New York, a conservative Catholic, exiled him to Latin America, where of course Berrigan became even more radicalized. After he returned, he continued his activism right up to his death.

If the word “social justice warrior” has any positive meaning, it applies to Daniel Berrigan, who did much more than talk about activism, and certainly did not flaunt his moral purity, but took risk after risk in service of his views. I didn’t always agree with him—he flirted with bombing and kidnapping, for instance—but let’s hand it to him: this is the kind of civil disobedience priests would do if they really, truly believed in the ideals of their church.  Are there any Catholic activists like him and Philip still among us? If there are, I don’t know of them.

h/t: Michael

23 thoughts on “Daniel Berrigan, antiwar priest of the sixties, dies at 94

      1. Perhaps your inner ear was channeling “Four dead in Ohio…”

        BTW, I was working in the Chaplain’s Office at Johns Hopkins in the early 70s (I was a conscientious objector doing alternative service). The Chaplain at the time was Chester Wickwire, who was deeply involved in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. When Philip Berrigan was paroled, Chet was, in effect, made his parole officer. Don’t know just how that happened, but I remember sitting in Chet’s office and chatting with Philip and his wife.

  1. My father was the minister of the Unitarian church in Ithaca from 1965-70, and was a friend of Dan’s and fellow activist. When Dan was a fugitive, the FBI interviewed my father in their search. Activists like that are a rare breed.

  2. I remember him well. I, also didn’t agree with everything he did but I did admire him.

  3. Ironic maybe that Daniel died yesterday – the official end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

    They were demonstrating the same year that I did my draft avoidance by joining another military branch and going to a much better overseas location.

    1. Merry Beltaine 2016, All

      Yeah, yesterday ? 1975 ? the bugout.

      As a parent who cannot even imagine having .ever. to make these decisions, here are my heroes of that time: the mama and the daddy who themselves hurled onto a carrier, the USS Kirk, in waters outside Saigon on 30 April 1975, with the parents’ Chinook running out of fuel, a drop of at least 18 feet as daddy hovered the aircraft above it — — their 8 – month – old, their two – year – old and their five – year – old.

      Then mama jumped, too; and daddy purposely plunged the chopper into the seas, the suction of that pulling him down way under. He was gone from others’ view, then at least 30 seconds’ later surfaced and lived.


      As well then and a very few days afore that specific 30th of April, there is, too, this hero: Mr John Riordan, who himself was out and safe inside Hong Kong — — but volunteered to his banking colleague with him there … … to catch the very last flight BACK IN TO Saigon.

      And went BACK TO HIS Saigon bank to save and get altogether out in the final four hours of that day a total of … … 105, certain to be tortured and to die if left behind, of his Vietnamese employees.

      http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/daring-rescue-days-before-fall-of-saigon and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Riordan_%28banker%29.


      1. Very traumatic events – and kind of highlights that we put as much thought into getting out as we did to getting in.

        People forget history rapidly, especially when it is their own. Maybe why we are so quick to do it again.

  4. Are there any Catholic activists like him and Philip still among us?

    I think you’ll find that there are, and that they just aren’t able to attract the attention that the Berrigans did for a brief period. In the late ’70s, I was peripheral to that crowd, and remember having breakfast at Jonah House. Those people were truly committed to pushing against militarism, and my admiration of them remains.

    1. Sister Joan Chittister and outfits like the Catholic Peace Fellowship comes to mind, but as you say folks like this don’t get the media attention that the Berrigan’s did.

      Berrigan while a fugitive spoke at the Methodist church of my teen years. I was mostly impressed, but when I spoke to him afterwards, I couldn’t get a really nuanced answer from him. He was advocating not paying taxes, but I was volunteering for a very good environmental organization that was tax-supported (which I pointed out to him).

      There’s a pretty decent film about Berrigan starring Sam Waterston as Dan B.

  5. Too bad both men were in the Catholic Church who didn’t really appreciate them but thankfully, weren’t able to stop them either.

    Trying to damage nuclear warheads though – yeesh! That’s something that could literally blow up in your own face (and vaporize it).

    1. Too bad both men were in the Catholic Church who didn’t really appreciate them but thankfully, weren’t able to stop them either.

      Some time after this (I don’t remember when) The Catholic Church declared all priests must stop being directly involved in politics. Some who held public office had to resign.

    2. Just found it:

      Two Catholic priests, Robert Drinan and Robert John Cornell, have served in Congress. In 1980, when Pope John Paul II insisted that priests not serve in elective office,”[4] Representative Drinan withdrew from his re-election campaign, and Cornell withdrew from his bid to re-gain the seat he had lost in the 1978 Congressional election. In 1983, the prohibition on serving in governmental office was codified as section 3 of canon 285 of the Codex Iuris Canonici.

      1. Per Wikipedia, Drinan was a congressman from Massachusetts who opposed the Vietnam War and called for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Unbelievable in today’s world, he supported abortion rights while an active priest.

        As Wikipedia puts it:

        “Throughout Drinan’s political career, his overt support of abortion rights drew significant opposition from Church leaders. They had repeatedly requested that he not hold political office. Drinan attempted to reconcile his position with official Church doctrine by stating that while he was personally opposed to abortion, considering it “virtual infanticide,” its legality was a separate issue from its morality. This argument failed to satisfy his critics. According to the Wall Street Journal, Drinan played a key role in the pro-choice platform becoming a common stance of politicians from the Kennedy family.”


        It’s unlikely that you’ll ever see a Catholic priest like him anytime soon.

  6. “Are there any Catholic activists like him and Philip still among us?”

    When I was in divinity school (I do wince at admitting that on this site) a band of us joined up with those protesting against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

    I scarcely knew what I was getting myself into, but it appears that we were protesting military injustice in Central America, mainly in El Salvador. The event drew many people willing to get arrested and was motivated by Catholic priests.


  7. They were hero’s to me also, back in the day. They were good people I think, even if the did believe in sky-fairies.

  8. Two more brave Catholics come to mind. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who founded the human rights group School of the Americas Watch, to protest the US training Latin American military officers. Roy spent over fours years in federal prisons for non-violent protests at Fort Benning and was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Info here: https://goo.gl/hir3o1 What I find ironic is that throughout his career, the church quietly managed to tolerate his activity, until recently Roy came out for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. Roy, in his 70’s was then excommunicated, lost his financial support and whatever pension retired Maryknoll mission priests have and officially shunned.

    Meaghan Rice, a Catholic nun is also a life-time anti-nuclear activist who was sent to jail for almost three years at age 82 for breaking into the National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, TN, along with two others in what was called “the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex.” More here: https://goo.gl/m544Np

  9. Dan, Phil and Liz are three of my heroes. First met and befriended Dan when he came thru Peru in ’66. He became a dear friend when in ’73 we consulted him about doing “reverse mission” to bring the voice of Latin American heroes to the US to challenge its rank imperialism. Dan saw that same policy at work in Vietnam. Would that our witness had been as effective as his. But his visit in Latin America broadened his concern and his argument more powerful.
    Just one quarrel with Dan…not really fair of me,for he can’t answer back with his typical jocular, incisive repartee.
    He took Nicaraguan Padre Ernesto Cardenal to task, in an exchange in NCR, for saying that the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua was a Christian witness. Dan said,if I recall right, it was not a true Christian witness…that it failed the test of Jesus’ non-violence.
    That Jesus’ non-violence is the ideal is beyond question. The Sandinista armed revolution was carried out with a preferential option for non-violence in the way they allowed the National Guard to escape when they had them trapped like in Somotillo, and the way they treated the NG they took prisoners. (Yes, this “charlie” was there.)
    It wasn’t for nothing that President Reagan initiated a dirty war on the Sandinista Democratic Government…the hope back then for all Latin America. I suspect that Dan later took up the perspective of peace activist Archbishops Dom Helder Camara of Brazil and Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I’d love to listen to that conversation now: the two of them with Dan, Phil, Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal.

  10. His and Philip’s actions of course angered the Catholic Church,

    That in itself is a mark of someone worthy of attention.
    The choice between “legitimate” action and “illegitimate” is always fraught. It also makes you examine what you mean by “illegitimate “. It’s not an easy line to tread.

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