MCCARTHY: Daniel Berrigan’s death should remind Catholic Church of need for discomfort

Marquette+University+and+other+institutions+should+encourage+students+to+use+their+voices+and+make+a+difference.+%0AMarquette+Wire+Stock+Photo

Marquette University and other institutions should encourage students to use their voices and make a difference. Marquette Wire Stock Photo

Most priests will not be placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, featured on the cover of Time magazine or alluded to in a Paul Simon song. Then again, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, who passed away last Saturday at 94, was unlike any other priest.

Berrigan, who became the face of Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War, was an example of pure devotion to an idea. His brand of militant pacifism remains highly controversial inside and outside the Catholic Church.

Berrigan became a prominent anti-war leader when he, alongside eight other Catholics, entered the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and set fire to hundreds of draft files with homemade napalm. He spent three months on the run from the FBI, and then another 18 in jail for this act of protest.

Undeterred by his frequent arrests for demonstrating, Berrigan helped start the anti-nuclear weapon Plowshares movement. In September 1980, he and seven others snuck into a Pennsylvania General Electric Nuclear Weapon facility and damaged a warhead’s nose cone.

Another part of his legacy that does not get the attention it deserves are his accomplishments in poetry. With maybe the exception of the Rev. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Berrigan is the greatest Jesuit poet. Among his fans was author Kurt Vonnegut who wrote, “For me, Father Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet. If this be heresy, make the most of it.”

I think some react strongly against Berrigan’s actions because they are uncomfortable and inconvenient. It would be much easier to disregard the horrors of war and the potential for mass annihilation. It is even more difficult to consider our country’s responsibility for these horrors and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Berrigan tried to reverse America’s desensitization to violence and apathy toward injustice.

Although he is often referred to as a radical leftist priest, Berrigan’s tactics do not seem far off from Jesus’s teachings. In the Bible, Jesus rarely makes those he encounters comfortable. He often asks them to make an inconvenient choice or a serious lifestyle change. More importantly, Jesus frequently extols the sacredness of life and the divine within all humans.

I believe this inspired Berrigan’s work. He saw God in all people and believed the horrors of war and poverty were a perversion of God’s creation. His deeply held spiritual belief would not allow for him to stand by and say nothing as the slaughter continued.

In a 2006 interview with Democracy Now, Berrigan gave an important warning about those who would use religion to justify war. He said that these people are “omitting all the passages that have to do with compassion and love of others, especially love of enemies … All of that gets cut out in favor of, well, a god of vindictiveness, the god of the empire, the god who is a projection of our will to dominate.”

In the past decade, the Catholic Church has lost a large amount of its moral authority in America and across the world. Perhaps it is because Catholics are no longer willing to take hard, inconvenient stances or make others uncomfortable in pursuit of their ideals, as Berrigan did.