Catholics & the Politics of War

Like the rest of America, Catholics were on both sides of the argument for and against war. This was especially apparent during the Vietnam War and through Daniel Berrigan’s protests. However, since at least the Civil War, Catholics have both supported and opposed every war that America has fought in, and do not agree as a group on the merit of war or whether such a thing as a ‘just war’ exists.

During Berrigan Week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the reflection talk by Bill Wylie-Kellerman as well as the film screening of ‘Seeking Shelter’ and the art exhibit that followed the event. As someone who had never heard of Daniel Berrigan before Tuesday, I found this week to be quite moving and inspirational as the actions of Daniel Berrigan are incredibly commendable and he is a true model for what Catholic, and Christian as a whole, activism should look like. Despite dislike by some, perhaps most, in the Catholic hierarchy, Berrigan, alongside his brother, Philip Berrigan, and William Stringfellow, persisted in his anti-war activism and never faltered in proclaiming his message of nonviolence. His influence covered all of America, from tiny Block Island to the breadth of New York City to the convicted felons imprisoned with him. I was also elated to read on one of the posters at the art exhibit that Berrigan ministered to AIDS patients in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic was predominately affecting the gay community, so little to no action was being taken by the government and there was obvious and incredible discrimination. When no one was standing up to combat the horrific epidemic, neither the government nor the church nor did social services, Daniel Berrigan jumped in to ease the suffering as he could.

Hearing about Bill Wylie-Kellerman’s personal relationship with Berrigan and Stringfellow was a nice addition because it humanizes them. It was easier to think of them as real people who struggled against a U.S. government who was trying to rally support for an unpopular war as well as an unmoving Catholic Church that feared their radical activism. The Irish-American Catholics in the early 20th century similarly grappled with their relation to the Catholic Church with a war ongoing. During this time, there was a focus on integration into American society and be accepted as a part of it, and not Catholic outsiders. However, the Irish-American Catholics had another dimension to their decision of whether to support or oppose American involvement in World War I. Ireland was engulfed in a struggle with Great Britain, and as the United States allied with Great Britain during the war, Irish-Americans did not know whether to oppose their home country or their new country, and in the first few years of the war many supported Germany. For the most part, the Catholic Church in America also tried to appeal to the Irish-American Catholics to support the war, so there was pressure on multiple sides to conform and fall in line.

Daniel Berrigan’s efforts during the latter half of the 20th century reflected the fights that the establishment of the Catholic Church as well as parishioners were having during the same time period. As many liberal Catholics in America shifted further left on social issues and participated in public activism, the establishment strained between slow changes and holding fast to the long-held beliefs. Berrigan was a prominent role model for liberal, activist Catholics during this time and allowed them that neither were they going against the entire Catholic establishment nor was their social activism completely contrary to church doctrine. Other than Daniel Berrigan, the Catholic Worker Movement and the Catholic Association for International Peace (CAIP) provided Catholics a place to fellowship and organize around the nonviolence movement as well as acted as a reassurance for the basis of their fights. Both of these organizations greatly influenced American Catholics’ perspectives on war and peace, and therefore how they viewed the Vietnam War and every American-affiliated conflict since. Daniel Berrigan’s anti-war activism, the Catholic Worker Movement, and the CAIP all paralleled secular organizations that were fighting for nuclear disarmament and pacifism, such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (CAIP).

While Daniel Berrigan and the rest of American Catholics have had to grapple with war and how to hold fast to their Catholic faith while also supporting or opposing another American war, the rest of America has been doing the same. Secular Americans and Americans of other religions all throughout American history have had to decide which side of the war debate they fall into. Sometimes their ethnicity, Catholic identity and American citizenship might clash, as they did during World War I with the Irish, yet as Daniel Berrigan demonstrated through his actions, they don’t need to. His message of peace and anti-war activism is truly incredible, and should be the example that American Catholics continue to follow today.


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