Catholic Resistance

This week’s Berrigan Week events and readings tackled the complicated relationship between American Catholics and war. As Berrigan Week covered questions of American involvement in Vietnam, I will compare and contrast Catholic response to Vietnam and other wars which were discussed in our readings. In my previous blog post, I discussed the Catholic immigrant’s longing to be respected as full Americans. One of the many ways Catholics tried to achieve this goal was through intense patriotic support for the American side in a conflict. However, as I will discuss in this blog post, a Catholic’s response to war also relies heavily on their own morals—creating a complicated relationship between patriotism and morality.


Before this week, I have never heard of Daniel Berrigan, his brothers, or William Stringfellow. Berrigan Week events began on Tuesday with Bill Wylie-Kellerman’s discussion titled: Berrigan and Stringfellow: The Politics of Friendship. The event was a helpful introduction into who Berrigan and his peers were and what they believed in. Also, the event raised awareness that war was not the only issue contested by Catholics in the mid-1900s. Stringfellow was controversial to the public because of his proclamations that racism is a demon, and his warnings not to read the Bible too “americanly.” Also, Berrigan and Stringfellow disagreed with female Catholic peers on matters of abortion when they aligned with pro-life movements. The question of war in the mid-1900s intertwined with questions of civil rights and abortion—political questions which involved direct moral influences. It is with no surprise that war found a place in the moral debates of the mid-twentieth century.

Before the Vietnam War, many Catholics used wartime as an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the American cause. With the exception of the Civil War—which will be further discussed later—Vietnam was rare in the outright Catholic resistance formed in response to the war. As described by historian, William Au, “Catholic bishops, who had previously been viewed as a monolithic, nationalistic body, were numbered among the most prominent advocates of the anti-nuclear and disarmament movements” (Au, 50). Before Vietnam, Catholics used fighting and participating in the war effort to reach the level of respectability they so yearned for. For example, in the Spanish-American War, Cardinal Gibbons “threw his entire weight behind the effort, admonishing Catholics that pacifism was tantamount to treason and cowardice” (Rowland). The enthusiastic support from Catholics was a relatively constant during wartime. As such, it is important to take note of the continued support of Catholics during wartime even when the Catholic Resistance took a stand against wartime atrocities. There are two sides to every movement.

In the film screening for Berrigan Week, Seeking Shelter: A story of Place, Faith, and Resistance, one of the people interviewed discussed his decision to become more involved in Catholic Resistance. When he ultimately decided he was against the war in Vietnam, he never knew of any other anti-war Christians. Although the community the film focused on, Block Island, was isolated and famous for their involvement with Berrigan and Stringfellow, the public still disagreed on anti-war opinions. When Berrigan sought refuge on the island, a neighbor was one of the biggest informants to his whereabouts and activity to the FBI. It is important to acknowledge the exceptions to a movement as complicated as war resistance—mostly when we routinely establish the complexity and difficulty in generalizing Catholics throughout the Ramonat Seminar.

Discussions at the Berrigan Week Symposium successfully tied the week together. Continuing on divides within Catholicism regarding war, there were differences among popular Catholic leaders on whether pacifism makes a true Catholic. To the Berrigans, you could not be a true Catholic if you were not a pacifist. Dorothy Day never explicitly stated that you had to be a pacifist to be a true Catholic—although she did preach “love and respect even to the enemy” during the worker movement (Au, 54). To Cardinal Gibbons during the Spanish-American War, pacifism was against Catholicism. Also, when Fred Marchant was discussing his journey to be honorably discharged from combat, he brought up other religious soldiers who did not find that the war conflicted with their beliefs. Although religion helps foster morals and beliefs, the question of wartime resistance weighs more on personal opinions than the opinions of a religious body as a whole—mostly when the leaders of the religious body have differing personal opinions.

As seen prominently in the Catholic Resistance movement during Vietnam, a big contention with the war was the idea of being made to fight for something you do not morally support through a draft. However, this was also seen by Catholics in the Civil War. Explored in his book, John McGreevy stated, “the most violent disputes came in response to the draft” (McGreevy, 73). The resistance to the draft during the Civil War corresponds with the draft raids of the Catholic Resistance. As Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi explained her own experience participating in a draft raid during the Berrigan Week Symposium, the ideas of moral justification to the fight come to mind like in the Civil War. The Civil War physically and mentally divided the country and families in half. The Vietnam War involved horrific civilian killings and a distrust in America from the Pentagon Papers. As Au describes, when Catholics “condemned the war, they did so in the name of the values that they saw America representing in the world… The war was destroying America as a moral symbol of the world” (Au, 64). When faced with war, the Just War Theory is subjective to an individual Catholics experiences and morals. The question of war is complicated and reliant on personal belief.


Referenced Work:

Au, William A. “American Catholics and the Dilemma of War 1960-1980.” U.S. Catholic Historian 4, no. 1 (1984): 49-79.

McGreevy, John T. “Catholic Freedom and Civil War.” in Catholicism and American Freedom, 68-90. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.

Rowland, Thomas J. 1996. “Irish-American Catholics and the Quest for Respectability in the Coming of the Great War, 1900-1917.” Journal of American Ethnic History 15 (2): 3.

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