Thank You, Philip Berrigan
Published on Tuesday, December 10, 2002 by the Boston Globe
Thank You, Philip Berrigan
by James Carroll
 

PHILIP BERRIGAN is dead. His family and friends laid him to rest yesterday in Baltimore. Most people associate him with the Vietnam era draft board raids that made him famous. Fewer know that he committed eight major acts of civil disobedience between 1980 and 1999 - acts of disarmament, which cost him years in prison. But the image of the smiling, white-haired man in handcuffs can be misleading. Far from being a marginal figure whose time is long past, Philip Berrigan, even in death, has extraordinary relevance for two of today's most urgent questions.

The first has to do with the Catholic priesthood. Once, the pressures facing the Catholic Church would have seemed a parochial matter, but the moral conflagration that is melting the inner-girders of this institution has begun to threaten the very structure of authority in society. Catholics continue to be staggered by the abuse coverup scandal with each further revelation of the hierarchy's obtuseness - and the priesthood's hollowness.

Early on, others watched the church's immorality play with detached fascination, but lately even non-Catholics have sensed a dangerous, society-wide shuddering. If the Catholic Church can fall, what can't? In fact, the political and moral order is a pair of twin towers - and they, too, can come down.

Philip Berrigan lived a life that offers an image of redemption to the Catholic priesthood. In particular, he showed what the vow of obedience really means. With his Jesuit brother Daniel, he found himself in conflict with a hierarchy that was, in effect, a co-sponsor of an unjust war (''Bomb them,'' Cardinal Spellman told LBJ. ''Just bomb them.'') Berrigan's challenge was as much to the church as to the nation. The church, too, is subject to biblical judgment; the church, too, is fallen. And by refusing to heed those who equated his prophetic critique with disloyalty, affirming his Catholic faith to the end, and ignoring those who would excommunicate him, Berrigan showed the way for Catholics today. In defying corrupt authority, he rescued the principle of authority. To stand against a morally bankrupt Catholic power structure is the highest manifestation of Catholic love. Berrigan, married to a strong woman and the father of two magnificent daughters, never stopped being an exemplary priest.

But his significance is far broader than that. While most Americans were in willful denial about their nation's hubristic devotion to ''overwhelming force'' based on nuclear weapons, Berrigan was endlessly sounding alarms.

When the Cold War ended, and with it the threat that had pushed the world to the brink of an abyss, America alone declined to step back. The ''indispensable nation'' would be armed to the teeth. Berrigan protested, directly assaulting missiles, destroyers, warplanes, and uranium warheads. The war culture/economy, he warned, will spark a momentum toward mass violence that will be its own justification, and it will be unstoppable.

And lo, behold where we have come. The imminent invasion of Iraq is an exact instance of what Berrigan predicted - America going to war not because it needs to, but because it can. And Berrigan would insist that originating this crisis is not the eccentric machismo of George W. Bush (Berrigan challenged Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton), but the universal American fantasy that ''national security'' can depend on weapons of mass destruction.

On this point, Saddam Hussein is our mirror image, which must be why we hate him so. Berrigan was often dismissed as a pacifist idealist, but the current crisis reveals him to have been a shrewd realist. The weapons we accumulate, instead of protecting us, are themselves the source of our mortal danger.

Americans should not condescend to the troubled Catholic Church. The nation and the religion are enshrouded in the same moral fog. For years, Catholics - both bishops and laity equally at the mercy of a corrupt clericalism - looked the other way while pathological priests abused children. Now some would like to restrict blame to the cowardly leaders, fire them, and get back to normal. But what if ''normal'' is the problem? What if the entire system of church triumphalism (sex-hating, woman-hating, power-mad) must be dismantled?

Equally grave questions address the American war culture. The attack on Iraq must be opposed, but must not everything that has brought our nation to this threshold of violent imperialism be re-examined? Why, over the last dozen years, have we done so little to step back from the nuclear abyss? Why is the ideal of international law so weightless in Washington? How can we expect other nations not to imitate our unchecked reliance on weapons of mass destruction? When did this vast American militarism become ''normal?''

These are questions on which Berrigan had the nerve to stake his life, as a Catholic and an American. As a priest and a prophet. Phil is dead: His questions are still there to be asked. Phil is dead: We loved him. Phil is dead: May he rest, at last, in peace.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

###