Thursday, March 22, 2007

An Open Letter to a Bishop, Philip Berrigan

Bio: Father Philip Berrigan was the first priest in the United States to be imprisoned for his religious-political activity. Prior to his involvement with anti war activities he spent many years working with blacks in the Baltimore ghetto. it was this experience that led him to an understanding of the repressive nature of our society’s institutes and to a strong op position to the Vietnam war. He and eight others were indicted in 1971 on conspiracy charges, the original indictment vocalized by the late F.B.I. Di rector, J. Edgar Hoover—in a charge which was re jected by the jury in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

This is an open letter to Bishop William Baum, who was recently called by the Pope to Rome to take part in the Bishops’ Synod. Bishop Baum had asked for some reflections on priesthood, world justice and peace, which Father Berrigan answers in this letter.


"Despite the fact that we come from different frames of reference, and that the Berrigan view of the Gospel (Dan’s and mine) is radically different from the hierarchy’s, we will not admit that our own responsibilities differ from yours."

"We constitute the Church in chains—advocates of resistance to naked power, disproportionate wealth, racism, war-making. We want to express our fidelity to the Church and to the Chair of Peter, even as we sorrow over Christian myopia, hardness of heart and even cowardice."

"The Church in America—in fact, in the West as a whole—has accepted as religion a kind of cultural syncretism, culminating in near-perfect allegiance to the State. Not a few of its more prominent Bishops have even waited upon the Presidency like court jesters. And now the culture is being violently challenged, and the State doesn’t so much govern as rule by force. To whom do we turn?

A case in point is the Catholic response to the Indochinese war. It is a classic case of burning incense to Caesar. After twenty-two years’ involvement in Indochina (President Truman committed American support to the French in 1949); after millions of Indochinese deaths (6 to 8 might be a conservative estimate); after as many as 100,000 American dead (Pentagon figures are probably half the total); after war expenditures of 300 billion; after documented ecocide and genocide; after all this, thirty-two American Bishops have finally condemned the immorality of the war. (This was written before the Bishops’ statement of November, 1971.— Ed. ) "

"We have obviously surpassed the German Church in negligence both moral and criminal. (Resistance to Hitler, for example, meant totalitarian reprisal, which is not the case here.) Despite the clarity of Paul Vi’s stand, despite Constitutional protections, no Bishop has challenged the illegality of the war in serious fashion; no Bishop has broken patently immoral laws (the Apostles were martyred for refusing to obey the law); no Bishop (except Parrilla of Puerto Rico) has advocated non-violent resistance to the war (Mayor Lindsay of New York City, a nebulous liberal at best, advocated such a course two years ago). And only two or three Bishops have visited Catholic resisters in jail, at least two of them virtually apologizing for their action: “This visit is a spiritual work of mercy, which I would perform for any of my flock.” More to the point would be an explanation of why they themselves were not in jail.

Furthermore, no Bishop has questioned the marriage of Big Business and Big Military in Big Government, and how the marriage results in government by and for the wealthy and powerful. No Bishop has condemned the American rape of the developing world, nor the arms race in horror weapons, nor American arms salesmanship, nor the division of the world by superpowers.

On the contrary, the American episcopacy has docilely and silently stood by while their countrymen and spiritual sons established the American empire and ruled it with ruthless might. They stood by as spectator, or advocate, while their country plunged into perpetual hot and cold warring, spent 1¼ trillion dollars on war and weapons since 1946, and filled up Arlington Cemetery with the dead of Korea, the Dominican Republic, and Indochina. And yet, the Church they lead, like the Savior, is come “to give life, and to give it more abundantly.” What a gross irony!

Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. Some Catholics, who have suffered for dedication to Gospel and Church, would go much further, how ever. One layman I know, a superb student of Gospel politics and Gandhian non-violence currently in jail, would say (his with a snort: “Shepherds? There is not one in the American Church! They are upper-management people for the most part. And they are the State’s sheep!” Of him, I must say that he is capable of transcending mediocrity. He remains loyal in a sense that most Catholics and most Bishops cannot understand.

Perhaps in the above you might perceive my difficulty in speculating about the priesthood, and how it might serve man as physician and prophet. For who will finally legislate as to training, experience, freedom? And who will provide what is most crucial of all—example? The men and women who can address the subject realistically are concerned mainly with witnessing against institutionalized terror and death—and they are in severe jeopardy or in jail."

"In effect, thinking Catholics make little distinction between treatment by Church and State. They know that both desire malleability and conformity, that both fear conscience, that both are self-righteous and dogmatic, that both are ruthless in handling deviants. To be fair, the Church is quicker to forgive and to forget. On the other hand, the State may be quicker to learn. But the point is that Catholics increasingly tend to ignore the official Church since it says so little real about the questions of life and death, and lives less than it says. How could it be otherwise? they ask. The official Church is not about the Gospel, or the plight of what Pope John called “the majority of men.” Therefore, how can it speak to either issue?

The understanding from this quarter is simply this: both Church and Stale are vast, sprawling bureaucracies which share an insufferably arrogant assumption that they offer the fundamental answers to the human condition. The understanding, further, is that, despite claims to the contrary, Church and State have brought Western civilization to its nadir, and have destroyed other civilizations in the process.

Critics have learned, or are learning in swelling numbers from history as well as from the Gospels, that nothing much makes sense except death to self and conversion to Christ and neighbor. All the virtues exemplified by the Lord—poverty, freedom in responsibility, the politics of community, willingness to risk jail and death for the exploited person—all these attack head-on the conceptions and realities of bureaucracies whether in Church or State. The goals of bureaucracies are simply not the goals of Christ."

"The Catholic priest in America—and in the West generally—-is more of a cultural phenomenon than he is a Gospel man. He is a nationalistic, white supremacist, and uncritical toward affluence and its source. His training reflects nuances of these cultural fixations, but, beyond that, it schools him merely in neutrality toward life. By that I mean, he tends to take a purely institutional view of threats to life, whether they be its abuse or destruction. Indeed, if he is sensitive, he will go through immense convolutions to escape such brutalities. Or if he is hardened, he will advocate them, or remain casual in face of them.

Therefore the problem becomes—how to instill convictions strong enough to resist dehumanization in oneself, in others, in structures. How to instruct him in non-violence as a way of life, as mark of the new man, as instrument of human revolution and social regeneration? How to teach him the realities of power in all its nuances, from the will to dominate others to the will to exploit whole nations and peoples? How to toughen him SO that one will understand and accept persecution, contempt, ostracism, jail, or death on account of conscience and (above all) on account of the suffering brother’? How to infuse him with such sensitivity to human rights and dignity that one will confront violence in every turn of his life—in himself, in the culture, in the State? How to convince him that Christ’s man must integrate word and act, in full recognition that this might lead him to death, even as it did his Lord?

I don’t know, because one can neither teach the above nor administer it. But the Church can beg the grace of God, the Church can provide the setting; even though it be modern catacombs, the Church can begin, realizing that her life must always constitute beginnings, and never endings. And if such fidelity means a vocation of opposition to Powers and Principalities as they operate in government and in the circle of prestige for which the government exists, so be it. If it means the outlawry of the Church, persecution . . . the Lord spoke of that too: “The time will come when those who kill you will think they are doing a service to God.” But in the process, the Church would serve humanity, would even help to give humanity a future on this planet which it could not otherwise have.

As for the impending deliberations on world justice and peace, I have anguished questions about them. Do the American Bishops accept the implications of their country’s control over one-half the world’s productive capacity and finance? Do they realize that, despite our affluence, we have institutionalized poverty for perhaps one-quarter of our own people, plus millions in the developing world? Will they admit that these appalling realities are not an accident, but a cold calculation, that they follow the logic of profit and policy? Can they comprehend that war, particularly modern war, decides what nation or “security bloc” will control the profits, and that on the success or failure of the Indochinese war hinges the American Open Door to the developing world? (Policy-makers fear that if the Indochinese force us out, certainty will spread among the world’s poor that wars of liberation can succeed.) Do they understand that a few hundred American corporations, with hundreds of billions in assets and inter national holdings, are empires in their own right, exerting political and economic dominion wherever they are? To deliberate justice and peace while overlooking such realities is both ignorant and dishonest. Just as it is dishonest to deny that while most men starve, most Bishops live in comfort and affluence, welcome the dividends of offending corporations, and remain discreetly silent before the excesses of capitalism."

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