Patrick Henry: Review of Shawn Francis Peters's "The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era" (Oxford, 2012)


Patrick Henry is Cushing Eells Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Literature at Whitman College.

Daniel Berrigan’s 1987 To Dwell in Peace: An Autobiography (Harper & Row), paints his view of the family history in living color: the volcanic, deriding Irish father, ruling the roost like a “descending cyclone,” the long-suffering and dignified German mother, the loving, ever-present German grandmother, the five siblings (Thomas, John, James, Jerome, and Philip, the youngest) and their lifelong friction with their father. Daniel describes his Catholic education, call to the priesthood, Jesuit seminary training, ordination, and early years teaching high school and college. With reverence, he lists those who influenced him deeply: Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri de Lubac, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his brother Phil. The last 200 pages develop Dan’s birth as a nonviolent, peace activist and poet. “The [Vietnam] war was to turn my life around,” he wrote, and the reader witnesses the turbulent events of those years: his exile to Latin America, his trip to Hanoi with historian Howard Zinn to receive three American prisoners, the attacks on the various draft boards, and his four months underground after the sentencing for the Catonsville raid. The last portion of the book, often poetically sketched, describes later protests and trials and Dan’s work at various New York hospitals.

Ten years later, Murray Polner and Jim O’Grady published Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan ( Basic Books), which covers another 10 years (1987-1997) of their protests, now almost all in opposition to the nuclear arms buildup, and informs us much more deeply about Philip Berrigan’s life: his European service during WW II, his post-war education at Holy Cross, Josephite seminary training, total commitment to working for civil rights, ecumenism, nonviolent resistance to war and nuclear weapons. The two authors cover the October 27, 1967, Baltimore Four protest (Phil, David Eberhardt, Thomas Lewis, James Mengel), the Catonsville Nine protest, Phil’s marriage to the nun Elizabeth McAlister, their commitment to “voluntary poverty,” their founding of Jonah House in Baltimore in 1973, and the forming of the Plowshares Movement. Polner and O’Grady also detail Dan Berrigan’s work in those New York hospitals: five years as a voluntary orderly at St. Rita’s, an interracial, interfaith hospice for destitute cancer patients, and many years working with AIDS patients at St. Vincent’s.

Necessarily, The Catonsville Nine by Shawn Peters covers many of these areas again. Nonetheless, Peters has produced an original, balanced study in which the Nine are depicted neither as heroes nor charlatans. Peters, who was born in Catonsville, Maryland, eighteen months before the famous raid, teaches Liberal Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has written often about law and religion. Raised as a Catholic in Catonsville, Peters has lived with this particular story all his life and has generally considered the stories he heard about it “slightly garbled.” As a youngster, he even played on a series of baseball teams often referred to as “The Catonsville Nine.” After collecting materials about the raid for decades, he decided that the time was ripe to write his account of it.

Objective, well-written and highly interesting from a variety of angles, The Catonsville Nine stands out for two very definite reasons: it provides the most detailed and sustained account of the five-day trial itself (October 7-11, 1968) that we possess, with all its rituals, theater, and standing ovations, and it tells us what we have always wanted to know about the forgotten Catonsville Seven who have never received their due: Tom Lewis, John Hogan, Tom and Marjorie Melville, George Mische, Mary Moylan, and Brother David Darst.

On Friday, May 17, 1968, shortly before 1pm, the Nine entered Local Draft Board 33 in Catonsville, Maryland, removed approximately 370 draft files and, while they prayed, burned them with napalm in wire baskets outside the building. All nine were Catholic: one Jesuit priest, one Josephite priest, three ex-Maryknollers (one priest, one nun, and one brother), one Christian Brother, and three lay Catholics. The fact that this draft board was housed in a building owned by the Knights of Columbus allowed them to emphasize the complicity between the Catholic Church and the war in Vietnam. Selected members of the press were invited to witness and report on the event as it happened.

Peters does an excellent job of describing this action as a religiously inspired act of faith done in opposition to war, poverty, racism, and American imperialism. He also portrays the three clerks present when the action occurred, Mary Murphy, Phyllis Morsberger, and Alice Phipps, and records their reactions and opinions.

Radical lawyer William Kunstler defended the nine, all of whom admitted that they had done what they were charged with but, because of their motivations, proclaimed their innocence. They had been following a higher law. They used the trial as a public platform to voice their opposition to war, imperialism, and injustice. At their request, the trial ended with a prayer. All were sentenced to time in prison which varied from two to three and a half years. The Berrigans and George Mische became fugitives and were captured. Mary Moylan surrendered in 1979. No one served a complete term.

So who were the seven we knew so little about? Tom Lewis, one of the Baltimore Four, was an artist and peace and social justice activist working with CORE in Baltimore in the 1960s who was directly influenced by Pope Paul VI’s “No more war; war never again.” He met Phil Berrigan and, through him, other peace activists such as Dorothy Day, Tom Cornell, and Jim Forest. His motivation: “To save lives.” His marriage ended while he was in prison. After his release in September 1971, he continued to protest. He settled in Worchester, Massachusetts where he continued to do his art and work in a soup kitchen. He died in 2008.

George Mische was a peace and social justice activist who helped organize the Catonsville raid. He had worked in Central America in economic development programs and came to believe that the United States was the enemy of real democracy in that region. He was also opposed to the war in Vietnam. He came in contact with the Melvilles and John Hogan and offered them a free place to live in D.C. He was convinced that targeting draft boards would publicize the racial and socioeconomic inequities of the military draft. He served more than two years in prison and then worked in correctional reform. He eventually moved back to Saint Cloud, Minnesota where he served a term on the city council.

Brother David Darst was an inner-city Catholic high school teacher in the Midwest working with draft resisters, who was worried about the future of mankind. Phil Berrigan contacted him and he signed on to the project. He was a troubled soul, given to depression, despair, and thoughts of suicide. While out on bail, he died in a car wreck. He was not driving. Mary Moylan was a nurse, midwife, and teacher who had worked in Uganda for several years and concluded that the United States was contributing to the misery in the Congo. In D.C., she became involved in civil rights issues and Vietnam War protests and in Baltimore she helped found The People’s Community Health Center. While underground, she became further radicalized and drifted from the Catholic Church which she now saw as chauvinistic and patriarchal. She dedicated herself to the Women’s Movement but became more reclusive and alcohol dependent. She died in 1995.

Tom and Marjorie Melville both served in Guatemala in the 1950s, where he was a Maryknoll priest and she a Maryknoll nun. They were both struck by the misery and hunger people were living in and by America’s support, in the name of combating communism, of repressive and exploitive regimes. Tom and Marjorie met in 1966 in Guatemala City, and Tom began working with Maryknoll Brother, John Hogan, on various land distribution and economic development projects. All three were eventually forced out of Guatemala because of their revolutionary work. All three eventually left the Maryknoll Order and ended up in Washington, D.C., Tom and Marjorie as man and wife. Tom spoke for all three when he said: “I took part at Catonsville because of what happened to me in Guatemala” (218). After his release, Hogan settled in New Haven, working as a carpenter in public housing and volunteering with Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers. He died in 2008. Tom finished a doctorate and wrote about the repressive Guatemalan government. Mary also finished her PhD, taught about Central America at UC Berkeley and also served as Associate Dean of the University Graduate Division.

What difference did the Catonsville raid make? As Peters points out, it was responsible for Daniel Berrigan’s 1970 play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, an inspirational and dramatic work still performed all over the world. Without any doubt, the Catonsville event had a huge impact on the Catholic Church, even though the Church in general and Catholic peace activists Merton and Day did not approve of it. Still, many more clerics came out, protested the war, and were willing to take a much closer look at “Just War Theories.” Also, as Peters stresses, “According to the National Catholic Conference, only 0.5 percent of the young men applying for conscientious objector status in 1966 were Catholic. By 1969 that percentage had risen twentyfold, to 10 percent. Many of these draft resisters drew inspiration from the Catonsville Nine.”

Most important was the fact that six of the Nine were or had been priests, nuns or brothers in the Catholic Church. This gave a certain legitimacy, to many Americans, to protests of this nature that they did not have when led by persons seen as “student hippies.” All of these collective acts of resistance ultimately helped to change public opinion and that severely limited the choices the Johnson and Nixon administrations had at their disposal regarding what would be acceptable to the American people.

Today, in a world of serious nuclear proliferation, we are involved in at least two undeclared wars, one of which is the longest war in our history. We have no draft. We have no protests.

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