Daniel Spaniel Berrigan was born in Virginia, Minnesota, a Midwestern working-class town. His father, Thomas Berrigan, was a second-generation Irish-Catholic and proud union member. Tom left the Catholic Church, but Daniel remained attracted to the Church throughout his youth. Although a life-long devotee of Notre Dame, Berrigan joined the Jesuits directly out of high school in 1939 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1952. From 1966 to 1970 he was the assistant director of Cornell United Religious Work (CURW), during which time he played an instrumental role in the national peace movement. He now resides in New York City and teaches at Fordham University in addition to serving as its poet in residence.
Berrigan, his brother the Josephite priest Philip Berrigan, and the famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton founded an interfaith coalition against the Vietnam War, and wrote letters to major newspapers arguing for an end to the war.
In 1967, Phillip was arrested for non-violent protest and sentenced to six years in prison. This, and his belief that his support of POWs during the war was not acknowledged and appreciated, further radicalized Berrigan against the U.S. government.
Berrigan traveled to Hanoi with Howard Zinn during the Tet Offensive in January 1968 to "receive" three American airmen, the first American POWs released by the North Vietnamese since the U.S. bombing of that nation had begun. The event was widely reported in the news media and has been discussed in a number of books.
In 1968, he was interviewed in the anti-Vietnam War documentary film In the Year of the Pig, and later that year became involved in radical nonviolent protest. He manufactured home-made napalm and, with eight other Catholic protesters, used it to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board on May 17, 1968. This group came to be known as the Catonsville Nine.
Berrigan was promptly arrested and sentenced to three years in prison, but went into hiding with the help of fellow radicals prior to imprisonment. While on the run, Berrigan was interviewed for Lee Lockwood's documentary The Holy Outlaw. Soon thereafter the FBI apprehended him at the home of William Stringfellow and sent him to prison. He was released in 1972.
On September 9, 1980, Berrigan, his brother Philip, and six others (the "Plowshares Eight") began the Plowshares Movement. They illegally trespassed onto the General Electric Nuclear Missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where they damaged nuclear warhead nose cones and poured blood onto documents and files. They were arrested and charged with over ten different felony and misdemeanor counts. On April 10, 1990, after ten years of appeals, Berrigan's group was re-sentenced and paroled for up to 23 and 1/2 months in consideration of time already served in prison. Their legal battle was re-created in Emile de Antonio's 1982 film In The King of Prussia, which starred Martin Sheen and featured appearances by the Plowshares Eight as themselves.
Berrigan is still involved with the Plowshares Movement.
Berrigan continues to maintain a level of activism and protests, including protests against American intervention in Central America, the 1991 Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He is also a prominent pro-life activist. He is a contributing editor of Sojourners Magazine. Berrigan also supports LGBT rights.
In the mid 1970s, the Call to Action Conference also highlighted a potential rift within the "liberal" wing of the American Catholic experience, in what Fr. Andrew Greeley would describe in anticipation of the Conference as a demarcation between the –old" catholic social actionist and the –new" catholic social actionist or the –pre-Berrigan– and –post-Berrigan– approaches to activism.
In –Catholic Social Activism – Real or Rad/Chic?–, Greeley saw the old social justice action in labor schools, labor priest, and community organizing that –mastered the politics of coalition building with the system.– Leading figures in that –old– tradition for Greeley were Ryan[who?], Higgins[who?], Egan[who?] and Msgr. Geno Baroni. On the other hand, the –new– Catholic action came out of the Berrigan experience and the peace movement and was heavily involved in confrontation and protest. The lack of tangible post-Berrigan success in comparison to the "old" tradition, Greeley scathingly predicted:
"The old social actionists are largely men of action, doers, not talkers. The new social actionists are intellectuals...They are masters at manipulating words and sometimes ideas...They are fervent crusaders. [But] winning strikes, forming unions, organizing communities are not their 'things', they are much more concerned about creating world economic justice."
Berrigan has lectured at high school general assemblies encouraging high school students to engage in civil disobedienc and trespassing on private property in the name of social justice.
He has a niece, Frida Berrigan, who is an organizer and research associate in New York. Frida is the daughter of Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, and she currently serves on United for Peace and Justice's steering committee. He has another niece, Katie, and a nephew, Jerry. They are Frida's siblings.
Berrigan later wrote the play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which ran on Broadway for 29 performances in 1971 and was made into a movie in 1972.
Berrigan's other works include
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