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Review: The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left

In 2012, Notre Dame Press published a fortieth anniversary edition of William O’Rourke’s The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, a contemporaneous account of the trial of seven defendants–four radical priests, two nuns, and one Pakistani academic–for conspiring to blow up buildings in Washington, DC and abduct Henry Kissinger. It sounds like a report from another world — a world in which the faces of two antiwar “Rebel Priests” could appear on the cover of Time.

The Church has changed since 1972. The young O’Rourke begins his account at a Requiem Mass for one of the defense counsels. Prosecutors and indicted federal felons are “constrained and at rest with one another, united by death.” He then imagines a collective pilgrimage to Harrisburg for the trial. O’Rourke will end without much evident hope: the government discredited and the Catholic Left broken, with a post-trial Mass in a Harrisburg living room at which the final words are “We should be dismissed in hope.” The Church, still distinctive and stubbornly inseparable, is “tenacious,” O’Rourke notes, more a “race” than a “religion.” He hadn’t been to Mass for a decade before these events. But a vivid Catholic imagination still permeates both the events and the writing of this book, published in the very same year as Garry Wills’ account of dissolution, Bare Ruined Choirs.

But how did these priests and nuns end up on trial in central Pennsylvania?

Seeking funds to hire another thousand agents in 1970 and speaking before a closed session of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, J. Edgar Hoover darkly warned of a conspiracy headed by the priest-brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Naturally, O’Rourke likens Hoover, then in his forty-ninth year heading the FBI, to “Caesar.” The FBI director’s evidence was purloined letters between Sister Elizabeth McAllister and Father Philip Berrigan, then jailed for having burned draft records in Catonsville, Maryland. The letters, more fantastic than conspiratorial, were supplied by an informant, Boyd Douglas. Inevitably, O’Rourke envisions the prosecutor, William Lynch, invoking “the name of Boyd F. Douglas; this is my informer with whom I’m well pleased.” Just as inevitably, the jury took the case on Holy Thursday 1972.

This is a theological story. Douglas had met Berrigan in prison. Douglas already bore scars from a failed National Institutes of Health experiment. So, Douglas could be trusted: “he has shown you his scars.” The informer took the incriminating letters for Berrigan much like a priest — “the priesthood is a courier system,” after all. During the trial, however, it became clear that Boyd Douglas was a dubious witness, at one time having requested a “reward” (albeit for $50,000 and not thirty pieces of silver). But the question still remained stubbornly theological. Was Douglas “redeemable?” Only one defense counsel was not interested in the informant’s tainted soul, and Leonard Boundin’s harsh yet effective questioning of Douglas is at one point likened to a “stoning.” O’Rourke wonders if William Lynch, the prosecutor (also a Catholic), will one day imagine “Boyd Douglas’ scars, [as] a modern stigmata.” One can’t get away from symbols, even in a courtroom. The Catonsville case became a play; the Harrisburg case seems to have been another candidate for drama.

Legally speaking, the government’s case was disastrously weak, and, after the expenditure of $28 million, the defendants were only found guilty of minor charges involving “contraband.”

But this is not a success story for the Catholic Left.

O’Rourke portrays the Catholic Left as innocent, tied to a parochial subculture: it still naively wanted to restructure the country along the lines of a restructured Church. When a mini-skirted Joan Baez appears in Harrisburg, she is “a hedonistic mirage to the parched and chaste Catholic Leftists.” This telling “chasteness” becomes a side issue because the letters between Berrigan and McAllister showed a degree of romantic love. Sister Elizabeth was in love with Berrigan, and she was, Berrigan wrote, apparently the “first” woman to have “enkindled” him (they would later marry.) More than that, McAllister and Berrigan had, at the very least, explored violence. As Jim Forest notes in a foreword to this fortieth anniversary edition, “There was still a current of battlefield violence running within [Berrigan’s] adoption of nonviolence.” In the book’s afterword, written forty years later, O’Rourke says that the Catholic Left had lost “moral superiority.”

Much has changed. In fact, the trial’s lasting significance might be an issue that O’Rourke barely noticed. This was the first trial in which the defense, worried about the defendants’ prospects in conservative Harrisburg, used scientific jury selection. The ideal juror? Ironically, “a female Democrat with no religious preference and a white-collar job or a skilled blue-collar job.”

So, what happened to the Catholic Left?

In his useful afterword, O’Rourke speculates on this question. The Vietnam War finally ended. The Catholic Left lost relevance because it lacked a coherent economic ideology. O’Rourke also notes that a “Catholic Right” implacably opposed to abortion took over the Left’s “symbolic protest.” It is true that, as Margaret Ross Sammon has written, Roe v. Wade finally moved the Catholic bishops, seemingly invisible in O’Rourke’s account of the 1972 trial, to suggest civil disobedience for the first time. But, even if the pro-life movement now seems conservative and the antiwar movement liberal, there really were connections between them. Daniel Berrigan, Phillip’s more contemplative if equally imprisoned Jesuit brother, would come to participate in pro-life “rescues.” The Catholic “Father of Rescue,” John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe, had a background in the antiwar movement.

And the Catholic Left continued (and continues) to exist. Philip Berrigan would destroy missile hatches and pour blood on the instruments of a nuclear weapon-equipped destroyer in 1997. Last year, Sister Megan Rice, an 84-year old nun in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, acting as part of the Plowshares group started by the Berrigans, was sentenced to prison for spilling blood on a bunker of weapons-grade uranium in Tennessee. But these actions did not make the cover of Time, despite some coverage in a variety of news sources.

Why was this? O’Rourke notes the importance of symbolism to the Catholic Left. When it had participated in draft board raids, the Catholic Left would emerge to take responsibility in “surfacings,” meant to resemble the “surfacings” of the Risen Christ. The presence of blood in the activism also shows that “Catholics revered their symbols.” As O’Rourke says, “Blood, paper, fire. Catholics are used to having one thing turn into another.”

But perhaps these symbols became less recognizable. Although the Catholic Left was Catholic, it was also American, if in a utopian manner. Philip Berrigan, once a soldier, was still willing to be sacrificed for his country. Indeed, O’Rourke tells us, “He identifies his country and himself till they are inseparable;” he was personally stained by his government’s sins. Now this is a more remote possibility. The Catholic theologian Cathleen Kaveny has written that would-be prophets should see their audience as fellow citizens of Israel with whom they stand in solidarity, and their jeremiads should always be situated in a collective “horizon of hope.” Maybe now, in America, a “Catholic” identity is almost inevitably set up against a seemingly more inclusive “American” identity. Blood, paper, and fire seem less symbols of a common hope than a divisive threat. The jeremiad can no longer be heard in our fragmentation.

And the cover of Time isn’t what it once was, anyway.


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