'Sick at Heart': The Lonely Radicalism of the Catonsville Nine

Catholic radicals burned hundreds of draft cards with homemade napalm in 1968. Here’s what modern activists can learn from them.
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Catonsville Knights Columbus

The Knights of Columbus Hall in Catonsville, Maryland. (Photo: John Lingan)

There is a great big white box in the center of my hometown's main drag, a sprawling Victorian home somehow tucked between the cozy brick post office to its east and the prairie-Brutalist library next door. Nothing else in town looks like this place, and since it was only a few blocks from my sanctuary, the Record & Tape Traders, I probably looked at it 10,000 times over the course of my childhood. But I never really saw it; it was just local furniture. From the little marquee out front I’d gleaned it was the Catonsville, Maryland, Knights of Columbus hall, but despite countless bike rides along the too-skinny, crumpled sidewalk right outside, I don't think I ever stopped to wonder who the Knights of Columbus actually were in the first place.

I certainly never assumed that this squat, bright building had hosted a signal act of American countercultural revolt. In May 1968, the same season as Martin Luther King's assassination and the Prague Spring, two Catholic priests and their seven radical confreres stole hundreds of military draft cards from this building and burned them in protest of the Vietnam War. Forcing their way into the second-floor offices that a draft board rented from the Knights, the Catonsville Nine brought the cards out to the sunny parking lot in wire trashcans, where they poured on homemade napalm and lit a match.

The best-known member of the Nine is probably Daniel Berrigan,* the socially conscious priest and poet who wrote a play about the group's act of witness that was eventually turned into a feature film. He also wrote a sort of mission statement for the group that is probably its foremost cultural legacy, particularly this Vonnegut-worthy passage:

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children.

But Vietnam wasn’t the only thing on their minds. The lay-members, fellow Catholics all, were activists for causes as varied as South American workers’ rights and domestic urban renewal. The Nine were deliberate, provocative, and media-savvy, having alerted news crews and reporters of their intentions and even bussing them in to witness the card-burning firsthand. Four of the group were awaiting sentencing for a different instance of draft-card vandalism earlier that year. (The so-called Baltimore Four doused military records in blood, but were unsatisfied by the destruction. They chose their weapon for Catonsville with intent to annihilate the government’s death papers, not merely sully them.)

America still doesn’t accept property destruction as legitimate protest; we remain far too fond of property for that. And the left, for all its moral commitment, doesn’t often look to religious figures for leadership.

They wanted to be seen. They wanted to be arrested. They wanted multiple priests to be involved since one could be dismissed as a lone wolf. With two, they could inoculate themselves against charges of nihilism or secular anarchy, while simultaneously indicting the church for its complicity in an unjust war. They used napalm, the trademark American weapon in southeast Asia, and performed their protest on church-owned property.

The Catonsville Nine were principled, confrontational, and unafraid—the exact opposite of Catonsville as I perceived it back then. I wasn’t alone in my adolescent sense of the town’s torpor; after casing every draft board in the Baltimore area, the Nine had ultimately chosen my town because its very sleepinesss decreased the likelihood that anyone would get hurt. In 1968, Catonsville was, in the words of one historian of the Nine, “a lily-white, middle-class suburban town of smug brick houses and pleasant oak-lined streets.” That was still exactly true in the '90s.

Despite being the town’s sole claim to historical importance, The Catonsville Nine were still only talked about in guarded terms when I lived there. My parents had friends who once traveled in the same late-'60s socially minded Catholic community in Baltimore. The local library once hosted an in-depth exhibition about the context and impact of their demonstration. But Catonsville didn’t—and doesn’t—claim the event or capitalize off its mystique. It’s common for Baby Boomers’ children to find relics of that time hidden away—our parents’ disused record collections, or faded photo albums filled with beards and overalls. But this was something different. The Catonsville Nine weren’t hippies; they were hardcore religious idealists, soldiers of peace, and their actions and political legacy are far more complex than, say, the cultural afterlife of the Byrds.

Who claims the Catonsville Nine today? I grew up going to an ultra-laid-back church where the worship music was played on acoustic guitars, and never heard a peep about Daniel Berrigan or his brother Philip, the other priest to participate in the protest. I marched against the second war in Iraq and never heard anyone propose an act of civil disobedience equivalent to the burning of draft cards. America still doesn’t accept property destruction as legitimate protest; we remain far too fond of property for that. And the left, for all its moral appeals, doesn’t often look to religious figures for leadership. A priest-led effort to destroy government property isn’t a natural fit for today’s preponderance of humanist-technocrat Democrats. Safer to organize carefully, run an effective ground game, and push public opinion to the point where politicians must embrace a cause if only to remain relevant.

On the eve of Independence Day 2015, we’re once again living in a legitimately radical moment.

Last week’s gay marriage ruling was a triumph of that approach, the culmination of decades of brave political and cultural boundary-pushing that ended in the American government's most sacred halls. But the gay liberation movement didn’t start as a Supreme Court case; it started with people baldly asserting their humanity in the face of injustice and violence. It started with challenges to the very legitimacy of anti-gay laws, just as today’s demonstrations against police brutality stand in proud opposition to a crooked and unchecked justice system.

On the eve of Independence Day 2015, we’re once again living in a legitimately radical moment, one where long-held and potentially oppressive belief systems are finally being called out as unacceptable. The appeal to “religious liberty” as a shield for discrimination simply will not fly anymore, just as it’s suddenly, finally become a social liability to revere or endorse the Confederate battle flag. Our current Pope—a Jesuit like Daniel Berrigan, and the first such pontiff in the Vatican’s history—has become a global liberal icon simply by acknowledging truths about climate change and discrimination that many of us accepted a decade or more ago.

But these changes don’t happen simply because of new laws or congressional action. They happen because minds are changed and the public consciousness shifts. It is a meaningful act of non-violent protest to film an abusive cop and post the video online. It’s equally meaningful to scale a statehouse flagpole and forcibly remove a symbol of oppression. “I come against you in the name of God,” shouted Bree Newsome as she removed the stars and bars and held the flag above her head for supporters to see. Descending, she proclaimed, “The lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Before stepping back on the ground, she said frankly, even happily, “I’m prepared to be arrested.”

The point of this kind of protest, like the Catonsville Nine’s or the peaceful marches in Baltimore or Ferguson, is to show how flimsy authority really is. An evil flag can be taken down quickly, regardless of cowardly appeals to proper process. A wall of officers with military-grade weaponry can be gently overwhelmed by unarmed citizens. A military draft can be disrupted by nine people with a couple of trashcans. In all these scenes, moral indignation and righteousness are more important than actual concrete goals. The point is to reach minds, to shine a light, and to appeal to outsiders’ sense of right and wrong—their sense of patriotism.

“Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it,” wrote Thoreau, condemning slavery in “Civil Disobedience.” The Catonsville Nine stand as modern saints to this belief. Their inspiring legacy is right there, as plain as a white social hall on Main Street. We need only see it for what it really is.

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Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.

*UPDATE—July 3, 2015: This article has been updated to correct an errant reference to Ted Berrigan (a completely different poet from Daniel Berrigan).

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