Prophets du Jour

From the Excelsis File – December 2002

Max Scheler aptly remarked that for the Middle Ages the hero was the saint, but for the Renaissance the hero was the genius. Perhaps we can complete Scheler’s analysis by saying the hero for modernity is the anti-hero. This creature of modernity wins celebrity status by standing mightily against every cherished tradition that has defined man and his world. He relishes standing every convention on its head and wins applause from modernity’s masses by trampling upon every standard formerly erected by man’s right reason. The anti-hero makes Nietzschean transgressiveness user-friendly and turns Sartrean iconoclasm into an envious radical chic.

The anti-hero is certainly not unknown in the Catholic Church and no one wore that mantle more proudly than Philip Berrigan. His death on December 6th earned him a side-to-side obituary in the New York Times, that clearing house of anti-heroes. Along with his more camera hogging brother, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., they transformed (as in degraded) the whole notion of the priesthood for the Catholic Church in America. The Berrigans changed the priest from servant of Christ to servant of The Age. Of course, the Times lauded them for their non-violent Sixties peace activism. Like the Pope listing the heroic virtues of a saint in a bull of canonization, so did the Times solemnly intone the victories of Philip Berrigan and his Jesuit brother.

Ready for the antics of the anti-hero? In 1966 they picketed the homes of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. In 1967, the two sibling priests walked into the Baltimore Customs House and methodically spattered Selective Service records with a red liquid made partly from their own blood. For that they received six years in prison, and Philip caused his sophisticated supporters to swoon when the Josephite priest announced that he felt “exalted” at his sentence. Even before the Baltimore sentencing, Fr. Philip Berrigan, with his brother Daniel in tow, invaded a local draft board office in Catonsville, MD. There they stole hundreds of files, piled them in the parking lot, and set them burning with a mixture of gasoline and soap chips – homemade napalm.

As the Times correctly reported, “The cameras loved the Berrigans… (the Catonsville raid) elevated the Berrigan brothers to the status of superstars. ‘Father Phil’ and ‘Father Dan’ were on the cover of Time magazine and illuminated in profiles by the smartest writers” (New York Times, December 8, 2002). This incident had a fitting epilogue. The two priests reasoned that they were right in breaking the law and saw it wrong to accept their six-year prison sentence. So they went underground, and for a time were among the criminals most wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Superstars”? Hmm. The late Sixties could have found no better anti-heroes than Fr. Philip Berrigan and his brother, Fr. Daniel.

On November 20 of this year, President Bush visited Prague and poignantly remarked, “In Central and Easter Europe the courage and moral vision of prisoners and exiles and priests and playwrights caused tyrants to fall” (New York Times, November 21, 2002). Yes, indeed priests, heroic ones, have caused tyrants to fall. But they were always priests who knew they were priests, and therefore had to be heroes. Moreover, they were priests who knew real tyrants when they saw them, never falling for the papier-mache tyrants constructed from the utopian dreams of ideologues. They acted without cameras, for they acted solely for the pleasure of Christ and the glory of His Holy Church. Quite a gulf between heroes and anti-heroes. Priest-heroes slay tyrants. Priest-anti-heroes create new ones.

Bona fide anti-hero status was confirmed when Fr. Philip Berrigan fell in love with a nun, Elizabeth McCallister of the religious Order of the Sacred Heart. They secretly declared themselves husband and wife in 1969 and legalized their marriage in 1973. Excommunication soon followed. But excommunication was by no means the most dramatic consequence of ex-Fr. Philip Berrigan. This erstwhile priest, along with his brother, set in motion a sea change that still rocks the Catholic Church today.

The Berrigan brothers promulgated an unspoken permission for priests to become anti-heroes. Like their secular counterparts, celebrity rank awaited priests who had the “courage”, the “moral virtue” to challenge the standards. First and foremost, would be the standard authority of the Catholic Church: her laws, her moral law, her traditions, and her self-understanding. After that, the legitimacy of the United States of America, which Philip Berrigan contemptuously called “the American Empire”. In the argot of the Seventies, they were anointed as “prophetic”. You see, like the prophets of old who railed against the depraved status quo, these new “prophets” would rise up against a new corrupt status quo – the Catholic Church, and her evil twin sister, the USA.

Of course, there was one glaring difference between these two sets of “prophets”. The ones of the Old Testament summoned men to a more perfect obedience of the Law of God; the “prophets” of the Sixties incited men to a perfect disobedience of the Law of God. These “modern prophets” were inspirations unto themselves; the biblical “prophets” found themselves worthless except for the inspiration found in the traditions of Holy Religion. The Berrigans were consumed for the detritus of modernity. Ezechiel burned only for the glory of God.

Yet, the Berrigans were “superstars”. The New York Times said so. A certain moral boundary was pushed by the Berrigans and gradually a sea change occurred. Little by little, conduct once considered taboo for priests gradually became acceptable, if not commendable. Priestly infractions formerly incurring the most severe punishment were overlooked, or sometimes even rewarded. By the Seventies clerical life was a pell-mell mix of searing confusion and vertigo. Those who ought to have led now quickly envisaged their vocation to merely keep this chaos at manageable levels. In fact, those who demurred from the tempest were looked upon as “dangerous”. To them, punishment soon followed. Inevitably, the sheer centripetal force of this ideological hurricane would spin out of control with a catastrophic consequence. It even had a name: Priest Sex Abuse Crisis.

Any Catholic would be remiss in not praying that Fr. Philip Berrigan’s soul rests in peace. But as we pray that he does, we know that it shall be a long time before we do.

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