Berrigan was force for changing Church, society

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May 16, 2016

Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan was a radical to the core. Today, it is harder to see that since the cause for which he was most noted - an end to war - has become the Church's cause.

That, however, was not always the case, and it certainly was not the case during the Vietnam War. Few U.S. bishops denounced the war, the Knights of Columbus heartily endorsed it and the air was full of the misplaced patriotism of "My country, right or wrong."

But Berrigan, his brother Philip, Dorothy Day, and a small coterie of other Catholic radicals engaged in civil disobedience in protest against a brutal, unjustifiable war. They not only put themselves on the line; they changed the Church.

To be sure, the seeds of the Church's growing stance against war could be found in Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. However, for change to occur, often someone needs to get in the face of those who can make the change. Berrigan was an in-your-face kind of guy and deserves some of the credit for the Church's growing move to jettison the theory that some wars are justifiable.

Berrigan was also a sign of hope to many young Catholics who believed their faith called them, not just to pray daily and attend Mass weekly, but also to push for radical social change. Popes since at least John XXIII have articulated that belief. Berrigan lived it in a high-profile way.

Berrigan was a modern-day Jeremiah, one whose challenges have come to affect how we live our faith. That is a high distinction, and we can only be grateful that he passed our way. Rest in peace, you dear old pacifist.