“Throw the Mighty from their Thrones” – Catholics and Pacifism

Spring 2016 Dorothy Day
Demonstrating for peace with the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, Spring 2016 (me, 2nd from the right)

Then he will judge between the nations and arbitrate between many peoples. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, no longer will they learn how to make war -Isaiah 2: 4

Fighting for peace has always been part of my experience as a Catholic. On my first Alternative Break Immersion through Loyola University, I had the privilege to live in a Dorothy Day Catholic worker for a spring break and live out the principles that Danial Berrigan fought for. The highlight of my experience in D.C. was standing in front of the White House and have people write what they believed human dignity meant to them on a banner (shown above). I actually have this same banner hanging in my apartment bedroom as a reminder of what sits at the center of the Catholic message, working for peace.

My experience and reading has taught me that the response that Catholics have to the politics of war is to promote peace. How one believes this is best accomplished depends on where one sits ideologically. The Rev. Au, in his article “American Catholics and the Dilemma of War 1960-1980”, describes different responses to war that were articulated in the 20th century. One response was the Catholic realists who saw war as an unavoidable part of our international system. It is subsequently better for Catholics to work within the framework that already exists. War is tool to use in this worldview. Au describes the idealist branch of the Catholic church who sought to resist war in all of its forms. This school of thought informs the ministry of Daniel Berrigan, William Stringfellow, and the Catholic Worker.

Danial Berrigan Arrested

Au describes these Catholics as creating a pacifism of resistance. I believe that this term best describes the Catholicism described in the Hank Center’s week of programming for Berrigan week. In the documentary “Seeking Shelter: A Story of Place, Faith and Resistance”,  Berrigan and Stringfellow’s community on Block Island is explored. Their “pacifism of Resistance” is shown in two ways. First, they literally resisted on the island. It was on Block Island that Danial Berrigan was arrested without fighting back. He let his actions of nonviolence protest and his life story fight against the oppressive systems of war. Secondly, the documentary showed the powerful community that Berrigan created on the island. Over dinners and conversation, Berrigan was resisting the popular ideas of war of the time. Through the documentary, one gets the idea that Daniel Berrigan would have a simple answer to the question of the relationship between Catholicism and politics. Catholicism asks its adherents to resist all war through nonviolent resistance and strong community.

Night of Music and Poetry of Protest September 20th 

This idea of Catholicism motivating its followers resist war is a powerful one. Just like any powerful idea, its effect is compounded when put to music. At the night of Poetry and Music saw the crowd to singing the classic protest anthem “Down by the Riverside”. This song, made famous by Pete Seeger in the mid 20th century, was sung by protesters throughout the country. I was struck by the line “ain’t going to study war no more”. This line encapsulates the ideas described by Au and the documentary. If one claims to follow the example of Berrigan and Stingfellow, one has to work to have others not study war no more. The relationship between Catholicism and politics is to motivate the nations of the world to quit war.


The relationship between Catholicism and war is a complex one with different perspectives from different thinkers. The realists saw war as an appropriate tool in certain circumstances. This ran contrary to the revolutionary theology and life of Daniel Berrigan who saw that Catholics should resist war and persuade others to do the same. I have seen how powerful of a theology this is during my time at the Dorothy Day House.  The peace that Berrigan dreamed of is still living in the church and in the hearts of Catholics who deeply desire to plow the world’s swords into ploughshares.

“Unwanted Papists” – Catholics and Citizenship

Anti-Catholic from 1870 (Catholic League)

“He then offered a sacrifice on the mountain and invited his kinsmen to share in the meal. When they had eaten, they passed the night on the mountain” – Genesis 31: 54

A refrain common throughout Catholic communities is that the faithful are part of the “Kingdom of God”. All Catholics can find solace by being members of the heavenly system, their citizenship under temporal powers has been slightly more fraught. To what extent have Catholics been American citizens? This is a complicated question that has many interconnected dimensions. I believe that many Catholic groups have not been treated as citizens throughout American history because they were at the center of three despised identities: religion, ethnic identity, and class. In contemporary America, a Catholic’s religious identity has become more accepted while their class and ethnic identity remains decisive.

Their religious identity as Roman Catholics prevented many of the faithful from being considered Catholic. One can look at the attitudes towards Catholics in the 18th century to understand that many American Protestants were afraid of Catholics’ perceived undying loyalty to the Pope. While this sentiment continued until the 20th century, the idea that Catholic belief inevitably led to Catholics to be unfaithful to American ideals of freedom and liberty was widespread throughout the original 13 colonies.

Throughout American history, newly arrived Catholics also happened to belong to unwanted ethnic groups. For example, James Barrett devoted sections of his book The Irish Way to the plight of the Irish when they arrived on American shores. Due to their identities as Irish, they were systematically kept out of systems of power in the United States. Italian immigrants have a vary similar story of people unwanted. These two groups also happened to be majority Catholic.

Statue of Irish Labor Leader James Connolly in Union Park (Own Photo)

The third identity that intersected with ethnic and religious identity is class. Throughout the 20th century, many Catholic immigrants were laborers who fought for their right to unionize. For example, James Connolly (1868-1916) was an Irish Catholic labor organizer that fought for Irish Catholic workers in Chicago. He is memorialized in Union park by a statue. In the American system, many Catholic workers were at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole in regards to power. Because of this, many Catholics were not treated as full citizens because they were tied to the whims of bosses and business. It is difficult to be treated as a citizen when your identity group does not hold power. Catholics were also abused during labor protests. Catholic workers were part of the infamous Haymarket riots. Throughout American history, Catholics typically were part of the class that was most abused and subsequently not treated as citizens.

Haymarket Memorial in Chicago (own photo)

While Catholics were historically not treated as citizens, I believe that the situation has slightly changed. I believe that discrimination against Catholics has mostly ceased on religious grounds, while certain Catholic groups’ ethnic and class identity remain a blockade. The United States government has and has had Catholic serving in its highest offices in the last few decades. Former vice-president Joe Biden and a majority of the Supreme Court are Catholic. Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016 was also a practicing Catholic. There are some isolated scenarios where a person’s Catholic identity is a problem. For example, Amy Barrett, who was one of the floated candidates for Anthony Kennedy’s vacant Supreme Court seat, was questioned on her Catholic faith’s role in her judicial decision making. These cases are uncommon, and practicing Catholics remain to be part of the American system.

Joe Biden meets Pope Francis (Catholic News Service)

While Catholicism as an isolated dimension does not prevent someone from being a citizen in modern America, there are ethnic and class groups that are predominately Catholic that are not treated as citizens. Latinos in the United States make up a large portion of the American Catholic population, and they often see themselves locked out of systems of power in the United States. They also are found working jobs with lower pay. I believe that in this scenario, it is the group’s class and ethnic identity that prevents them from being considered citizens rather than their religious affiliation.

To what extent have Catholics been American citizens? In summery, I believe that different groups of Catholics have not been treated as citizens. In Modern America, Catholicism has largely stopped been a factor in not considering someone as a citizen. While certain groups that are predominately Catholic continue to not be considered citizens, it is due to prejudice against their class and ethnic identity. Questions of citizenship and identity are not easy. A thorough reading of the historical record demonstrates that Catholic groups have faced challenges to be treated as citizens.


Catholics and Political Issues: A Diversity of Opinions

Daniel Barrigan, a Catholic Peace Activist, protesting nuclear weapons

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. – Luke 1: 52

My Name is Mark Neuhengen and I am a double major in History and Religious Studies with minors in Islamic World Studies, Arabic Language and Culture, and Catholic Studies. I decided to name my blog “I will Go to the altar of God” after the opening of the old pre-Vatican II form of the mass. In the context of liturgy, the phrase represented Catholics bringing all that they had to God and the desire to know him more deeply. I believe that the phrase is a useful metaphor for Catholic involvement in the American political system. Similar to how Catholics in worship brought what is good in their lives to God, Catholics bring what they believe is good to the political sphere. I am excited to learn what Catholics brought to our American system and how certain issues divided them. In this first blog, I am going to discuss political issues that are important to me and to Americans of generations past. This will be followed by a discussion on Catholic opinions on these issues.

People can look at the world and feel a sense of injustice. There is always a political issue or social injustice that we feel should be corrected. I am  not the exception. There are many things that one can get fired up over in our world, but there are three issues that spark my passion. The first issue is Capital Punishment and torture. In my opinion, there is no other issue that gets to the center of the moral character of a nation than these issues. Do we believe that the government has the authority and the clear outlook to end someone’s life? Do we think that our government should put people through unspeakable pain for a higher goal? These are questions that a nation has to ask itself.

Closely connected to that issue is the idea of nuclear weapons. We currently live in a world where a handful of countries have the capability to annihilate all human life on the planet. the ownership and maintenance of these weapons bring up more ethical questions. Should nations be allowed to have such fire power? How does society exist in world with such weapons constantly threatening us? How do we think and remember the victims of nuclear weapons. The third issue for me is access to education and literacy. I am a firm believer that ignorance is the cause of many ills in the world. If we could only experience the lives of others, we might be able to become more human to each other. One way to do this is through education. By having people read and learn about our collective humanity, we might be able to understand each other better.

The Catonsonvile Nine, A group of Catholic Peace Activists, burn draft cards

I believe that the political issues that were important to Americans of prior generations change depending on the era. For example, the Americans of the late 1960’s were concerned about the American war efforts in Vietnam. Forty years later, many Americans were divided regarding the American invasion of Iraq. These are just two examples of issues that people were concerned about. It would take a book to write out every issue that was important to Americans throughout history.

When it comes to the Catholic vote on these issues, I believe that there might be a divide between the official teaching of the Church and the laity at large. Regarding my first issue, capital punishment and torture, the Vatican has been vocal on condemning both. Because of this official condemnation, I believe that many Catholics would vote against these measures. There is evidence that not all Catholics share Rome’s opinion. For example, the current Catholic governor of Nebraska Pete Ricketts has largely ignored Pope Francis’ recent labeling of the death penalty as inadmissible. I also believe that Catholic opinions on torture might learn more negatively, but there are still people within the Church who support it.

Catholic opinions on nuclear weapons might be more complicated. There is a historic precedence of Catholics such as Father Dan Barrigan building their ecclesiastical careers on an opposition of nuclear weapons. Pope Francis has also condemned the use of such weapons. There was also a community of Jesuits living in Hiroshima when the bomb went off. In a religious world view that values life above other characteristics, it makes sense that the Catholic Church would be opposed to a weapon that can annihilate all life on the planet. Regardless of the official teaching of the church, I can understand that there might be a group within the church that understands Nuclear weapons value in defending the nation. Once again, the issue is a controversial one with no easy solution.

I believe that Catholic opinion on education and literacy is more clear cut. With a history of Catholic schools, the Roman Catholic church advocates for people to learn about the world and the ideas that fill it. The controversy among Catholics and education may involve how that education should function. Should Catholic schools receive federal funding? How much control should the government have regarding what is taught in Catholic schools? Catholic voters would have different opinions depending on their priories and the extent that they believe in the justness of the issue.

In regards to how Catholics voted on historical political issues, I believe that it differed depending on the issue. Whether it was Vietnam, Iraq, or any other controversial topic, one can always guess that the Catholic vote would be the result of many different factors. I believe that the greatest factor that one has to consider when looking at how Catholics historically voted is the prime motivator for Catholics; life. At the center of Church teaching is the idea that life is sacred and should be protected and nurtured. How this idea manifests in the world may differ from person to person. For example, a Catholic in 1965 might argue that the U.S. was protecting life by going to war with North Vietnam. A different Catholic might have said that such an effort would only cause more harm and destruction. While both Catholics have the same end goal, advocating for life, how that vote manifested was different.

The Catholic church and American politics is a complex subject matter with many different dimensions. I am excited this semester to come to a deeper understanding of the issues that Catholics fought for and against during the Great American century.

A 1926 anti-Catholic cartoon from the KKK