“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.

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