Drawing parallels between Bergoglio and Berrigan

These men, both Jesuits, provide link to the different faces of Catholic radicalism
Drawing parallels between Bergoglio and Berrigan

Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, right, and actor Martin Sheen, third from right, join the annual School of the Americas protest in 1999 at Fort Benning, Ga. Father Berrigan, an early critic of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam who for years challenged the country's reliance on military might, died April 30 at 94. (Photo by CNS)

It was a perfect split-screen moment May 6 for Catholics trying to understand the complex interface between their church and politics in the modern world.

On that day, just a few hours apart, two very different scenes unfolded — Pope Francis accepted this year’s prestigious Charlemagne Prize and Daniel Berrigan SJ, who died April 30th at 94 years of age, was being committed to God.

The events took place on two very different stages.

The first was the Sala Regia in the Vatican Palace, the marvelous antechamber to the Sistine Chapel, which takes its name from the fact that it is a ceremonial hall used for papal receptions of kings, princes, and ambassadors. The second was the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan, a progressive and inclusive church in the heart of New York City.

These ceremonies also featured two divergent gatherings of people.

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In front of Pope Francis was a select assembly of prime ministers, heads of state and royals like the King of Spain. There were also many elected officials and top bureaucrats of the European Union, including Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank.

Those in the liturgical assembly that said goodbye to Daniel Berrigan — priest, poet and prophet of nonviolence — were admirers and followers of a Jesuit who became famous in 1968 for burning the draft cards of young men being sent to fight in Vietnam. Convicted with the other members of the "Catonsville nine," he went underground when it was time to show up for his prison sentence and landed on the FBI’s "most wanted list."

The political messages coming from these two events were similar, but also contained some significant differences.

The similarities came from the prophetic role the church continues to play in waking consciences that — according to Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato si' — have been lulled to sleep by the "technocratic paradigm."  

The pope gave this stern wake-up call to European leaders gathered at the Vatican:

"What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom? What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters? What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives, for the dignity of their brothers and sisters?"

Father Stephen Kelly SJ made a similar point in his homily at the funeral of Dan Berrigan, saying this:

"Are we to remain in a catatonic stupor, asleep, drunk, unconscious or in flat-lined existence? In these United States of Amnesia? Will we arrive at perdition, dominion of death with our freedom never used, intact? What good is it if paralyzed in fear? Liberated, but not loving."

But interesting differences also were discernable in these two events highlighting prophetic Catholicism.

At St. Francis Xavier, the spiritual, theological and political legacy of Catholic radicalism in 20th-century America was on display. (Interestingly, it was only a few weeks after the funeral of Mother Angelica, quite the polar opposite of Father Berrigan). 

The Jesuit priest's funeral was a reminder of the huge impact that public figures like him and his priest-brother Philip, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton have had on, not only Catholics, but also on American culture as such. These were Christians bound to the dictates of moral conscience inspired by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not to the orders of legal authorities, including those in the church.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis was giving witness to a different kind of Catholic radicalism in the Sala Regia. The speech he gave upon accepting the Charlemagne Prize offered an interesting mix of Catholic counterculturalism and of mainstream, status quo Catholic common sense.

Francis acknowledged the contribution of Christians in building the unity of the European continent, but he also reminded everyone that the dynamic nature of Europe was made of different cultures and ethnicities.

His countercultural message focused on the need to recognize the human dignity of all people, including those who flee and migrate from countries ravaged by war and poverty. The pope said he dreamed of a Europe in which "being a migrant is not a crime." He did so in front of many European leaders who came to the Vatican last week basically begging a bishop from Argentina to help Europeans rediscover what Europe really is.

Francis challenged the political institutions of Europe to change, but without being defiant. Instead, he quoted at length the founding fathers of the post-war European project — conservative Catholic politicians such as Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman.

This is not just because the Bishop of Rome cannot be as radical as a New York priest. There are clearly similarities between the two Jesuits — Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) and Daniel Berrigan — in their evangelical radicalism.

But there are also significant differences. That is due not only to their distinct roles and personalities, but also because of the different positioning of the Catholic Church in separate parts of the world.

In the United States in the early post-Vatican II period, the Vietnam War had an impact on Catholic radicals comparable to what the rejection of Humanae Vitae had on Catholic conservatives. During these last 50 years, Catholicism in the United States has tended to see itself in countercultural terms. For Catholics like Berrigan, it has been a struggle against the culture of militarism, while for those more in line with Mother Angelica it has been resistance to the culture of the liberal mainstream.

But someone like Bergoglio does not define his vision of Catholicism in the same countercultural terms. Rather, he sees it as a prophetic call within a culture, not against it. This is not only a matter of method, but also of theology. In Pope Francis’ case, it is the "theology of the people," which works from within and with the people. The pope proceeds from a center that he identifies as the lived faith of the people.

Location has made a difference, too. A New York Jesuit faces the Americanization of the world much more directly than a confrere in Buenos Aires. There is also the matter of how Catholics see their role in their domestic politics. European and Latin American Catholics see their countries as being built originally (even if accidentally) as Catholic nations, making it more for them to adopt a radical countercultural stance. Believers in the United States cannot as easily identify the American project with the idea of "Catholic roots."

There is no doubt that much of what Francis is saying is a product of the growth of Catholicism vis-a-vis political modernity, which we owe to figures like the Berrigans and Dorothy Day in the United States, Father Lorenzo Milani in Italy and liberation theologians in Latin America.

But it is all a very complex picture.

Catholic history shows that it takes time to puts all the pieces in place. For example, it is interesting to wonder how the authoritarian Jesuit provincial, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, would have dealt with a "disobedient" confrere like Daniel Berrigan facing Argentina's dictatorship in the 1970s.

Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli

 

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