Among the many noteworthy additions to the Catholic magisterium within Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, was the introduction of the term “integral ecology.” In many ways, the term is meant to bring together the church’s longstanding teachings of “human ecology” and “environmental ecology.”
In another way, however, what Pope Francis is trying to get across is the importance of integrity, or of being a whole community. In the case of integral ecology, Francis wants to make it clear that in this world, “everything is connected.” In the case of living one’s life on this earth, too, everything is part of a larger whole.
Perhaps no person lived out that truth more clearly than Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who died in New York on April 30, 2016.
Any number of beautiful reflections, obituaries, and biographies have already been written about Berrigan. Himself an author of a 1987 autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, Berrigan was one of the most prolific writers – of both poetry and prose – of his time.
Even though most of his writing is classified within the “activist” genre, it is clear that there is very rich theological fare in Berrigan’s writings as well. More than that, Berrigan’s theological focus is unrelenting: it is all about Jesus. The life of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels, is so much a part of Berrigan’s writing that it would be impossible to mention Berrigan without mentioning Jesus.
The theological consequence of that reality is the integrity of Berrigan’s theology. As Saint Paul said of Jesus, “In him all things hold together” (Col 1:17); likewise with Berrigan’s theology, all things hold together in Jesus.
In that spirit, I wish to highlight three aspects of Berrigan’s theology that exemplify him as an integral theologian: the consistent ethic of life, a robust liturgical theology, and a steadfast hope.
Perhaps nowhere does Berrigan write his theology more clearly than in the area of the consistent ethic of life. Through his activism and writing, Berrigan was abundantly clear that this consistency meant opposing the “culture of death” universally on a range of issues as diverse as war, the death penalty, euthanasia, poverty, and abortion.
Why? Precisely because he didn’t consider those to be diverse issues at all. They all dealt with killing God’s creatures. That, Berrigan said in the bluntest way possible, is a sin.
Long before Cardinal Joseph Bernardin coined the term “consistent ethic of life” in the 1980s, Daniel Berrigan, along with his brother Philip and their colleagues, had put it into practice through a series of nonviolent actions of civil disobedience. The most famous of these actions occurred on May 17, 1968, when the Berrigan brothers and seven other Catholic resisters of the Vietnam War assembled to burn draft files with homemade napalm and became known as the Catonsville Nine.
Berrigan often described this type of action as salvific in its own right, or at least practicing for eternal life. Theology is not altogether concerned with the effectiveness of what is true; rather, it is concerned with the truth.
Or, as Berrigan explained in To Dwell in Peace of the Catonsville action, “one is justified in entering upon a large risk; not indeed because the outcome is assured, but because the integrity and value of the act have spoken loud. When such has occurred, matters of success or efficiency are placed where they belong: in the background.”
For Berrigan, in other words, it was not so important to believe in things that might succeed in this life; it was far more important to be consistent in standing firmly in favor of human rights.
Even though Berrigan gained a great measure of notoriety after the Catonsville Nine action, gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1971 along with his brother Phil, he had been removed from the public eye for more than a quarter-century at the time of his death. This had the unfortunate effect of many erstwhile followers of his Vietnam-era actions believing that he had left the priesthood or even the church.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Having died in the Jesuit infirmary, Berrigan remained faithful to the sacraments until his death. I believe that this fidelity was strongly linked to Berrigan’s belief that the sacraments are fundamentally political acts in that they deal with the people, the polis.
In his book They Call Us Dead Men, Berrigan explains that the liturgy “spoke of a universal act of reconciliation and love.” He felt the need to accentuate these divine aspects of the Eucharistic liturgy precisely because he saw that not every individual finds such gifts in their liturgical prayer.
Often, he lamented the reality that too many Catholics saw the liturgy as an end in itself, rather than the occasion to begin working for peace and justice.
Finally, it is most appropriate upon the passing of any faithful Christian, to note his or her hope in the Risen Christ. Here, it is very important not to confuse this hope with optimism. Berrigan was not the most optimistic theologian. In 2008, he remarked that it was “the worst time of my long life.”
Nevertheless, Berrigan was one of the most hopeful theologians I have ever read. His primary hope rested in the resurrection of Christ because, as he put it eloquently in his Lights on in the House of the Dead, “We have tried to take You at Your word.”
But merely resting on the laurels of being a Christian was anathema to Berrigan. In his America is Hard to Find, he writes, “What we plead for, what we are attempting to live, is the truth of hope, which asserts that men and women have been made new by Christ, that they can use freedom responsibly, that they can build a world uncursed by war, starvation, and exploitation. Such hope, once created, leads inevitably to nonviolent revolution.”
And so I return to Pope Francis, who called in Laudato Si’ for a “bold cultural revolution.” I would suggest that if we are looking for a theologian to usher us in such a direction, we need look no further than Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
Daniel Cosacchi received his Ph.D. in Christian ethics from Loyola University Chicago and teaches in the religious studies department at Fairfield University. He is co-editor (with Eric Martin) of the recently released The Berrigan Letters: Personal Correspondence Between Daniel and Philip Berrigan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016).