The Pope and Catholic Radicals Come Together Against Nuclear Weapons

Daily Comment

“When something difficult is attempted,” Daniel Berrigan said, “it is like trying to break a rock with an egg.” Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and social radical, who died in 2016, at the age of ninety-four, spent the last third of his life doing something difficult: trying, through protest, civil disobedience, and a steady stream of books and articles, to persuade the nuclear powers to abolish their arsenals. For his efforts, he was frequently called an out-of-touch extremist who changed nothing. But now, when the jousting of Donald Trump and other would-be political strongmen on the world stage are making the nuclear threat appear particularly urgent, there are signs that the Catholic Church has come around to the position that Catholic activists such as Berrigan have resolutely maintained for the past four decades.

Pope Francis has drawn attention to the dangers posed by environmental degradation, income inequality, and the “culture of waste.” He will turn his focus to nuclear weapons later this month, when he visits Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the cities where, in 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs—killing, by some estimates, a hundred and fifty thousand people and seventy-five thousand people, respectively. Nagasaki has been the historic center of Japan’s Catholic community since the sixteenth century, and on Sunday, November 24th, Francis will give a public address at the ground-zero site of the nuclear attack on the city. Echoing past Popes, he will doubtless denounce nuclear weapons as a threat to humanity, and their ongoing development as a grave misallocation of wealth and resources. Then he’s expected to go further. Twice in 2017, in diplomatic contexts, Francis made remarks that moved the Church away from its support of nuclear deterrence and toward advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons and condemning their “very possession.” In Nagasaki, according to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Francis will place the authority of the papal office, along with his immense personal authority, in support of that objective and call for the “the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”

A few weeks after the Pope delivers his address, seven Catholics affiliated with Plowshares, a nuclear-abolition movement formed in the nineteen-eighties, will be sentenced for breaking federal laws while carrying out a symbolic action devoted to the same objective. The action took place at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, in St. Marys, Georgia, where six Trident submarines, which carry missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, are berthed. On April 4, 2018—the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a native of Georgia—the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven, as they are now known, cut a hole in a security fence and entered the base, singing and praying, and recorded the action with body cams. They hung banners and crime-scene tape, spray-painted slogans, pounded a display of a Tomahawk missile with a hammer, and poured human blood on an official seal of the base, depicting a missile crossed with a submarine. One of them left an indictment against the United States; another left a copy of Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book “The Doomsday Machine.” A third read Pope Francis’s statement denouncing the possession of nuclear weapons. They were all arrested, jailed, and charged with conspiracy, destruction of government property, depredation of a naval installation, and trespassing. Four were released on bail after two months; the others remained in jail for more than a year.

On October 21st, the seven went before a jury in a U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia. They pled not guilty, maintaining that they had entered the base not to commit a crime but to prevent one: “omnicide”—the destruction of the human race—by nuclear weapons. Three days later, the jury found them guilty on all counts. They will be sentenced early next year.

In many ways, the Kings Bay Plowshares action was unremarkable. The tactics were typical of the movement’s previous actions: all have involved intended damage to property (a symbolic “disarming”); none have involved injury to people. The purpose, too, was the same: to bear witness to the existential peril posed by nuclear weapons. And, like the others, this action had no direct effect other than to get the participants arrested. Yet, as L. A. Kauffman, an activist and a historian of protest movements, told me, the Kings Bay break-in, which was approximately the hundredth Plowshares action since 1980, reflects a remarkable fixity of purpose. Plowshares (alongside the United Nations, the War Resisters League, and religious movements such as Pax Christi and the Fellowship of Reconciliation) has helped keep the nuclear-abolitionist position visible and, in the process, has rendered it tenable, enabling others—including now, perhaps, the Pope—to embrace it.

Plowshares is often described as an offshoot of the Catholic Worker movement, which was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, on May Day, and took shape as a loose aggregation of radical newspapers, houses of hospitality, and self-sustaining farms, then gradually became a base for nonviolence and anti-war efforts; Day herself was arrested and jailed a number of times for acts of civil disobedience, such as, in the nineteen-fifties, refusing to take part in mandatory civil-defense drills, which she considered acts of preparation for war. (She died in 1980, at the age of eighty-three, and the Church is currently considering her for sainthood.)

Plowshares is also seen as a carrying forward of the Catonsville Nine action of May, 1968, in which a group that included Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, who was also a Catholic priest, poured gasoline and soap—homemade napalm—on hundreds of draft files at a Selective Service office outside Baltimore, and set them alight, as an act of witness against the war in Vietnam. (After their sentencing, in April, 1970—members were given between two and three and a half years—four of the nine went underground. Daniel, whom the F.B.I. put on its “Ten Most Wanted” list, remained at large until August. Philip and Daniel ended up serving about thirty months and eighteen months, respectively.)

Plowshares is a movement without a leader, a formal structure, or a base of operations. The closest thing it has to a spiritual center is Jonah House, a community that collects and distributes food to people in Baltimore and advocates for nonviolence, resistance to war, and peacebuilding, which was founded in 1973, by Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, a nun with whom he had secretly exchanged marital vows in 1970. (The two left their orders and married in a civil ceremony, in 1973. Philip died in 2002.) Plowshares emerged amid the Cold War imperatives of the nineteen eighties—the arms race and the surging popular movement for a “nuclear freeze.” It has remained focussed specifically—obsessively, some would say—on nuclear weapons.

The movement takes its name and its modus operandi from a direct action that was carried out in September, 1980, when eight activists, the Berrigan brothers among them, entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and hammered two nose cones for nuclear warheads. Their aim was to carry out a biblical prophecy, from Isaiah, and “beat swords into plowshares.” According to Art Laffin, an activist and Plowshares historian who lives in Dorothy Day House, a Catholic Worker house in Washington, D.C., there were nine more actions during the arms buildup of President Reagan’s first term, and more than twenty in his second. Nearly half the actions since then have been in other countries, including England, Scotland, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand. Twenty-one have been directed against the Trident submarine missile program. All but six have led to prosecutions. In 1984, Helen Woodson and Carl Kabat, a Catholic priest, participated in the Silo Pruning Hooks action, at Whiteman Air Force Base, in Missouri, and were sentenced to eighteen years in prison—the longest sentences passed on Plowshares activists. (Neither served the full sentence.)

The Catholic Church’s position on nuclear weapons was evolving in the same period. In 1983, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published a pastoral letter titled “The Challenge of Peace.” The document, which was overseen by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Archbishop of Chicago, exposed a divide in the American Church between progressives, whose views were framed by the liberal internationalism of the Popes of the nineteen-sixties, John XXIII and Paul VI, and those steeped in the anticommunism of John Paul II and the unapologetic militarism of Reagan-era neoconservatives. During John Paul’s twenty-seven-year pontificate—he died in 2005—the Church maintained provisional support for deterrence, but Vatican policy inched toward abolition, and continued to do so under John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI.

In an address in the spring of 2010, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, who served as the Holy See’s permanent observer at the United Nations, deplored a post-Cold War situation in which nuclear weapons “have become entrenched in the military doctrines of the major powers.” Earlier that year, in a message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict had encouraged international efforts to “insure progressive disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons, whose presence alone threatens the life of the planet.” In the language of Vatican policy, Benedict’s reference to “presence alone” reflected movement toward abolition.

John Paul and Benedict tolerated deterrence “as a step on the pathway toward progressive disarmament,” Robert McElroy, the Bishop of San Diego, told me. McElroy, who holds a doctorate in political science from Stanford, took part in a Vatican conference on disarmament in 2017. There, he said, “Pope Francis surprised us by rejecting this toleration of nuclear deterrence and saying, ‘If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation [of nuclear weapons] . . . the threat of their use as well as their very possession is to be firmly condemned.’ This moved the Church from a limited toleration of deterrence to a mandatory ethic of progressive disarmament.”

The United States’ nuclear arsenal is nominally less powerful than it was during the Cold War, having been reduced through two START treaties with Russia (committing to mutual “strategic arms reduction”) and subjected to the regulations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear-arms security is more robust than it used to be, too, but the nature of the threat remains the same. This is Daniel Ellsberg’s contention in “The Doomsday Machine.” Ellsberg is best known for the Pentagon Papers; while working as an analyst for the RAND Corporation, consultants to the Department of Defense, he surreptitiously photocopied several thousand pages of classified documents about the Vietnam War, including some that contained top military officials’ misgivings about the conflict, and released them to the press. Less well known is that, in the same period, he photocopied several thousand pages of classified documents about the worldwide nuclear arsenal. For safekeeping, he gave those pages to his brother, Harry, who buried them first in a compost pile and then in a dump, where they were later destroyed in a storm. “The Doomsday Machine, which is subtitled “Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” is based on the same material, much of which was subsequently declassified or was obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

In 1961, Ellsberg was shown a top-secret briefing paper drafted for the Kennedy White House, warning that nuclear stockpiles could bring about the destruction of the planet many times over, and that the slightest miscommunication could trigger their use. Sixty years later, he says that this is still the case. The United States and Russia, and by extension the other nuclear powers, each maintains a “Strangelove”-like “doomsday machine”: “a very expensive system” of manpower and weaponry that “under conditions of electronic warning, external conflict, or expectations of attack, would with unknowable but possibly high probability bring about the global destruction of civilization and of nearly all human life on earth.”

Through small-scale human actions, Plowshares has underscored the vast scale of the nuclear danger. By undertaking actions at military facilities, it has dramatized the disconnect between the secrecy of the U.S. nuclear program and its prominence in the federal budget. By trespassing, the movement has highlighted the vulnerability of the nuclear arsenal—as was the case in the Transform Now Plowshares action, at the Y-12 nuclear facility, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in July, 2012, which was the subject of a report in this magazine.

Plowshares activists stress that nuclear weapons are an existential threat regardless of who is President. Still, the threat feels particularly un-hypothetical at present. The United States is undertaking a trillion-dollar “refurbishing” of its Cold War nuclear arsenal (first authorized by President Barack Obama) under a President who appears as reckless when it comes to the nation’s nuclear capabilities as he is about everything else. In 2016, as President-elect, Donald Trump tweeted that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” He also told MSNBC, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” Since entering the White House, he has threatened North Korea with a nuclear strike, telling reporters that any threat from Pyongyang “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In February, he withdrew the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) Treaty. In October, as he hastily cut off U.S. support for the Kurds in Syria, he broke with longstanding practice by seemingly confirming the location of U.S. nuclear warheads in the region, making them vulnerable to sabotage or to takeover by nonstate actors, such as ISIS.

Daniel Berrigan’s funeral, on May 6, 2016, brought dozens of Catholic radicals to New York City, and, in the days that followed, some Plowshares activists undertook a process of discernment in preparation for what became the Kings Bay action: reading, talking, praying, planning. The eldest of them is Elizabeth McAlister, who turned eighty last week. She has participated in dozens of acts of resistance to war, including a Plowshares action at the Griffiss Air Force Base, in upstate New York, in 1983. Martha Hennessy, sixty-four, is a granddaughter of Dorothy Day; this was her first Plowshares action. Steve Kelly, seventy, entered the Jesuit order in 1990 and has spent close to ten years in prison since then, for various anti-nuclear actions. (Almost half that time has been spent in solitary confinement, because Kelly considers himself a political prisoner and maintains a stance of full noncoöperation.) Patrick O’Neill, sixty-three, raised a family of eight children in a Catholic Worker house that he and his wife, Mary Rider, founded in Garner, North Carolina, in 1991. Mark Colville, fifty-eight, has raised six children with his wife, Luz Catarineau, at the Amistad Catholic Worker house, in New Haven, founded in 1994. Clare Grady, of the Ithaca Catholic Worker, joined the Griffiss action when she was twenty-five. Carmen Trotta, fifty-seven, has been a stalwart at the two Catholic Worker houses in the East Village since the eighties; he became particularly close to Daniel Berrigan, who lived in Jesuit residences in Manhattan and the Bronx.

Together, the group has a broad understanding of the science, politics, and international law surrounding nuclear weapons. Shortly before their trial began, however, the judge, Lisa Godbey Wood, following a precedent set in past Plowshares and other civil-disobedience cases, excluded material on those topics from evidence. Judge Wood also rejected the traditional “necessity” defense—that the activists had to take direct action because other means of protest had been exhausted. A new defense brought forward by the group’s attorneys, which sought to establish that their actions are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was also rejected. At the trial, the seven were limited to personal testimony about their “subjective” reasons for doing what they did. These ranged from straightforward revulsion toward nuclear weapons to fully “woke” social criticism. Grady characterized the Trident missile as a tool of the state used to enforce white supremacy, maintain the oppression of poor people and people of color, and degrade the environment. O’Neill told the jury, “I came to Kings Bay to deliver a message. I want my children and grandchildren, and yours, to grow up in a world free of the nuclear threat. I came to save creation from being obliterated by nuclear weapons.” Hennessy spoke of Martin Luther King’s legacy and the “giant triplets of racism, excessive materialism, militarism.” The defense showed video of O’Neill reading Pope Francis’s words denouncing the “very possession” of nuclear weapons. The defendants saw this as a small victory: it entered the Pope’s warning about the nuclear threat into the court record.

The prosecutor, in his summation, accused the seven defendants of acting as a “law unto themselves.” The jury delivered the guilty verdicts two hours later. The sentences, if run consecutively, could result in terms of twenty years or more for each defendant. Federal guidelines allow for sentences of eighteen months or less, which is in line with sentences handed down for previous Plowshares actions. The group’s attorneys will cite mitigating factors and seek sentences of time served.

Last week, I spent part of an afternoon with three of the seven at Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker house of hospitality on East Third Street, in Manhattan, where Dorothy Day lived and died. The neighborhood has been gentrified several times over since those days. (In March, one of the Catholic Workers’ neighbors on the block, the Hells Angels, closed down the clubhouse that had served as their headquarters since the sixties.) Nevertheless, the Catholic Worker meal programs and soup line serve more than a hundred people a day, five days a week. “Would ya be lookin’ for some lawbreakers?” a bearded man who opened the door said, by way of greeting, when I arrived. I joined Hennessy, Grady, and Trotta at an oval table in the library.

What had led them to undertake the Kings Bay action? “Our goal, as committed Roman Catholics, I’d say, is to proclaim the good news and to affirm that the Church has condemned nuclear weapons,” Hennessy told me. Grady described the action as “an enfleshing of the gospel.” Trotta said, “God bless Pope Francis, who recognizes what the U.S. military is and does. We aided and abetted the Dirty War, in Argentina, and he saw it: he was there.”

I asked what impact prison terms might have on their families. Hennessey spoke about her many “children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews” who would be affected, and said that she hadn’t discussed it with them. Grady coolly observed that she and her four siblings have all previously served time for civil disobedience—no small thing for their mother, although she had raised them in the tradition of nonviolent resistance. Trotta said, “Pulling away from family goes for every one of us, and there have been a lot of tears in the process.”

I first met Trotta twenty years ago, while reporting an article about Dorothy Day’s legacy. He had been engaging in lawful protests against nuclear weapons for several years at that point, and was well versed in the history of Catholic resistance. Now he told me that he had held back from joining a Plowshares action for a long time, declining three invitations to do so. “The main reason,” he said, was “that my elderly mother wouldn’t be able to comprehend it.” She died ten years ago, and, three years later, Megan Rice, a nun who was planning to take part in the Oak Ridge action, asked him to seek Daniel Berrigan’s blessing for it. Her request drew Trotta closer to the movement. He was asked to join the discernment process for the Kings Bay action, and eventually felt ready to take part in it. The decision was as much personal as ideological. “I found that the Plowshares activists were some of the best people I knew,” he said. So he participated, knowing that he would likely receive a prison sentence, and even though his father, who lives on Long Island, and whom he visits every week, is now ninety-one.

“The moral obligation of all Catholics is to press for nuclear disarmament,” Bishop McElroy told me. “There are numerous pathways toward this goal: voting, public discourse, peaceful action, and dialogue. The Kings Bay Seven represent a pathway of civil disobedience toward this end, and a personal commitment, of enormous cost, that arises from a desire to witness to the Gospel.” Pope Francis’s anticipated call for the abolition of nuclear weapons will be a similarly dramatic act for the Church, one taken after several decades of reflection and deliberation, involving three Popes and their advisers. It will follow a path set by, among others, the Plowshares radicals.