The National Catholic Review
Activist nuns, punk rock and the demise of the Catholic Left
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Read part 1 of this discussion.

Dear Ned,

Your reflections confirm my view that no one old enough to remember the events and issues treated in The Camden 28 should watch it alone! Dialogue is surely the best way to treat the powerful emotional and spiritual responses provoked by the film. Perhaps we need to recruit much younger viewers to watch the film with us. I suspect their reaction would be generally more dispassionate than of those of us formed in any fashion by the culture and politics of the 1960s.

The historian in me will note that the tactics of the “action community” emerged very quickly after figures from the nascent Catholic Left concluded that no ordinary response to the Vietnam War could succeed. The most startling passage in Disarmed and Dangerous--the 1997 Murray Polner/Jim O’Grady biography of Dan and Phil Berrigan--reveals that as late as autumn 1967, Phil Berrigan and his associates seriously contemplated blowing up the U.S. Customs House in Baltimore! (When an attorney sympathetic to the cause heard of this plan at a meeting, the “shaken lawyer” bolted from the room in horror). The more creative non-violent methods widely associated with the Catholic Left (as practiced by the Camden 28) thus developed very quickly amid the crisis: just as you eloquently testify in the film, the idea was to stop the war first and foremost. As to issue of alleged naïveté of the Catholic Left, Disarmed and Dangerous includes not only a lengthy treatment of FBI informant Boyd Douglas, but a photograph of Douglas wearing shades and flashing the peace symbol. This was the kind of visual imagery that made many of us younger Catholics (younger then; I was born in 1956) cynical about “the movement.”

That story is where history and the personal intersect. Just prior to the period depicted in film, I was an altar boy in training along with a kid named Eddie “the Swamp Rat” McNeil, who was quickly sent packing (as I deserved to be), but then re-emerged in mid-70s as “Legs” McNeil, the leading spokesperson (and now leading historian) of the punk rock scene that transformed much of American youth culture. I can still recall Eddie (and others, including me) poking fun at the semi-activist nuns that struggled to teach us in 6th grade at St. Bridget’s School in Cheshire, Connecticut. Eddie came from a working-class Irish American background whose disdain for the “peace movement” represented a blend of the same antagonisms that caused many “non-punk” and older U.S. Catholics to recoil against the Catholic Left and especially the action community.

Of course there were two separate generational dynamics at work here: the WWII “immigrant church” generation of the “Church/America Triumphant,” as you so aptly put it, and a fairly surly second-wave baby boomer cohort tired of hearing about how “cool” the slightly older anti-war activists were. I am now convinced we found it especially galling to be so told by nuns. (In fairness it was awfully confusing time: in one small school we had old-time authoritarian slugger-nuns, peacenik nuns and nuns that disappeared into the night).

If the legacy of 1960s America is emotion-fraught for survivors, generally it is even more so for Catholics. The intense repercussions of the church’s fractious transformation during that era--in the context of wider but not unrelated social and political trauma--is a subject almost impossible to treat head-on, or so it seems from evidence in books and documentaries including The Camden 28. However the film does succeed very well in freezing a moment in time, and inviting viewers to inquire and speculate. (Much as I appreciated the reunion scene, I wanted to know much more about the lives of participants in the intervening years.)

We also need to look further back than the 1960s and 70s. Having finally completed a book on the New York Jesuit labor priests of the 1930s-1950s (especially Fathers Phil Carey and “Pete” Corridan, who you must have known during their later years), I concur with the screenwriter Budd Schulberg of On the Waterfront fame who always insisted these Jesuits were the “first liberation theologians.” (Budd might’ve meant second, after Jesus). In light on this tradition, we may better come to understand that the witness of the Camden 28 need not be dismissed as a “period piece,” but a vital element in an enduring tradition that today links the work you do in the Bronx with that of my (younger) contemporary Anna Brown in Jersey City and with the vast cohort of students in Jesuit and other Catholic colleges doing service and justice work. I’d only suggest we open up the tradition further, to better engage the experience and struggle of persons with cognitive differences/disabilities (a personal plug from an autism dad but a good example of an apostolate still in infancy).

Thanks again, Ned for your own work in “opening up” this great tradition in dialogue and service.

Best wishes, Jim

Dear Jim,

I actually have viewed the film with young people on at least two occasions. Both times, in downtown Fordham and at a high school on the Upper East Side, the questions were similar to yours. Where did you come from? How did you get to Camden, philosophically, politically and emotionally? How did “the Church” react to your action? They were interested in the past and in me but, as you put it, they were generally dispassionate. Only when they asked the further questions of what do we do about this war, or whether there is any progressive movement in the church today, was there more than just interest--there was a sense of involvement. I wish I had good answers to these questions.

I was struck by your evocation of growing up in an era of such turmoil and confusion in the church. I’ve never really put myself in the shoes of one going to Catholic school in that era, even though I had nieces and a nephew who were doing exactly that. Looking back now, I am sorry that I didn’t communicate more with them and share what they were going through and what I was going through.

I may have been out of school, but it was a time of maturing for me too, especially politically and theologically. In fact, for us there was no difference then between politics and theology. I must say that I loved your quote from Budd Schulberg. We were indeed standing on the political and theological shoulders of so many, including the great labor priests. We knew it, and talked often of our debt to them. I never met Corridan, but I did get to share some time with Phil Carey in the early 80’s. He was still active in his mind and heart, and still a source of great edification. I heartily agree that any real understanding of the Catholic presence in the social movements of the 1960s and 70s depends on knowing more about the Catholic activists of the Depression era--and even before that in the first American Catholic sociologists and social workers, including those involved in the retreat movement.

I guess my great question about the 60s and 70s is: Where did the hope go? There is a concrete history to our hope, with people and movements we can name. For us our hope is, of course, in the unconditional love of God made present for us in the person of Jesus from Nazareth. But it was incarnated for us in our time in the likes of Pete Corridan and Phil Carey and above all, in Dorothy Day and Tom Merton. It was this historical hope that drove the action community and the Camden 28, with all our mistakes and weaknesses. The hope still lives, of course. You give a wonderful example in Anna Brown. I think, too, of the movement around the formerly named School of the Americas. But in the 1960s and 70s that hope seemed so vibrant and now, to me, it doesn’t. There is almost a sense to me of the “faithful remnant” in much of what goes on today. Maybe by getting a solid grasp on that history of hope, and sharing it with others and making connections between now and then, the hope can become more vibrant again. Maybe the film can be a catalyst for more discussion of our history and of our connections. Wouldn’t that justify what was done 35 years ago? And wouldn’t that be some achievement for the young filmmaker, Anthony Giacchino?

I have been told, Jim, that on the DVD that will be available after the PBS showing of the film, there is a good deal about every one of the 28 and what they have been doing over the years.

Would the Curran Center consider showing the film and sponsoring a discussion such as ours?

Thank you, Jim.
Ned

The picture above is from a reunion of the Camden 28, which took place in the courtroom where the original trial was held. The priest pictured on the right is Father Mick Doyle, who still ministers in Camden.

James T. Fisher is the co-director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. Edward “Ned” Murphy, S.J., was one of the defendants in the Camden 28 trial and now works