On May 17, 1968, seven Catholic men and two Catholic women entered a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, illegally seized and then burned more than 300 files of draft eligible young men. While federal and state officials viewed their deeds as crimes, the Nine understood their collective public action to be a symbolic means of saying NO to war. They reacted to their prison sentences in a variety of ways. Although six members of the group had been in religious life prior to the event (three had been Maryknoll Missioners), only three of the protestors were members of religious orders when it occurred. The Catonsville Nine included: Daniel Berrigan (Jesuit priest), Philip Berrigan (Josephite priest), David Darst (Christian Brother), John Hogan, Marjorie and Tom Melville, and Mary Moylan.
In the Preface, Shawn Francis Peters describes his interest in the events that transpired in his hometown when he was but two years old. Linking the courageous actions of the Nine to the then welcome new theology of liberation, Peters carefully states his intention to give each member of the group their due. He has done an amazing job of collecting and making sense of a vast array of material relating to a signal moment in the American anti-Vietnam era. Peters’ rendition of the story of the Catonsville Nine is at once thorough, scholarly, and interesting. He includes a variety of photographs and documents that depict the Nine in various protest venues. Although several decades have passed since that fateful day in May 1968, the actors come alive through Peters’ depictions, and he relates their thoughts and feelings in compelling and profoundly moving ways. Not only are the life and times of the Berrigan brothers (arguably the most famous players of the group) told with fascinating detail, but the motives, mishaps, and aftermath of the lesser knowns are also revealed with knowledge, compassion, and attention to detail. The tragic elements of each life are reverently told, and one emerges from a reading of the book with not only a profound sense of sadness but also great admiration for their courage.
While not everyone will appreciate the author’s sustained discussion of the rationale for the many protests during the Vietnam War era, he presents an even handed rendition of the views of those who cheered as well as those who jeered national, state, and local politics and policies at that time. Peters employs newspaper reports, interviews, and essays in his attempt to offer a flavor of the intense emotions that accompanied each of the moments surrounding the decisions of the Nine. That unanimity did not prevail in the group becomes painfully obvious as we read the thoughts and words of each member. Likewise, unanimity of thought and purpose was clearly absent in those who arrested, transported, prosecuted, judged, and incarcerated the Nine. The turmoil and misgivings of the American public during the decade of the Sixties cry out on nearly every page of Peters’ book. One cannot help but conclude that these were no ordinary years in American history. The story of the Catonsville Nine is a microcosm of that time. It is a story that deserves to be told and ought to be read by young and old, “conservative” and “liberal.” Shawn Francis Peters’ telling is as good as it gets. The book offers a worthy retrospective on a tumultuous and intensely lived time. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a story of the incarnation of Catholic Social Teaching.