A Theology of Dis/Obedience: The Conversion of Daniel Berrigan, 1953-1966

Eric Martin, Fordham University


This dissertation explores two questions: what was Daniel Berrigan’s theology and where did it come from? In 1968, he stole draft files during the Vietnam War and burned them with napalm as a liturgical act with a group of Catholics known as the Catonsville Nine, grabbing national headlines and establishing him as an icon of the American religious left. It was a political action but also a theological statement. This project examines his theology at the time, which proclaimed that human life is meant to be lived in apocalyptic consciousness of the future Second Coming, which in turn was revealed in the past with the life of Jesus Christ. Such a consciousness interprets one’s political reality from within the unfolding life of the gospels, requiring a rebellion against that which threatens the poor, the vulnerable, and the neglected. In times of war and white supremacy, then, Christians must disobey the laws that support their continuation. The dissertation then goes backwards to trace his conversion from a patriotic celebrant of America’s victory in World War II to an anti-war convict. It follows him from 1953 to 1966, dedicating a chapter to five distinct theological experiences: his time with the French worker-priests in 1953-1954, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker from 1954-1957, with the civil rights movement from 1957-1963, with Christians in Marxist Europe and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in 1963-1964, and with base communities in ten different countries in Latin America when the Jesuits kicked him out of the country from 1965-1966. The story is told with Berrigan’s unpublished letters, making them public for the first time. It reconfigures Berrigan not just as a historical actor but a theologian and treats theologies as subjects with their own biographies. The final result is reinterpreting the figurehead of the post-Vatican II American Catholic Left as a product of international and ecumenical confluences of thought.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Martin, Eric, "A Theology of Dis/Obedience: The Conversion of Daniel Berrigan, 1953-1966" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI22585222.