The United States was plagued by social unrest throughout the 1960’s. 1968 stands out as the most militant and contentious year of the decade with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In that same year, the Selective Service office announced that its December quota for the draft would be the highest thus far, leading countless Americans to engage in acts of civil disobedience. American Catholics, who were led to accept mainstream cultural values and unhesitatingly support foreign policy faced a changing identity brought on by a remarkable act known as the Catonsville Nine. Led by two priests, the Catonsville Nine would set off a wave of other Catholic protests against the Vietnam War. The following excerpt from Mark Massa’s The American Catholic Revolution describes this transformative moment in American Catholic history.
At 12:30 on the afternoon of May 17, 1968, an unlikely crew of seven men and two women arrived at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Catonsville, Maryland, a tidy suburb of Baltimore. Their appearance at 1010 Frederick Road, however, was only tangentially related to the Knights. The target of their pilgrimage was Selective Service Board 33, housed on the second floor of the K. of C. Hall. The nondescript parcel they carried with them contained ten pounds of homemade napalm, whipped up several evenings before by Dean Pappas, a local physics teacher who had discovered the recipe in a booklet published by the U.S. Special Forces (two parts gasoline, one part Ivory Flakes). On entering the office, one of them explained calmly to the three surprised women typing and filing what was going to happen next. But either out of shock or because they hadn’t heard the announcement clearly the women continued about their business until the strangers began snatching up 1-A files, records of young men whose draft lottery numbers made them most likely to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. At that point one of the women working in the office began to scream.
The raiders began stuffing the 1-A files (and as many 2-As and 1-Ys as they could grab) into wire trash baskets they had brought for the purpose. When one of the office workers tried dialing the police, Mary Moylan, one of the nine intruders, put her finger on the receiver button, calmly advising the distraught worker to wait until the visitors were finished. The burning of the draft records was intended to be entirely nonviolent, although one of the office workers had to be physically restrained from stopping the protesters, in the course of which she suffered some scratches on her leg. With that one exception, the raid went according to plan. Indeed, as Daniel Berrigan, S.J. one of the leaders of the event, later remembered it.
We took the A-1 [sic] files, which of course were the most endangered of those being shipped off. And we got about 150 of those in our arms and went down the staircase to the parking lot. And they burned very smartly, having been doused in this horrible material. And it was all over in 10 or 15 minutes.
Once Berrigan and the others left the office, Moylan said to the office worker with the phone, “Now you can call whoever you wish.” But instead of calling the police she hurled it through the window, hoping to get attention of workmen outside the building, which she did: one of the workmen quickly rushed up to the office to see what the ruckus was. But his arrival on the scene came too late to interrupt the protest. A small group of reporters and photographers, as well as a TV crew, had already gathered, having been tipped off by a member of the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission that an “action” would be taking place in Catonsville that afternoon. While these members of the Fourth Estate watched in silence, the protesters recited the Lord’s Prayer while adding files to the napalm-fueled fire. In all they managed to burn 378 files, more than Berrigan initially realized. Short order police cars began to arrive, and out of the first of them an officer strode over to the group around the still-smoldering fire, calling out, “Who is responsible for this?” David Darst, one of the nine, answered, “I wanted to make it more difficult for men to kill each other.” But this seemed to confuse the police officer, so another member of the group called out, “We speak in the name of Catholicism and Christianity.” Finally the frustrated cop turned to one of the nine who looked like the leader and asked, “Your name please?” “Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.” was the response. “Thank you, Father,” the policeman responded respectfully, writing down Berrigan’s as the first name on his list. In due course other officials arrived, including federal agents as well as local police, since tampering with Selective Service files was a federal offense. An FBI agent, spotting Dan Berrigan’s brother, Phil, also a Catholic priest, exclaimed, “Him again. Good God, I’m changing my religion!” Thus began, in the light of fading embers, a defining event of the American Catholic revolution known as the Trial of the Catonsville Nine.
Mark S. Massa , SJ, is the Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. He has written extensively in the field of American religion and theology, focusing especially on the American Catholic experience in the twentieth century. His most recent book is The American Catholic Revolution: How the ’60s Changed the Church Forever.