What Catholics can learn from protests of the past

Esther Miller, who says she is a victim of child sexual abuse, holds a quilt with photos of people who say they were abused as children by priests, in front of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in San Diego on Feb. 28, 2007. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

(The Conversation) — Pope Francis started the new year criticizing some Catholic bishops for their role in the church’s sexual abuse crisis. In a letter to bishops gathered at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois for a spiritual retreat, the pope said that the “disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim” had greatly undermined the Catholic Church. This followed the pope’s earlier remarks asking clergy guilty of sexual assault to turn themselves over to law enforcement.

Stories of clergy sex abuse have continued to increase. Among the more recent revelations, a Catholic diocese recently released the names of Jesuit priests who face “credible or established” accusations of abuse of minors. Church members learned that many priests accused of sexual abuse on Indian reservations were retired on the Gonzaga University campus in Spokane. And another external investigation has revealed that the Catholic Church failed to disclose abuse accusations against 500 priests and clergy.

Church attendance has been on the decline for some time, with the steepest fall of an average 45 percent, between 2005 to 2008. And with these latest scandals, as a theologian recently wrote, the Catholic Church is in the midst of its “biggest crisis since the Reformation.”

But what many do not realize is that staying in the church does not mean agreeing with its policies. In the past, Catholics have challenged the church through multiple forms of resistance – at times discreet and at other times quite dramatic.

Pacifist protesters

I had already begun my training as a scholar of religion and society when I learned that the priest from whom I took my first communion was a known predator in the Boston Archdiocese. I have since then researched and written about the Catholic clergy abuse cover-up.

Back in the 1960s, some radical American Catholics were at the forefront of challenging U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. Perhaps the most famous among them were the Berrigan brothers. Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the older brother, was an American Jesuit priest, who, along with with other religious leaders, expressed public concern over the war.

The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, left, marches with about 40 others outside of the Riverside Research Center in New York on April 9, 1982. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

In New York, Daniel Berrigan joined hands with a group called the Catholic Workers, in order to build a “decent non-violent society” – what they called “a society of conscience.” Among their protests was a public burning of draft cards in Union Square in 1965.

Months earlier, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation that made mutilation of draft registration a felony. A powerful commentary by the editors of the Catholic “Commonweal” magazine described the event as a “liturgical ceremony” backed by a willingness to risk five years of freedom.

But some in the Catholic leadership were concerned that Daniel Berrigan’s peace activism was going too far. Soon after another Catholic protester set himself on fire in front of the United Nations in an act of protest, Berrigan disappeared from New York. He’d been sent to Latin America on an “assignment” by his superiors.

The word among Catholics was that Cardinal Francis Spellman had Berrigan expelled from the U.S. The accuracy of the decision is selectively disputed. However, the narrative had great power. The public outcry among Catholics was immense. University students took to the streets.

The New York Times carried a vehement objection that was signed by more than a thousand Catholic practitioners and theological leaders. The repression of free speech, they said, was “intolerable in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Catholic symbols of protest

In May 1967, Berrigan returned to the United States, only to renew his protest against the draft. Joined by his brother Philip, they broke into a draft board office in Baltimore and poured vials of their own blood on paper records.

This July 1973 photo shows the Rev. Daniel Berrigan and others participating in a fast and vigil to protest the bombing in Cambodia, on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

In pouring vials of their own blood on draft records, they were extending the use of Christ’s blood of sacrifice, to promote peace, as part of Catholic teachings.

The next year they joined by seven other Catholic protesters in a protest action in Catonsville, Maryland. The group used homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of a draft board. Daniel Berrigan was put on the FBI’s most wanted list. Both brothers later served time in federal prisons.

After the Vietnam war, their protests continued under a group called Plowshares. The name came from the commandment in the book of Isaiah to “beat swords into plowshares.” The Berrigan brothers put their energy into anti-nuclear protests around the country. At a nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, they hammered on nuclear warheads and once again poured their own blood upon them, bridging Catholic symbols with religious protest.

Church leadership, they said, was too cozy with a heavily militarized America.

Protests inside the church

Around the same time, another group of Roman Catholics was challenging the leadership of the church using different tactics. In 1969, a group of Chicano Catholic student activists that called itself Católicos Por La Raza, objected to the money that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was spending on building a new cathedral called St. Basil’s. They believed that money could be better spent on improving the social and economic conditions of Catholic Mexican-Americans.

Católicos Por La Raza posed a list of demands for the Catholic Church that included the use of church facilities for community work, providing housing and educational assistance, and developing health care programs.

On Christmas Eve, 300 people marched to protest at St. Basil’s. Outside, they chanted “Que viva la raza” and “Catholics for the people.” Some members also planned to bring the protest across the threshold of the cathedral and into the Christmas Eve Mass.

A priest steps over a protester, who deliberately fell to the floor in front of him as the priest was giving communion at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Dec. 10, 1989. (AP Photo/Mario Suriani)

The church locked its front doors. The marchers were met at side doors by undercover county sheriffs.

Later, the protesters publicly burned their baptismal certificates. Catholic teaching maintains that, once baptized, Catholic identity cannot be divested. By burning these symbols of Roman Catholic belonging, members of Católicos Por La Raza were making a powerful statement of their renunciation of the religion that they perceived could not be reformed.

Back in New York, a generation later, Catholics also organized confrontations with Church leadership. At the height of the AIDS crisis, in 1989, the American Catholic Bishops drafted an explicit condemnation of the use of condoms to stop the spread of the AIDS virus. “The truth is not in condoms or clean needles,” said Cardinal John O’Connor. “These are lies … good morality is good medicine.”

In response, AIDS activists organized an action called “Stop the Church” to protest against the “murderous AIDS policy” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Thousands of people gathered to protest. Outside, activists distributed condoms and safer-sex information to passers-by. Inside, some protesters staged a die-in.

And this does not even get into waves of protests over women’s ordination since 1976.

In all these protests, Roman Catholics were demanding that powerful members of the hierarchy acknowledge their demands for the ethics of the church.

Bringing change in the church

John McKeon holds a sign as he protests outside of a hotel hosting the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall meeting on Nov. 12, 2018, in Baltimore. Catholics have challenged the church through multiple forms of resistance. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Similar resistance continued in 2002, when the Boston Globe Spotlight investigation team exposed the systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, under Cardinal Bernard Law.

On Sundays Catholics came out to protest in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where the cardinal said Mass. They shouted and held up signs calling for his resignation. Other Catholics were creating pressure to have the cardinal removed by cutting off lay financial support for the Archdiocese.

They encouraged continuing giving to the poor or to the local parish. But until the cardinal was held accountable, those in the pews were encouraged to abstain from institutional giving. Before the next New Year, enough financial and legal pressure forced Cardinal Law to be removed from the Archdiocese.

February 2019 will bring a crucial meeting between the pope and the cardinals. Catholics today could well ask what is their way of showing resistance. After all, there is a rich Catholic heritage that shows that members of the church who put their bodies on the line can make a difference.The Conversation

Mara Willard is a visiting assistant professor of international studies at Boston College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the author

Mara Willard


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  • Sorry, I will not be returning to the “church” until there is some real conversions in the priesthood all the way to the pope. In fact, the simple point that so long as the numbers look good as far as attendance is concerned then I guess everything is alright. My non presence IS my protest and that goes the same for my money.

  • You should make up your mind whether you are in, or out, and go on with your life.

    No one but you cares about your conditions for returning, and you will have no impact on what direction the church takes, what actions it chooses or dismisses, or anything else.

  • Yoikes – the church is just as imperfect as you are, or I am, or whatever. There is only One who is perfect, the rest of us just try hard.

  • Why don’t you be part of the solution?
    Why don’t you quietly and faithfully practice your faith?
    Pray the rosary.
    Go to Eucharist adoration.
    Serve on your parish council.
    Work in your parishes soup kitchen.
    Pray for the church and for holy priests.
    Pray for the conversion of sinners.
    You have been given the greatest gift on earth – the holy mass
    If you have a problem with a particular priest; go find a holy one and go to mass.
    You can turn your back on the church – fine.
    You can turn your back on unholy priests and bishops – great; I’m with you.
    But to turn your back on the mass and the Eucharist – May God have mercy on you.

  • It is one thing to protest. It is another thing to destroy property of to put others in harms way.
    Some of the “Catholics” noted above are nothing more than terrorists with a clerical collar. This is not Gods way nor the way of the church.
    They are not hero’s – they are no better than today’s BLM or ANTIFA thugs…

  • We are not talking about superficial details or one off issues. This is about the systemic corruption of the priesthood involving such heinous evil which we the great unwashed are powerless to change. Therefore I have made the decision to not engage until there is change. Real conversion of the priesthood back to God. I do not believe that I or anyone else is called to aid monetarily or abet by presence this ongoing crisis.

  • I am one among many many others who cannot through conscience and faith continue being apart of their, yes their, immoral evil committed against the faithful, and the faith. I don’t care if I personally am missed, but I cannot live with myself if my presence constitutes any fidelity to what the church is doing or has done.

  • Having said that once, were you in fact done, there would be no more comments.

    If you continue proclaiming it, as many ex-you-name-it participants in the Comments do, you are not done and are kidding yourself that you are.

    It is probably worth pointing out, if not for you then for others reading this, that your position rests on an equivocation.

    equivocation – noun

    The use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself; prevarication.

    The equivocal word is “church”.

    In English it can mean a building, a congregation, an organized religion or denomination of religion.

    As the Catholic Church uses it, it refers to the Body of Christ, believers united in a pilgrim church of sinners seeking salvation.

    Because it is a pilgrim church, sinners and saints commingle in this world. Jesus selected twelve Apostles, and one – Judas Iscariot – turned out to be a major sinner who Jesus said would have been better off not being born.

    Once that evil is chosen, the choser is no longer part of the Body of Christ and therefore no longer part of the church.

    If I cannot tolerate any failures amongst the pilgrims, I will find zero congregations, churches, or denominations that I can belong to.

    And in chosing that approach I become a church of one, one sinner because isolating myself like that is in fact itself a sin.

  • Mara Willard does not talk about one protest that is the most inspiring that I witnessed in our times– The Triumph of the Cross at Nowa Huta, Poland. Nowa Huta was planned and built as a socialist model city. However the godless authorities were reluctant to grant people permission to build a church there. So the Polish people erected a cross, and when it was torn down, they put it up again, and again, and again. Today there is a Church there. The Great John Paul II was part of this miracle, and continues to watch over us and pray for us.

  • All of Christ’s apostles were both sinners and saints. It is just that one sold information and later hanged himself.

  • Not sure how any of your gestures offer comfort and support to those victimized by your favorite institution. Well, soup kitchens work to a great degree but councils are toothless unless they have the authority to act upon the abuses committed with impunity by clergy and evangelicals. My Catholic friends do stuff at mass and Baptists I grew up with pray for me yet I was told three weeks ago that I’m out of options to slow down the rapid progression of Multiple Sclerosis. I even had some Mormons tell me that when I die I will be perfect in their interpretation of a heaven. The religious folks pray for me and ask me to endure more agony by riding the pews in their particular church every Sunday. Should I ask them to assist me in any consistent way… *poof*… they’re gone.
    So, I keep giving to the local soup kitchen, donate to a local charity keeping families from becoming homeless, I sponsor my friend’s classes at her elementary school, donate to the local food bank… all of this while recovering from Baptist hypocrisy and embracing atheism.

  • Well, at the end all were saints save one.

    Judas Iscariot is the only one Jesus about which Jesus said:

    “‘For the Son of Man must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But
    how terrible it will be for the one who betrays him. It would be far
    better for that man if he had never been born!'”

  • “Not sure how any of your gestures offer comfort and support to those victimized by your favorite institution.”

    Correctly: “… those victimized by people nominally members of your favorite institution.”

  • No, there is zero evidence of “systemic corruption of the priesthood”.

    This is one of those swings of the pendulum where Satan gains ground, and Good fights back.

    The only “systematic” component appears to be informal and centered on three readily identifiable schools of error:

    – The Gay Mafia – Theodore McCarrick, Rembert Weakland, et al – who consciously let the smoke of Satan enter the seminaries;

    – the “Seventy Times Seven” group who bought the bs that mind mavens could “cure” perverts and therefore did not follow Canon Law and boot them out;

    – the “for the good of the Team” folks who thought they were doing anyone but themselves a favor by not booting offenders and turning them over to the authorities as Canon Law required.

    Fortunately 98% of the clergy have kept their vows, did and continue to do good works, and more dioceses than not have had zero lawsuits world-wide.

    Trying to portray abandoning ship as a noble act may work for you for awhile, but it is clearly not noble.

  • First of all, if you are a Christian, you are not “we the great unwashed “. You would be cleansed by the blood of the lamb.
    Go to a different denomination. You are the one responsible for yourself; don’t let yourself down

  • 1) there was no intent to provide comfort. Just suggestions on how to carry on as laity in light of unholy priests and bishops.
    2) councils are needed to keep the parish running. The atheists and haters expect the faithful to kill individual parishes to solve the pedophilia and homosexual priest problems. Not gonna happen. These parishes need to survive in spite of the hierarchy.
    3) as Christians, we need to live Christ-like lives to the best of our ability. It may be a soup kitchen; it may be something else. Point is- do something.
    4) sorry about your MS. We as humans will all succumb to something. I have my issues as well and as I age it doesn’t get better. I do pray for all who suffer in hope that the pain and anguish can be mitigated. I choose to turn to God and my faith. I have learned when it comes to people – and their “intent” to help; keep expectations low. People always disappoint b

  • I am so sorry to hear of the progression of your MS. Your give such good comments here that I hope you keep it up – we learn from you. One of the things so clear to me is that God works in your heart – even if you do not know how or what to name Him, or a particular religious approach to Him – your acts of giving come from His touch on your soul. God knows His own.

  • You said “They are not hero’s – they are no better than today’s BLM or ANTIFA thugs…”

    May I add “.. or bishops and cardinals who abuse children or hide the abuse of other clerics.”

    See, Parker12, that is the problem. Our heroes, the ones who insist on holding all the power, being the only voice that speaks and is, therefore, allowed to be heard – they also have failings that are equal to BLM or ANTIFA thugs. Some of our clerics who punished the Berrigan brothers are “terrorists with a clerical collar” all by themselves – they just terrorized children and those with less power.

    Sometimes it is really hard to figure out who is the hero and who is the villain.

  • I am very clear on my position of cleaning out unholy priests, bishops and cardinals.
    It really isn’t difficult to figure out who is a hero or villain.
    What is difficult; is to figure out what side you are on.

  • Now for the reality and protest of NOW. The “vomit-inducing” pedophilia and cover ups in the RCC et. al. will simply hasten the decline of all religions as they finally go extinct from their own absurdity.. It is time to replace all religions with a few rules like “Do No Harm” and convert all houses of “worthless worship” to recreation facilities and parks.

  • SandiEl you are a FAKE Christian and YOU cannot be cleansed because you will not become Chaste in Christ. You are not a True Christian.