The National Catholic Review
James T. Fisher
A scholar and an activist discuss a new film about the Catholic Left
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Editors’ note: The Camden 28, which airs Tuesday September 11 at 10 pm on most PBS stations, tells the story of the 28 activists who were arrested in 1971 for conspiring to break into a draft facility in Camden, New Jersey and destroy records. Among the group were many members of the “Catholic Left,” including several priests. To shed more light on this moment in history, we asked two people to view the film and discuss it via email. James T. Fisher is the co-director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University and a native of New Jersey. Edward “Ned” Murphy, S.J., was one of the defendants in the Camden 28 trial and now works at Part of the Solution (POTS), a soup kitchen in the Bronx.

Spoiler alert: this discussion addresses some historical facts that are only gradually revealed over the course of the film.

Father Ned,

My first of numerous surely off-center reflections on Anthony Giacchino’s valuable documentary, “The Camden 28”: as a Jersey guy, it was very good to see the Garden State’s contribution to the Catholic peace movement honored! There is actually a genuine issue here beyond the boosterism: treatments of this movement and this era nearly always begin and end with a nod to the Berrigan brothers and their role in events at places like Catonsville that now enjoy a kind of canonical status in U.S. Catholic history. So I am especially appreciative for “The Camden 28” as a film that highlights a story that was both deeply “local” yet linked via themes and participants to this broader dynamic movement.

Because you are one of the “non-local” figures among the Camden 28, it would be good to learn how you came to be involved in this particular act of witness. Some of my best friends are from Camden and the blue-collar suburbs to its north and east: these are some real characters deeply grounded in an environment that notably borders on the astonishing beauty and isolation of the “Pine Barrens” whose role in the formation of local culture should not be overlooked. I was reminded of these rugged characters by the South Jersey/Philly accents of several figures--especially Bob Hardy, the F.B.I. informant that viewers will surely find the most puzzling if not compelling subject in the film.

Hardy’s astonishing role in this story prompts one question that has recurred over the years: why was the Catholic Left so politically naive? By 1971 the secular Left was well-versed in the F.B.I.’s infiltration and entrapment techniques--which is not to say it was immune--but as we were reminded again in “The Camden 28,” the Catholic version featured this extraordinarily innocent streak, raising questions about its origins and background in a church whose structures of authority seemed really to complicate challenges to vested systems of all kinds.

The other side of this innocence is very powerfully represented in the 28’s loving and compassionate response to the death of informer Bob Hardy’s son Billy in a terrible accident. Then later the pastoral intervention of Fr. Mick Doyle--one of the 28 and a central figure as a Camden priest--with Hardy and his family is part of process that leads to a very powerful “discernment” on Bob Hardy’s part.

Here are a few historical/political questions followed by some reflections on the film as film. Do you have any sense of why only one (Joan Reilly) of the dozen or so women participants in the 28 has any substantial screen time? There is a reference in the film to a dinner whose male-dominated character evoked “The Last Supper.” The secular Left’s gender issues have been widely treated, but we don’t have much on the Catholic version.

Father Mick Doyle is surely Irish-born--were you born in the NYC area? Do you think there were any echoes of Irish causes/traditions in events in Camden? I was struck by the “caper” film tone of the historical reconstructions around the Camden fed building, which in turn reminded me of some Irish rebel lore. The reconstructions also have that “Zapruder film/Oliver Stone” quality which by now can be as distracting as entertaining/illuminating.

The “reunion” motif is becoming a familiar feature of documentaries that treat communal events like that of the Camden 28 action and trial. The technique as deployed here is moving and often effective, though we’d still like to know more about group’s inner dynamics unmediated by gauze of nostalgia, poignant as it is. I imagine viewers might be especially interested in your role in the production: how you came to be interviewed, what was cut, and how you felt about overall process. There is a warm tone to the film that is quite touching; for some reason these ’60s/70s historically themed-films often leave me a touch sad. I was also left with sense that some of the Camden 28’s less central figures would have been among the best to hear from and there’s something lost by their absence. Do you know much about those we don’t hear from or learn about in film?

Thanks Ned and best wishes from Jim

Dear Jim,

First of all, thank you for your reflections. As you pointed out, I was not a “local.” My roots, though, are inner city. I am what was once called a BIC--a Bronx, Irish Catholic. I was born in 1937 and so grew up in the 40’s and 50’s, when we were not only proud members of the Church Triumphant, we were also proud citizens of America Triumphant. It was a time of certainty both theologically and politically. The road to Camden, therefore, was geographically not a long one, but uncharted miles away theologically and politically.

More immediately, the story of how I came to Camden is the story of our community--the community which has often been called the Catholic Left but which we always referred to simply as the "action community." Seen by the F.B.I. as a rather highly structured organization with known leaders and by some of the peace movement as an amorphous group of pious do-gooders, we were neither. Rather we were a totally unstructured community of people who shared a very reasoned political analysis and a spiritual (not religious) dynamism which came from a commitment to the values articulated in the Gospel. We did not always share the same understanding of the person of Jesus, although the overwhelming majority of us came from a Catholic Christian background.

In 1971 I was working for the Harrisburg Defense Committee as were many of the action community. We thought it would give us a platform to explain who we were and what we were about. The workings of the Harrisburg 7 trial, however, did not give us as much of an opportunity to do this as we had hoped. So when I received a call from Peter Fordi--another Jesuit member of the 28--saying that there was a community in Camden that was preparing to do an action and needed help, I was anxious to go. This was our way of operating. If help was needed whoever was available would respond. In the normal course several people would “surface” after the action and take credit for it. The rest would go back to their work. The presence of Bob Hardy, however, enabled the F.B.I. to name and arrest everyone who was involved. Which brings us to the subject of Bob Hardy.

I have heard for over 35 years about the naiveté of the Catholic Left. I do not want to sound defensive but I do not think it is a fair description. We were, indeed, an open community. We attended one another’s trials and often celebrated together. We were a natural for infiltration. The fact is that, to the best of our knowledge, we were never infiltrated. Which is to say that the F.B.I. never inserted an agent into our community. In our case it was a trusted friend and member of the community who chose to go to the F.B.I. I’d like to point out that if Bob Hardy’s intention was simply to protect his friends, as he says in the film, he could have stood up and said that any further planning would force him to go to the F.B.I. and we would have aborted the action immediately. As you point out in your reflection, Jim, the Camden 28’s treatment of Hardy, especially at the tragic death of his son, is a true example of non-violence.

The gender issue was indeed an ongoing cause of concern for the action community. I remember one former nun saying at a meeting that she did not leave one male-dominated hierarchy for another and I knew what she meant. I would not attempt to speak for the women of Camden 28, but I do know that the gender issue was alive among us and often openly discussed. Personally, I am very grateful to some of the women of the Catholic Left who shared their concerns and their feminist analysis with this Jesuit and who never gave up on me. Off the top of my head I think of Mary Moylan, Ann Walsh and Judy Peluso, and 28ers Anne Dunham, Lianne Moscia and Cookie Ridolfi.

I asked Anthony Giacchino, the director, why there were not other women featured in the film. He said that in the interviewing phase his budget was severely limited and Joan Reilly was available in the area and willing to talk at length, and that other women (and men) chose not to participate.

I loved your observation about the ring of Irish rebel lore that sounds in the reconstruction of the action. I smiled when I read it and realized its accuracy, even though many of the 28 did not have Irish rebel backgrounds. But I can tell you that I am sure it brought a smile to my rebel Irish mother. I was reared on such stories--the jailbreak from Kilkenny prison, the Tans searching the house for guns, and on and on.

I hope I have not been overly partisan, but then how could I not be? I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It brought back wonderful memories of a loving community. The love was always present as we laughed and cried and discussed and disagreed and argued vehemently. What power there was in that loving community has shaped all I have tried to do since.

Much love to you,
Ned Murphy

Read part 2 of this discussion.

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