This month's Catholic Book Club selection: 'The Berrigan Letters'

Popular culture identifies “bro culture” as the antics of “Animal House” commingled with ESPN, Crossfit, Lacrosse, Vineyard Vines and any image or behavior that coheres with Rob Gronkowski and the GQ style section.  Bro culture envelops male college life, frat life and the years after college as males strive to win corporate jobs that will ensure wealth and access as they move into middle age. Bro culture prizes risk, strength, getting away with breaking the rules and, undoubtedly, involves aggression toward women.  

In the Catholic Book Club’s July selection, The Berrigan Letters, Dan and Phil Berrigan present an entirely different “bro culture.” Their correspondence implies a Christian bro culture—one concerned with peace, justice, equality, the love of Christ and the truth of the gospel. For example, as both Dan and Phil were in their late 70’s, Dan wrote his brother the following note on his birthday: “Dearest bro, My heart is not big enough to hold the gratitude your birthday brings—and brims. Your offering on behalf of a demented, demoralized world, is boundless before God—and immeasurable to us. We know only, if we know anything, that we live from the spiritual riches amassed by our beloved prisoners” (296). Dan praises his brother’s commitment to work for justice —a commitment that has imprisoned Phil once again as an old man. He expresses his affection for his brother quite clearly and recognizes that his brother’s work is a boundless offering before God. The Berrigan bro culture is anchored in faith, works for peace and accepts imprisonment in order to provide Christian witness. The Berrigan bro culture cannot be any more different from our modern “bro culture.”

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Granted, the Berrigan brotherhood was unique. Both men were priests: Dan, a Jesuit, and Phil, a Josephite priest until he married Liz McAlister in 1969. Dan and Phil’s relationship deepened as they organized against segregation and the Vietnam War. They both became fugitives when they destroyed draft files in Catonsville, Md. on May 17, 1968. After Dan was eventually caught, Phil and Dan found themselves in prison together in Danbury, Conn. Their relationship thereafter drew on their shared experience of prison.

In our Christian tradition, there are many sets of brothers: Andrew and Peter, James and John, Cyril and Methodius, and Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great. Andrew brings Peter to Jesus; James and John were Jesus’ most intimate friends; Cyril and Methodius are co-patron saints of Europe and evangelizers of Eastern Europe; and Gregory and Basil were hugely important fourth century theologians and pastors. Their fraternal relationships nourished their apostolic work and commitment to Christ. This is clearly the case for the Berrigans, especially after Dan and Phil experienced jail together—Dan almost dying from a botched Novocain injection. As fellow prisoners, they truly became brothers in Christ.

Dan and Phil supported one another apostolically, and their letters testify to the necessity of friendship in reinforcing such apostolic activity. Dan and Phil complimented one another’s work often. After seeing a number of Jesuits tossing their golf bags into their cars outside a large Jesuit residence in the Midwest in the late 1970’s, Dan wrote to Phil: “I thought, there but for you, went I. What a blessing to be beckoned along so gracefully + gently – yet irresistibly too, like God’s own nudge…For standing while others wilt + whimper + waste it, for speaking up while others hum along—thank you dear brother” (157). Phil always inspired Dan with his social activism. Phil shaped Dan and fueled his social consciousness.

Likewise, Dan’s work, particularly his writing, inspired Phil. In the early 90’s, Phil wrote: “God knows what a cabbage I am despite your care. But without it, I would be less than a vegetable—wandering, opaque, clinging to idols. In short, you have been a grace and gift to thousands, but esp. to your kid brother” (264).  Twenty years earlier, Phil had written essentially the same message to his brother: “So my prayers constantly this week.  And my gratitude for you as a brother, friend, comrade—a man whom the Lord does not send every age, but only one like our own” (98). Phil saw his brother as a prophetic thinker and writer, an inspiration to his gritty work of organizing and persevering through multiple incarcerations.

Nonetheless, like every meaningful and enduring human relationship, there were times of friction and misunderstanding. In the late 1980’s after Dan and Phil traveled to Berlin, Phil felt that his brother ignored him.  He felt he was second fiddle to Dan, and he saw Dan’s behavior to him as condescending. Dan wrote his brother a lengthy response, urging him to examine the sources of his own anger and his proclivity for outbursts. Dan denied Phil’s claims for victimhood. This exchange of letters is a wonderfully honest portrait of two rather sensitive, reflective, intelligent men learning more about their affective lives and the way they might delude themselves even amidst fruitful apostolic activity as they aged. The Berrigan bro culture cultivated depth and honesty.

The Berrigan epistolary relationship unfolds across the second half of the 20th century, ending with Phil’s death from cancer in late 2002. The brothers’ work for peace and justice included everything from promoting civil rights to protesting war following the September 11 attacks.  Judging by Dan Berrigan’s front page obituary in the New York Times and his quite prominent obituary in The Economist, it is clear just how influential Dan and Phil’s work had been. In the letters, they write about Kissinger, McGovern, Hoover and Nixon. They find Jimmy Carter insipid and Bill Clinton unpalatable. Their relentless commitment to economic equality and peace ensured they would never compromise politically. However, politics did not represent the heart and soul of the Berrigan letters. The heart and soul of the letters is fraternal encouragement and support for apostolic work. They inform each other of their activities and urge one another on. It seems that a very real principle of apostolic activity is underscored by what the brothers write to one another: those engaging in fruitful, enduring Christian apostolic activity—whatever form it takes—need affective, faithful, enduring and genuine friendships in order to sustain such activity and assure its viability and authenticity.

I would love to hear from you, the participants in the Catholic Book Club, what you think of my conclusion regarding the Berrigans and what their letters tell us about relationships and Christian apostolic activity.

I apologize to readers for the hiatus during the last few months. I was finishing up two degrees at Boston College, preparing for ordination and moving to a new job in New York City. I look forward to reading your comments about the Berrigans and their letters. Thank you for joining our discussion.

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Lisa Weber
2 years 3 months ago
I have not read this book but have given a lot of thought to the culture of family. Much of bro culture needs to be taught to women if they are to have a role in the church. There is no family role suitable to an adult woman in the church and a family model for the church precludes the development of the role of women. The difference between the upbringing of boys and girls is that boys are brought up to be persons in the community while girls are brought up to be dutiful daughters and wives, to define themselves by their relationship to others. A person in the community is recognized as a person, has a voice and is allowed to seek public office. Women in the church have only one of the attributes of a person in a community. In order to be ready to have a voice and to hold an office in the community, women need to learn the rules of bro culture because bro culture is the culture of leadership in the church. The Vatican is leading the way on developing the role of women because it is appointing some women to positions within the Vatican but we are still a long way from seeing women speak publicly in the local parish at Mass.

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