“Creating Connections between People that Don’t Let Go:” The Intricate Network of Catholic Peacemaking

by Virginia Zentgraf

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a Twitter post by aspiring theologian Mason Mennenga featuring a wish for Christians to be more like 20th-century activists instead of contemporary right-wing evangelicals.

The shared image shows three stoic-looking people – Catholic Worker Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – as well as two more jolly-looking fellows – the martyred El Salvadorean archbishop Óscar Romero and Catholic peace activist Daniel Berrigan throwing a peace sign while handcuffed.[1]  

To those unfamiliar with the activist landscape of the 20th century, the inclusion of three Catholics might seem unusual, but for those in the know, it is not surprising. Catholic activists from the USA had their hand in most of the issues in post-World War II America, whether they were workers’ protests by the United Farm Workers, Civil Rights, antinuclear protests, peace and antiwar activism at home and abroad in Vietnam and South America, or even antiabortion action, advocacy for the environment, and vegetarianism. Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan are just two of the most famous figures of the Catholic activist landscape. Many more were shaped and inspired by them. More than anything else, the American Catholic network was sustained by a shared belief in the nonviolent teachings of the Gospel and deep communal ties. They were a small but loud group, controversial to the core and wholly different from what one imagines when thinking of a religiously motivated activist today. In times like this, when the hardline conservatism of Catholic priests, bishops, and laypeople regularly hits the news – recently culminating in the coverage of the Papal dismissal of the controversial Texan bishop Joseph Strickland in November 2023 – showing that American Catholics neither were nor are a conservative monolith is a worthwhile endeavor.   

The Catholic Peace Fellowship calls for people to become United Farm Workers organizers in their Spring 1972 issue of the Catholic Peace Fellowship Bulletin (Pg. 12)

In 1933, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement with a wish to create a Catholic constituency for social justice. Their newspaper, The Catholic Worker, launched on May 1, was sold to the protesting masses gathered that Labor Day. At only one penny, it was affordable for all. Not just a paper, the Movement also sought to alleviate some of the struggles brought on by the Great Depression. They opened houses of hospitality, operated farms, and advocated for worker rights. Peace became another leading issue during and after World War II, developing from a mainly theological stance to an area of activism that employed nonviolent resistance (Nepstad 2019: 28-33, 53-4). Day’s and Maurin’s vision was nothing less than to create “a new society within the shell of the old” (Maurin n.d.).

Their biblical belief that God created all humans in His image, paired with their embrace of personalism[2] – a philosophical system centered on personal responsibility, positive social change, and aid targeted at each individual – placed the dignity of humans at the core of their organization. This form of personalism, substantially close to non-violent anarchism, became known as Christian Anarchism, a blend of the more socialist notions of dismembering authoritative and capitalist structures, Thoman Aquinas’ reasoning that human laws violating natural laws are not binding, and Jesus’ teachings of nonviolence and morality (Stock 2012: 91, 96; Sheridan 2014: 10; Hennacy 1994: xix). Sociologist Paul Stock concludes that the anarchist concept of nonviolent resistance fit well with Day’s pacifism and, once combined, brought a new era for the Catholic Worker (Stock 2012: 91-2).

The first Catholic Worker protest against nuclear weapons relied on nonviolent resistance. Resisting participation in mandatory nuclear air raid drills – a scant measure of protection designed to foster acceptance of nuclear weapons and provide a false sense of security – from 1955 to 1961, Day legitimized nonviolent resistance as an “appropriate Catholic response to unjust laws” (Nepstad 2004: 49), influencing a generation of young radical Catholics who used this action repertoire to protest.

Dorothy Day pickets with the United Farm Workers Union, American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations, Lamont, CA, during the grape strike of 1973. Photographed by Bob Fitch. Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Day also “provided a model of commitment that combines spirituality, works of mercy, activism, and communal living” (Nepstad 2004: 49). Among those following her example were Dan and Phil Berrigan, but also the founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF) and other organizations (Nepstad 2004: 49; Nepstad 2019: 54-5, 58). The Berrigans’ form of protest would become emblematic of a “new type of Catholic resistance” (Nepstad 2004: 49).  

Scholars, members of the Catholic resistance, and friends of the Berrigans felt this as well. Catholic priest and activist Frank Cordaro, who spent six months in prison for breaking into the Strategic Nuclear Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha in 1996, sees the Berrigan brothers as a cornerstone of late 20th century Catholic peacemaking (Cordaro 1996: 198-9). Recounting their first anti-war activism, Cordaro describes how the Berrigans first tried to turn their activist focus towards the Church, but when they realized the deep ties between the Catholic Church and the militarist warmakers, they began their crusade against national structures and institutions. He concludes, “[t]heir refocused direction took shape when they entered the Catonsville draft-board offices […] With the burning of the draft-card files at Catonsville, the ways of Catholic peacemaking in the United States were changed forever. A whole new form of faith-based nonviolent resistance was born” (Cordaro 1996: 200).

Mary Moylan and Daniel Berrigan, two of the Catonsville Nine, leaving the Baltimore Federal Courthouse in 1968. Photographed by Bob Fitch. Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Community was needed to navigate the new activist landscape, now more than ever. The funding was scarce, the activists were in and out of jail, and many felt frustrated from a lack of results, yet the community sustained their spirits (Cf. The Catholic Peace Fellowship Bulletin 1975). Jim Forest remembers the founding of the CPF at their tenth anniversary: “The CPF began more in friendship than in ideology. […] an occasion for creating connections between people that don’t let go. […] The sacraments, the gospels, the stories of the saints, the ability of friends and strangers to risk everything rather than take part in murder, the friendship of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, the regular CPF masses and meals and long walks with Dan Berrigan … all these things helped to keep us going” (Forest 1975: 4). Even shared arrests seemed to connect the activists intimately and forge long-lasting friendships. The actor Martin Sheen remembers his arrests alongside activist John Dear, starting with one protest in New York City against Reagan’s plan to put nuclear weapons into outer space, almost nonchalantly yet full of reverence (Sheen 2008: XI). He writes, “I came to know and love John Dear through these intense actions, and we developed a unique relationship” (Sheen 2008: XII).

In 1973, Philip Berrigan and his wife, Catholic activist Elizabeth McAlister, both excommunicated from the Church for getting married while still members of religious orders, opened Jonah House in Baltimore. While Jonah House followed the Catholic Worker ideal of voluntary poverty, they focused on resistance to war and militarism instead of serving the poor. Much of the first Plowshares action – the Plowshares Eight were a group surrounding Dan and Phil Berrigan who, after the Vietnam War, redirected their resistance activism towards nuclear weapons when they entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and struck missiles with hammers, poured blood over, and shredded documents. Named after the biblical directive to beat “swords into plowshares” (Isahia 2:4 KJV), the Plowshares would become a full-fledged international movement against nuclear weapons. – was based on plans conceived by Jonah House members (Nepstad 2004: 43-4, 49-50).   

The Plowshares Eight, from left to right: Carl Kabat, Elmer Maas, Phil Berrigan, Molly Rush, Dan Berrigan, Anne Montgomery, John Schuchardt, Dean Hammer. (Photo courtesy of Waging Nonviolence and the Berrigan Family)

The Plowshares Eight inspired people around the US, and “soon Catholic left activists around the country were engaged in symbolic disarmament at military facilities and weapons production sites. Many visited or lived at Jonah House in preparation for their action” (Nepstad 2004: 50). To create a more stable network of Catholic anti-war activists, Philip Berrigan and Liz McAlister founded the Atlantic Life Community. This activist network organized retreats to sustain and assist activist campaigns (Nepstad 2004: 50).

Retreats were an established and cherished part of Catholic activism, even before the Atlantic Life Community. In 1941, Dorothy Day described the purpose of retreats for non-Catholic readers of their newspaper: “A retreat is a retreat from the world, for a little space only–a retiring to a desert place to renew oneself, to meditate and to pray, and to listen to conferences” (Day 1941). The Catholic Worker held many such retreats at their farms, but it was a 1964 retreat organized by Catholic convert and Trappist monk Thomas Merton that helped guide the Catholic peace network.

Remembered by James Forest as the “’pastor to peacemakers’” (Forest quoted in CPF Staff 2009: 11), Merton had established a remarkable network of correspondence with members of the peace movement, including Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, Tom Cornell, James Forest, and Jim Douglass but also members of the Protestant Fellowship of Reconciliation. Some of his correspondents – Cornell, Forest, Phil and Dan Berrigan – as well as others from the who-is-who of contemporary Christian peacemaking, including A.J. Muste and John Howard Yoder, joined Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky for this event. The retreat, titled “The Spiritual Roots of Protest,” offered Merton a way to help the gathered activists through dialogue and friendship (CPF Staff 2009: 10-13). Dan Berrigan remembers: “The retreat proved a watershed for many who took part; most went to prison, some died. No one walked away untouched” (Berrigan 1993: 3).

The same can be said for Dan Berrigan’s legacy. As Robert Raines notes in an essay about his friend Daniel Berrigan: “Berrigan encouraged people not to be tied to outcomes, but to do the work of peacemaking with non-attachment, planting the seeds, making the witness, leaving the result to God” (1996: 186). Dan Berrigan influenced many of the 20th-century activists, be they American or not, Catholic or not. Some of them, including his brother Philip Berrigan, actor Martin Sheen, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, poet Denise Levertov, and historian Howard Zinn, share their personal encounters with Daniel Berrigan and his profound effect on their life in the anthology Apostle of Peace: Essays in Honor of Daniel Berrigan.

Fortunately for me and anyone else interested in Catholic peacemaking, much history is preserved and digitized online, a treasure trove of deeply personal and transformative approaches to activism. The Catholic Worker website features many, if not all, of Dorothy Day’s and Peter Maurin’s writings. Jim Forest has uploaded hundreds of photos from his activist days or his books on other activists to an online account, although the correct sourcing might be difficult. The University of Notre Dame Archives have digitized 19 Catholic Peace Fellowship Bulletin issues, and the Catholic News Archive holds almost 800 issues of the Catholic Worker newspaper. Many books by and about the activists are available free of charge through the Internet Archive. But the days of Catholic activism have not yet passed. A younger generation is still fighting for peace and justice with their writings, their communities, and their hammers.


[1] There are a few different versions of this photo going around. According to Berrigan’s long-time friend and activist colleague Jim Forest, the picture was taken in 1969 by Bob Fitch. The Bob Fitch Photography Archives at Stanford feature a slightly different version, dated 1968 in Baltimore.

[2] There are different traditions and versions of personalism according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Catholic Worker’s understanding might differ from other iterations of the same principle. 

About the Author 

Virginia Zentgraf is a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg’s Center for American Studies, where she has also received her B.A. in American Studies. In her studies, she focuses on American religion, with a special interest in 20th and 21st-century religious history. She is also the main organizer of the HCA’s Spring Academy, their annual doctoral conference. For questions about the Spring Academy or to chat further on Catholic peacemaking, please reach out at vzentgraf@hca.uni-heidelberg.de or on X @VirginiaZgraf.  


Berrigan, Daniel. 1993. “Thomas Merton-Ashes to Ashes my Dream.” The Catholic Worker, December 1993: 3. https://merton.bellarmine.edu/s/Merton/item/42084 (accessed November 15, 2021).

Catholic Peace Fellowship Staff. 2009. “The Duty Is Evident: Merton, the CPF & the Apostolic Work of Peacemaking.” The Sign of Peace 8, no. 1 (Winter): 10-14. http://www.catholicpeacefellowship.org/downloads/WINTER_2009.pdf (accessed November 15, 2021).

Cordaro, Frank. 1996. “A Letter from Prison.” In Apostle of Peace: Essays in Honor of Daniel Berrigan, edited by John Dear, 198-202. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book.

Day, Dorothy. 1941. “Day After Day – September 1941.” The Catholic Worker. https://catholicworker.org/374-html/ (accessed January 02, 2024).

Forest, James. 1975. “All the Way to Heaven is Heaven.” The Catholic Peace Fellowship Bulletin. 10th Anniversary Issue (February): 4, 11. University of Notre Dame Archives: Digital Collections. https://archives.nd.edu/CPF/CPF_1975.pdf.

Hennacy, Ammon. 1994. The Book of Ammon. 2nd ed. Edited by Jim Missey and Joan Thomas. Baltimore: Fortkamp Publishing Company.  

Maurin, Peter. N.d. “What the Catholic Worker Believes.” A Collection of Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays. https://www.catholicworker.org/petermaurin/easy-essays.html (accessed December 02, 2021).

Nepstad, Sharon Erickson. 2004. “Persistent Resistance: Commitment and Community in the Plowshares Movement.” Social Problems 51, no. 1 (February 2004): 43-60. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/sp.2004.51.1.43.

Nepstad, Sharon Erickson. 2019. Catholic Social Activism: Progressive Movements in the United States. New York: New York University Press.

Raines, Robert. 1996. “Sowing Seeds of Peace for Future Generations” In Apostle of Peace: Essays in Honor of Daniel Berrigan, edited by John Dear, 185-188. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book.

Sheen, Martin. 2008. Foreword to A Persistent Peace: One Man’s Struggle for a Nonviolent World, by John Dear, ix-xiii. Chicago: Loyola Press.

Sheridan, Wayne. 2014. “Farmer, Anarchist, Catholic: An Interview with Tom Cornell.” Commonweal 141 (14): 8-10.

Stock, Paul V. 2012. “Consensus Social Movements and the Catholic Worker.” Politics and Religion 5, no. 1: 83-102. doi:10.1017/S1755048311000642.


Photo Credits

The Catholic Peace Fellowship calls for people to become United Farm Workers organizers in their Spring 1972 issue of the Catholic Peace Fellowship Bulletin (Pg. 12)

Dorothy Day pickets with the United Farm Workers Union. Photographed by Bob Fitch. Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Mary Moylan and Daniel Berrigan, two of the Catonsville Nine. Photographed by Bob Fitch. Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.  

The Plowshares Eight, from left to right: Carl Kabat, Elmer Maas, Phil Berrigan, Molly Rush, Dan Berrigan, Anne Montgomery, John Schuchardt, Dean Hammer. (Photo courtesy of Waging Nonviolence and the Berrigan Family)

Cite this blog post
The Editors (2024, January 17). “Creating Connections between People that Don’t Let Go:” The Intricate Network of Catholic Peacemaking. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vm0j

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1 Response

  1. Thomas Burnham says:

    At a Catholic school in liberal Massachusetts, Dorothy Day was a big focus the year that my theology class covered Catholic social teaching. Great article, Virginia!

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