The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left

Author: Michael O. Garvey

“Looking back at a book about a trial 40 years after the fact is opening a time capsule of sorts,” writes William O’Rourke in the preface to a new edition of his book, “The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left.”

Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, William O'Rourke

Recently published by the University of Notre Dame Press, the 40th anniversary edition of O’Rourke’s book does indeed have something of the antique and curious about it, concerning as it does, a trial in which the federal government was arraigning seven fierce opponents of the Vietnam War for conspiring to raid government offices, bomb Washington’s infrastructures and kidnap President Richard Nixon’s adviser Henry Kissinger. Six of the seven were resigned or active Catholic priests and nuns.

Although the 1972 trial of these exotic outlaws ended in a hung jury, and the radical “conspirators” it made notorious—most notably Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister—eventually resumed considerably less incendiary forms of antiwar activism, it was the high-water mark of what O’Rourke and others were then calling “the new Catholic Left.”

Regarding the trial, its characters and its atmosphere from an ironic distance and reporting it in arch prose, O’Rourke provides a vivid impression not only of what he calls, in an afterword to the book’s new edition, “the biggest thing happening in the states” but also of the time and culture in which the trial took place. It is worth noting that “The Harrisburg 7” remained on the New York Times’ 1972 “new and recommended” list for six weeks after its first publication. O’Rourke’s time capsule simile is apt.

The government’s case was slapdash, based on the testimony of questionable witnesses and some murky ruminations recorded in intercepted correspondence between Berrigan and McAlister and heavily influenced by the senescent paranoia of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who would die only a few weeks after the inconclusive trial. Before the trial, Hoover had given ominous congressional testimony about the
“incipient plot on the part of an anarchist group…of Catholic priests and nuns, teachers, students and former students” to terrorize the government into ending the bombing of Southeast Asia and the nation into a reassessment of the war.

Although the conspirators’ plot was partially successful, in that Hoover’s obsession with it (O’Rourke believes the legendary G-man “should be listed as a coconspirator”) publicized their cause beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, “the government actually won the trial, accomplishing what it wanted to do, by toppling the Catholic Left from its pillar of moral superiority.”

David Black, in an early review of the new edition of O’Rourke’s book, praises it as “a classic of trial reporting, an account even 40 years later that is still pertinent to our situation.”

As if in ironic illustration of that point, early last month, as the new edition of “The Harrisburg 7” appeared, the current president of the United States addressed the National Prayer Breakfast. He had high praise for Dorothy Day, the anarchist Catholic matriarch (who had inspired the Harrisburg defendants) as one of the “great reformers in American history (who) did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it, and called for bold action—sometimes in the face of indifference, sometimes in the face of resistance.”

Thus spoke President Barack Obama, chief executive of a federal government now, as 40 years ago, in excruciating adversity with another unruly, outspoken, disobedient and potentially dangerous “conspiracy” of Catholics, including not a few bishops.