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Beating bombers into plowshares

NCR Staff

Diocesan priests Frank Cordaro and Larry Morlan think they do some of their best work in jail. They don’t serve as chaplains, however, at least not formally. They serve time.

They’re behind bars again, this time awaiting sentencing on a Sept. 23 conviction for injury to government property. The charge stemmed from the May 17 “Gods of Metal” Plowshares action at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Washington where the two priests -- along with three women -- set upon a B-52 bomber with hammers and vials of their own blood.

Cordaro and Morlan are unusual figures, even within the tiny yet tenacious Plowshares movement. When they go to jail, they leave an entire parish behind. Because they take parish ministry seriously -- both intend to be back in a parish as soon as their sentence is up -- it makes the decision to risk prison especially agonizing. Yet both believe they’re better, more credible priests because of it.

“It’s the hardest thing you do, to leave. A parish priest is a priest that’s with his people,” said Cordaro, 48, a priest of the Des Moines, Iowa, diocese. “To take an action that takes you away from that role that so much identifies you and is your responsibility, doesn’t come lightly. It’s a very hard struggle.”

How, therefore, did Cordaro explain his decision to leave his small parish in Warren County? “I’ve been involved in this resistance effort for over 20 years, and it’s so much a part of who I am as a Christian that it’s a benchmark for what it means to be faithful,” he said. “That ultimately becomes the question for anybody, a priest included. If you’re not going to be faithful to a gospel that’s claimed you for so many years and has formed you, then you’re not going to be very good as a priest.”

Morlan, 38, said, “I went back and forth about whether to do this action or to stay in uninterrupted parish ministry.” Morlan is from the Peoria, Ill., diocese.

“In March when it looked like we were going to bomb Iraq again, I got up in the ambo at all the Masses that weekend and looked out and saw those young faces. I thought, another generation doesn’t have to be up for grabs, doesn’t have to have their future being a time bomb that ticks away in their present. We have to do a better job of holding up the icon of the nonviolent Christ, [of communicating] that the gospel does have something to say about this matter.

“Then I thought about how when you get ordained a priest, the bishop tells you at some point in the liturgy, ‘Model your life on the Lord’s cross.’ So it seems to me that a priest is a good person to preach the gospel in this way, to act on the gospel in this way, to give an example of putting the gospel into action. I think it’s pretty good work for a priest.”

Morlan said leaving St. Patrick’s Church in Merna, Ill., where he had been associate pastor, was one of the hardest things he’s ever done. “The goodbyes are very tearful,” he said. “The last Mass I celebrated at St. Patrick’s I actually started crying at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer and I didn’t finish until after Communion was distributed. Then the pastor came in to say a few words, and I started again. It was very painful.”

Then why do it? “It’s what the Second Vatican Council said, the abolition of war has to be the No. 1 agenda item for the human family,” Morlan said. “When the blood was poured on [the bomber], then you saw its history. You saw that it had been active throughout Vietnam, that it had been active in Asia after Vietnam, that it had led the way in the Gulf massacre, that it was still threatening to bomb those people in Iraq. It carries nuclear weapons as well as conventional weapons. Until we put that blood there, those sisters and brothers who had died in the work of that B-52 were hidden away, they were masked underneath the veneer of the idol, and we unmasked it,” Morlan said.

“That’s a great gift, for people to be able to look at that and say, ‘My God, there’s blood on this plane, and it’s being spilled in my name. I’m paying for it. If my enemy were doing this same thing, I’d be aghast.’ If the Iraqis had this B-52, we’d see it more clearly. But since it’s an American B-52, it’s a good thing because Americans are good. That’s part of the mask that has to be pulled away, and it’s very painful. But it has to be done.”

The “Gods of Metal” five will be in jail for a minimum of three and a half months. During their two-day trial, Federal Judge Alexander Williams Jr. allowed the activists to put on some parts of their defense -- roughly, that international law makes nuclear weapons illegal -- but then convicted them, holding that they acted with what the law considers “criminal intent.”

The group recruited four witnesses to testify on their behalf: Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, on the Christian principles undergirding nonviolence; Michael True, a scholar who would testify to the social value of civil disobedience; retired Admiral Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information, on the nuclear capability of the B-52 bomber; and professor Frances Boyle, an expert who would speak to international law prohibiting nuclear weapons. Williams allowed only Boyle to testify, and later ruled most of his comments “irrelevant.”

The conviction carries the possibility of up to a year in prison, and Williams set a Jan. 4 sentencing date. The quintet then refused any further cooperation, leading Williams to lock them up. In January, they could get more time, have their sentences reduced to time served or be placed on probation.

The “Plowshares” effort takes its name from the Book of Micah, which speaks of swords being beaten into plowshares. Over the years, a hardy band of self-styled Christian witnesses -- the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, are the best known -- have taken what they see as the first steps toward turning that vision into reality. Acts of defiance as they are, most of these steps -- such as trespassing at military installations and hammering missile silos -- usually lead straight to jail.

It was in that spirit that Cordaro and Morlan, along with Kathy Shields Boylan and Dominican Srs. Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert walked onto the grounds of Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., May 17 for a big Department of Defense air show. Two planes down from Air Force One, the group peered into the bomb bay door of a B-52. Cordaro said, “Sisters and brothers! Let us disarm these gods of metal!” Then, with hammers and vials of blood, the five set upon the bomber. Two minutes later they were in custody.

Cordaro and Morlan spoke to NCR in the middle of a low-budget national tour to raise consciousness and funds for their Sept. 22 and 23 trial. The tour ended at the University of Notre Dame where they took part in a prayer vigil encouraging students to resist the presence of ROTC on the Notre Dame campus.

Listening to the duo on a mid-August afternoon, it became clear that they see themselves not fundamentally as peace activists or prophets but as parish priests -- and their resistance work as a logical extension of that role. Their audience, they say, is not really the U.S. military or the world at large, but the church.

“I don’t think Caesar is going to change his stripes anytime soon. I just want to see the church get out of Caesar’s bed,” Cordaro said.

“This is the close of the 20th century, the century that has seen the most blood, killing, murder, war,” he said. “The tragedy of all this for us who call ourselves Christians is that we’re the best killers. We’re the best killers in this century of blood. We kill each other well and we kill others even better. If we as a church, as a faith tradition, could recover that nonviolent spirit of Jesus, that could very well be the greatest gift we could give humanity at this moment.”

That isn’t to say that everyone in the church, including the parishes Cordaro and Morlan serve, is thrilled at what the two are up to. “There’s a lot of people who read challenging our nuclear arsenal and our military policies as equaling immediately an attack on military people, so you’re attacking the boys, you’re attacking the soldiers,” Morlan said. “And to criticize the military policies of the country is somehow to demean the country itself. These things are so identified. I also sense among many people -- with Catholics perhaps leading the way -- an identification of the United States with the Kingdom of God. To be a good American is to be a good Christian. There is a lot of passion, and frankly we’ve experienced some of it.”

Still, the two say most of their people have been positive and supportive, if not eager to see them leave the parish. “If you’re a good priest, it really doesn’t matter what your politics are, what your political or theological point of view is. I believe I do a good job of being a priest, so you get them in that sense,” Cordaro said.

Despite being the younger of the two, Morlan has spent more time than Cordaro in prison. Cordaro has done a total of 32 months, usually in six-month increments, while Morlan spent one four-year stretch for another Plowshares action in 1986. He had been a seminarian in the Peoria diocese but left to spend a year with the Catholic Worker, not sure ordination was for him. Bishop John Myers -- who has a reputation as a staunch conservative -- visited Morlan in prison and encouraged him to think more about the priesthood.

“It was really through working with inmates there at Marion [prison] that I became convinced that I still wanted to be a priest, still felt like that was what I was supposed to be. I realized what I’m doing is really what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Myers ordained Morlan after he completed his prison time and his seminary studies.

It was in the federal prison in Marion, Ill., that Morlan met Cordaro, who was doing six months for another Plowshares action. The two connected, and out of their friendship they’ve developed what they regard as a model for parish priests who feel drawn to resistance activity: team ministry.

“The rub in doing this resistance work as a parish priest is that when you go to jail you’re locked up, you can’t be in the parish,” Cordaro said. “This became very clear to me early in my priestly career as I continued to take risks like this, so I was always looking for an opportunity to hook up with another guy and do a team ministry-type thing.

“For my model in resistance, I take Phil Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister as great examples. These people raised three children and are raising them. Raising a family is a lot harder than being a country priest, I can tell you that. The way they do it is they make sure one is always home while the other one risks jail. If they can do that, we can do that in a parish setting. That was my thinking.”

The trick, in the case of Cordaro and Morlan, is for one of the priests to arrange to be on loan from his diocese while the other goes behind bars.

A diocesan priest is usually on his own, Morlan said, unlike a member of a religious community -- where, at least theoretically, a support network exists from which others can be called upon to fill in while someone is away. For that reason, he says, team ministry is “extremely viable.”

So why didn’t Morlan and Cordaro put their team ministry plan into effect? Two words: The bishop. While Myers gave a provisional okay to the plan, Bishop Joseph Charron of Des Moines turned it down.

“The parish was open to discussing it,” Cordaro said. “Then of course we took it to the bishop and the personnel board, and they didn’t accept the plan.”

Why? “I don’t know. I think these guys were trying to talk me out of it,” Cordaro said. “The next thing I did was resign. I said I would resign effective in the spring when I act up, so the diocese goes on-line and everybody knows I’ll be gone and the folks won’t be without a priest. They’ll assign somebody. Then they refused my resignation. Then I just had to say, ‘Well, I’m going. This is what is going to happen. Please assure the folks that you’re gonna be able to cover the missing weekends.’ ”

Finally, Cordaro said, he and the diocese worked out an understanding. “The short of it is you’re neither blessed nor cursed. The bishop and the personnel board wanted to make it very clear that I was leaving without permission, and that they felt I was being grossly irresponsible to my primary responsibilities in the parish, and that in no way was I getting any kind of blessing for this.

“On the other hand, they respect my act of conscience. I was not going to get any kind of church discipline because of my acting up, and when I’m free to return to the diocese to work I’ll be welcomed back.”

Morlan’s status with Myers is basically the same. “I had told him sometime before that in the spring of 1998 I was pretty sure I would be doing some kind of resistance witness that would risk jail. We had been talking about that and we continued talking about it. He never would accept it. He says he will not approve it,” Morlan said.

“He says the same thing about conscience as Bishop Charron, but up to this very point he’s been unable to really decide how to deal with it, how to deal with me and what my status is. He’s been angry. He’s probably struggling to look at it as an administrator as well as from a sense of the gospel. ... Yet for a bishop I think those two things are so wedded together that it’s hard for him to know what to do with it. But each time I’ve talked to him I’ve encouraged him [to] continue the dialogue and find a way of working with this.”

Are either angry that they’re not getting more support from church authorities?

“I think it’s about the best we’re going to get these days,” Cordaro said.

Morlan added that, given the nature of today’s conspiracy laws, he understands that church officials have to be very circumspect about seeming to endorse illegal activity.

Cordaro said Bishop Charron’s recent decision to allow him to preach in the cathedral in Des Moines meant a lot. “That was really a gracious act on the bishop’s part, because he certainly isn’t sympathetic to the action and publicly has said that he thinks it’s a bad idea. We felt real good about that.”

Both men claim not to be discouraged that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, public interest in issues of war and peace has dissipated. “When I started doing this in 1977 there were very few people doing it then. When I did my first blood-spilling at the Pentagon -- [people saw us as] a few odd weirdo wackos, and I guess we’re right back down to odd, weirdo wackos at this moment,” Cordaro said.

“Dorothy Day said that the 1960s were some of the worst years for the peace movement, and that’s when the streets were filled with people. But it wasn’t grounded in a vision that was anywhere near the vision of the kingdom and the cross that Jesus was calling people to,” Cordaro said. “It wasn’t grounded in much, and where is it? The ’80s were similar. Yeah, there were a lot more people interested, but not the life-changing, putting your life on the line [kind of activity]. That’s critical, I think, risk and personal investment. There just isn’t that price being paid, never was.”

What about the argument that, especially in an era of priest shortages, Cordaro and Morlan have an obligation not to desert their people?

“Of course there’s a shortage, but I’m not responsible for that,” Cordaro said. “In fact if given an opportunity I have some interesting suggestions on how we might be able to address that, as many in our church do, and those concerns aren’t allowed to be raised. So I don’t feel any real moral compulsion that I have to be at the parish, because we’ve got a shortage that’s artificially made.”

Moreover, it’s not like either man stops being priestly while locked up. “I’ve been put down and not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist at different times,” Cordaro said. “But the guys get to know it pretty quickly, they know why you’re there. They may have varying opinions about it, but I’ve often had opportunities to be a confessor both to inmates and to jailers. The system doesn’t want you to. ... It’s official. You can’t be a priest and lawyers can’t lawyer and teachers can’t teach. But I am a priest, and you can’t stop me from being a priest.

“There you are. You’re an inmate -- you’re not a hack in black. You’re not working for the system. Like anyone else who ministers to particular groups, [prisoners] appreciate someone who identifies with them.”

Morlan, Cordaro and their three female codefendants now have more opportunities for such pastoral moments. After being convicted on what they called a “sham,” the five refused any further cooperation and were thrown behind bars.

Morlan predicted to NCR in August that this is how it would unfold. “We want to go right from the courtroom to start that sentence,” Morlan said. “Because what we’re saying is that if they find us guilty, then they’re ignoring the illegality of those weapons, which under international law are illegal weapons. Those weapons and the policies that protect them, the laws that protect them, are where the criminality lies.”

In rehearsing the group’s defense, Morlan still sounded like a pastor and teacher. “There was all this yes-saying to these weapons [at the air show], and here was this clear no,” he said. “The audaciousness and the clarity of Plowshares’ actions is a wonderful thing to have held up like that. Those kids [at the air show] saw people taking some risks to say no to these weapons.”

During his testimony at the trial, Morlan summed up the Plowshares position. “We have to say no to these weapons in order to say yes to God.”

The Gods of Metal Plowshares may be contacted at Jonah House, 1301 Moreland, Baltimore, Md. 21216.

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998