NOTRE DAME, INDIANA. — With the turmoil in Wichita, we Catholics have become unfashionable once again.
It's high time, too.
We have a long countercultural history in America. Now the most numerous religious community in the country, we started out here as an embattled minority, learning how to negotiate a culture formed and dominated by Protestant social ethics. One conspicuous example was our willingness to pay for, but not to patronize, public schools, preferring instead to build our own parochial school system, to educate our young in our own way at our own expense.
Our occasional resistance to the customary ways of making do has yielded some colorful and glorious characters, men and women who were not afraid to break the law and risk their freedom and reputation for peace, justice and mercy. These people helped lead resistance against the war in Southeast Asia, and still oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the suppression of Third World poor, the strangulation of inner cities. What they regarded as witnessing to their faith has long been counted by others as good citizenship.
A couple of decades ago two brothers, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, both Catholic priests, excited a whole generation of American Catholics by joining in an act of burglary and vandalism. One morning they broke into Selective Service system offices in Catonsville, seized several files and records, took them to the parking lot outside, ignited them and said prayers around the conflagration while they awaited arrest.
Reactions in the Catholic Church ranged from relief at seeing collar-wearing Catholic elders finally step to the forefront of anti-war protest to anger that they were scandalizing the Church. Some argued that the hysteria in the gesture was as frightening as the evil it opposed.
But misguided, benighted, hysterical or arrogant as they may have been, the Berrigans and their colleagues were grudgingly respected in most Catholic quarters for standing by an ancient Christian insight. The nuns who taught us in grade school called it the Mystical Body of Christ. It is that we are members of one another, flesh of each other's flesh, bone of each other's bone. Whether bombs fall on Hanoi or Hoboken, their shrapnel and napalm flays and scorches the flesh of Christ.
Had the Berrigans or the many priests, nuns and other religious who soon followed their example ever met a maimed Vietnamese civilian, or had relatives in the military, or had had shots fired at them in anger? No one knew or cared.
Non-Catholics especially revered them for being on the side of the angels.
But then being against the war was hip. Now, nonviolent priests, nuns and religious witnessing to their faith in Operation Rescue actions in Wichita are viewed with contempt by their former allies. Though acting on the same insights which motivated the Berrigans -- indeed, Daniel Berrigan has himself participated in nonviolent actions against abortion providers -- they are nevertheless portrayed in the media as hysterical, sex-hating, reactionary and misogynist -- people who are far more opposed to orgasm than to the destruction of life.
Media language stacks the deck: They ''clutch'' Bibles and ''finger'' rosaries, ''murmur'' prayers and throng in ''howling mobs'' to ''storm'' peaceful clinics to prevent ''medical procedures'' from taking place.
It is frequently said that they march in lockstep with Rome, though most of them have numerous Vatican bones to pick. Editorials and editorial cartoons about them point to all sorts of sinister thought control, though few of them growing up ever heard a sermon or catechism lesson which so much as mentioned abortion. It is rarely if ever suggested that those blocking abortion clinic doors may see the unborn child, no less the child's parents, as a brother or sister in Christ.
What sticks in the craw of their enlightened fellows is that these otherwise good Catholic citizens can't bring themselves to regard any killing, even a quiet and legal one, as a private matter. It is hard for them to be open-minded about bloodshed. They believe that a victim no less than an executioner, an exploited woman no less than her exploiter, a terrified pregnant teen-ager no less than a licensed abortionist, an angry judge no less than a self-righteous lawbreaker, no less than any one of us, is known, loved, ransomed and inhabited by Christ.
It's good that such people are coming out of the closet.
Michael Garvey works in public affairs at the University of Notre Dame.