'Peace on Earth-Peace in Vietnam': The Catholic Peace Fellowship and Antiwar Witness, 1964-1976

By Moon, Penelope Adams | Journal of Social History, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

'Peace on Earth-Peace in Vietnam': The Catholic Peace Fellowship and Antiwar Witness, 1964-1976


Moon, Penelope Adams, Journal of Social History


Gentlemen,

I am not in possession of my registration card or of a classification card. I burned them years ago.

Please send me duplicates.

Thank you.

Thomas C. Cornell (1)

When Tom Cornell informed his draft board that he lacked a draft card, he did so not out of a sense of civic duty or because he desired to follow the letter of the law. Cornell wrote draft officials for new documents because he found himself in a dilemma in October 1965. A leader in the Catholic Peace Fellowship, a fledgling protest organization with roots in the Catholic Worker Movement, Cornell spent the Fall of 1965 organizing fellow American Catholic activists to bum their draft cards at an upcoming public rally. All of a sudden, though, he faced the embarrassing scenario of showing up at the rally without any documents to burn. So Cornell wrote his draft board in hopes that they might kindly send him "duplicates," and in the process enable him to destroy them in a ceremony he believed would convey his religious and civic objections to the draft and the war in Vietnam.

Tom Cornell was one of a small, but growing number of American Catholics opposed to the developing war in Vietnam in the mid- 1960s. The organization with which he affiliated, the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF), emerged as an important locus of Catholic antiwar activism in 1964 and remained central to Catholic protest of the Vietnam War and to post-Vietnam antiwar activities throughout the 1970s, This essay explores the CPF in the 1960s and 1970s and the impact that CPF members (CPFers) and Catholic protesters in general had on relationships within the American Catholic Church and on the larger antiwar movement. While the CPF never enjoyed mainstream status among American Catholics--indeed, most Catholics maintained their support for the Vietnam War for most of the decade--the activities of the CPF constituted one way American Catholics responded to the Vietnam War and reflected deeper changes in their attitudes and relationships in the American Catholic Church. (2)

The rise of the CPF corresponded to significant changes in the Roman Catholic Church, and CPF protest in many ways stands as a measure of how Catholic lay people interpreted and adapted to those changes. The activism of the laypeople that dominated the CPF reflected a new confidence among some American Catholics following the Second Vatican Council, which met in Rome between 1962 and 1965. As this essay will demonstrate, the Council conferred greater authority on Catholic laypeople, an authority CPFers interpreted as a mandate to work for social justice in the public arena. Despite a tradition of deferring to 'legitimate authority', Catholic lay people during the Vietnam War took the lead on issues of social justice, exercising a degree of religious authority not seen in American Catholic life prior to the Vietnam War. The confidence with which CPFers publicly opposed the war and employed theological arguments against American military intervention in Vietnam marked them as players on a public stage once rese rved for Catholic clergymen. By the 1980s, the American Catholic clergy would once again dominate that stage, but for a brief time in the 1960s and early 1970s, Catholic laypeople took the lead on issues of social justice and peace. While the CPF did not singlehandedly transform the dynamics within the American Catholic Church, Catholic protest of the Vietnam War contributed to greater dialogue between the American Catholic laity and the American Catholic hierarchy and helped amplify the voices of Catholic laypeople in public debates about both political and religious issues.

Beyond its impact on American Catholic life, the CPF also warrants historical examination for the ways it can help broaden understanding of the movement against the Vietnam War. The CPF was a religiously-grounded organization with members that ranged from college students to nuns. …

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