This radical Catholic gets respect

fathervitalejpgLong ago, while I was on the religion beat at the Rocky Mountain News, I covered several protests linked to military facilities -- including a memorable day following Catholic activists out across the prairies of Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas looking for nuclear missile silos. Sometimes people got arrested, but most of the time the authorities looked the other way. Things were different, of course, when some -- but not all -- of the same protesters visited abortion facilities, even though most of the activities were the same. The goal was to be a visible witness, singing and praying the rosary and calling attention to the "seamless garment" of Catholicism's teachings on the sanctity of human life. Most of the time, people stayed on public property, but the more radical of the protesters were willing to trespass into private property and face arrest.

It was interesting to note the differences in media coverage between these various types of protests, even though, for many of the participants, they were doing the same forms of protests for the same doctrinal reasons -- only at different locations.

You can guess which protests drew respectful coverage from most journalists and which ones did not. It was also rare to see journalists link these issues together, even though the activists were almost always anxious to explain their beliefs and motivations. (On the death penalty issue, I must admit that I have seen some of this activity from the inside.)

Anyway, I experienced this Colorado flashback while reading the lengthy Los Angeles Times profile of Father Louis Vitale, a Franciscan whose protests have frequently made headlines and even made him powerful friends in Hollywood. Here is the top of the story:

Father Louis Vitale has lost track of how many times he has been arrested. More than 200, he figures, maybe 300. The gaunt Franciscan friar figures he's spent a year and a half behind bars. At 76, he is ready to go to jail again.

Last month, he appeared before a federal magistrate in Santa Barbara. Dressed in the traditional brown robe and the knotted rope belt that signifies vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Vitale explains in his gravelly voice that he had a higher purpose when he trespassed two years ago at Vandenberg Air Force Base: calling attention to the perils of nuclear war and persuading military personnel to embrace nonviolence.

"The biggest threat to the world is our nuclear arsenal," he tells Magistrate Judge Rita Coyne Federman.

More than two dozen family members and friends, including actor Martin Sheen, are in the courtroom to show support for the friar and his three co-defendants.

Knowing that sending the friar to jail will only further this cause, the judge gave him a $500 fine. Vitale urged his friends and supporters not to pay it. HIs goal is to go to jail -- again. He is, after all, following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Why does the friar do this? Here is the story's explanation:

For nearly four decades, Vitale has made civil disobedience a way of life. A former Air Force navigator with a PhD in sociology from UCLA, he believes his mission is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and St. Francis, who comforted the poor and preached nonviolence. "I call it the evangelization of peace," he says.

His example inspired so many people to put themselves on the line during the anti-nuke protests of the 1980s that he was dubbed the Pied Piper of the Nevada Test Site. More recently, he has helped focus attention on the training of Latin American security forces at Ft. Benning, Ga., and the instruction of U.S. military interrogators at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz. ...

Vitale, who lives at St. Elizabeth's Friary in Oakland, is one of a small number of religious figures around the nation who seek to go to jail for their beliefs. "By taking on the suffering of others, we change the world," he says. "We are willing to put our bodies where they are and suffer the consequences, be what they may."

All of this fits with the approach taken by a wide variety of Catholic activists -- but not others. There are debates, you see, about the nature of the church's teachings on different issues, beginning with the rock-solid stance on abortion and euthanasia and then proceeding into the complexities of how the right to life is best expressed in issues ranging from the death penalty to various issues linked to war and peace.

My point is that these issues are complex and, most would agree, connected. It's hard to open one of these doors without entering the doctrinal hallway that leads to the others.

However, the Los Angeles Times managed to pull off that trick.

Congratulations. That must have been hard to do.

So I will ask: Has Vitale been involved in other sanctity of life issues, during his many pilgrimages into jail cells? We do not know. If he has, that's interesting. If he has not, that's even more interesting.

The friar may sincerely believe that his unique calling, his charism, is to protest against military violence, as opposed to violence against the unborn and others. If so, I am absolutely sure that he has articulate doctrinal reasons for believing this, even though I am also sure that other Catholics would argue with him. What I am saying is that these issues are part of his story, one way or the other.

Photo: Franciscan Fr. Louis Vitale (left) and a partner in his protest work, Jesuit Father Steve Kelly.

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