Paul Elie: Daniel Berrigan was a fierce critic of the United States. He was also a great American.

 Paul Elie: Daniel Berrigan was a fierce critic of the United States. He was also a great American.

During a memorial service at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Manhattan for Walker Percy in 1990, his editor, Robert Giroux, eulogized him as “a superb novelist, a distinguished man of letters, a witty and searching critic, a great American.” As I read those words not long after, the “great American” tag took me by surprise; it invited us to see a Catholic writer in a different light.

A photograph of Dorothy Day I saw on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington a few years later had the same effect. Here was “our” Dorothy, in the company of Jefferson and Lincoln, Tubman and Ellington.

On his centenary, I look to Daniel Berrigan, S.J., as a great American, giving equal stress to both parts of the term—recognizing his sustained critique of the United States and his principled suspicion of the greatness that was vital to his character and his calling. Father Berrigan figures into a book I am writing, and just now…

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