Individuals with deeply held religious beliefs are often willing to carry out what they perceive to be righteous acts knowing full well that that those acts are against the law or the norms of society. It was this sense of religious obligation that lead the Catonsville Nine—a group of nine Catholics (including two priests) opposed to the Vietnam War—to steal and burn hundreds of Selective Service records from a suburban Baltimore draft board in May of 1968.
A child when this event took place, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Shawn Francis Peters, a Catonsville native, grew up hearing many stories about the nine. Long interested in the topic, Peters was frustrated that no definitive account of the Catonsville Nine had been published. Seeking to differentiate fact from fiction, Peters has written The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (Oxford University Press, 390 pp., $34.95) so that the group’s controversial act could be fully understood and appropriately debated.
Relying heavily on FBI documents and personal interviews with four of the surviving nine, Peters provides an in-depth and conclusive account of the Catonsville Nine’s act of civil disobedience, their subsequent trial, and the decision of four members to go underground to avoid incarceration. The Catonsville Nine also explores the beliefs that influenced the group’s worldview, the individual personalities of each member, and the moral and theological debate their action ignited in Maryland and across the nation and the world.
While the Catonsville Nine were ardently opposed to the Vietnam War, Peters explains that as followers of the liberal strand of Catholicism known as liberation theology, they also were troubled by global affairs that went far beyond Vietnam. Most members of the group believed that the United States carried out an imperialistic foreign policy that contributed to the suffering of the poor in the Third World. Peters explores how the nine attempted to use their trial to highlight global injustice—a fact that previous accounts of the group have largely ignored.
In addition to being an excellent work of history, The Catonsville Nine is a thought-provoking book that forces one to contemplate just how far an individual should go to fight for his or her vision of justice. It is written in a clear and well-thought-out manner, and the author’s passion for the topic is evident.
The reader gets the sense that Peters is digesting the facts he is presenting along with the reader. This subtle narration gives the book an inviting feel and allows it to avoid the drabness that too often plagues works of history.