Rev. Carl Kabat, Peace Activist and ‘Fool for Christ,’ Dies at 88

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The Rev. Carl Kabat, a Roman Catholic priest and tenacious yet joyful foe of nuclear weapons who spent nearly 20 years in prison for protests that involved bolt cutters, human blood and clown costumes (red nose included), died on Aug. 4 at a retirement home affiliated with his religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, in San Antonio. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by the Oblates. No cause was provided.

Father Kabat, citing Corinthians, called himself a “fool for Christ,” but his cause was serious: sounding the alarm about the doomsday threat posed by the world’s nuclear arsenal.

He “heard a call to be a prophet against the proliferation” of nuclear weapons, the Oblates said in announcing his death. In answering that call, he joined a broader campaign being waged under the Catholic Worker banner against injustice, war, racism and violence of all kinds.

“You can’t just kill babies and children and old people indiscriminately,” Father Kabat said in a jailhouse interview with The New York Times in 2009, while awaiting trial in Colorado after a protest there. “It should be unreasonable for every human person to accept nuclear weapons.”

Perhaps the best-known example of Father Kabat’s approach to civil disobedience came on Sept. 9, 1980, when he and seven others entered Building 9 at a General Electric factory in King of Prussia, Pa.

Arriving before the morning shift began, the group, which included the Rev. Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, walked past a security guard and into the plant. Once inside, they used claw hammers to damage nose cones for Minuteman missiles and sprinkled their own blood from baby bottles onto blueprints and other documents. They then joined hands, prayed and sang hymns, one of the eight, Molly Rush, recalled in an interview.

The episode, among the most prominent antiwar protests since the Vietnam War, led to burglary and other charges against the participants, who called themselves the Plowshares Eight after the Bible’s reference to nations that “shall beat their swords into plowshares.”

The group’s members were tried and convicted in 1981. Father Kabat, who had helped distract the security guard as the others entered the plant, received among the harshest sentences: 3 to 10 years in prison. After lengthy appeals, his sentence and the others’ were reduced in 1990 to their time served before trial. Along the way, the Pennsylvania protest inspired people around the country to form Plowshares groups and employ similar tactics.

Carl Kenneth Kabat was born on Oct. 10, 1933, in Scheller, Ill., a farming hamlet about an hour and a half from St. Louis, the third of five children. His father, Nick Kabat, was a farmer; his mother, Anna (Skorczewski) Kabat, was a homemaker.

Mary Ann Radake, Father Kabat’s sister and only immediate survivor, said that he had planned to become a doctor but decided against it after enrolling at the University of Illinois as a pre-med student.

“He must have had a calling at that time,” Ms. Radake said in an interview.

Dropping out of college, he followed his brother Paul into the priesthood and joined the Oblates, an order founded in France in the early 19th century to minister to the poor. He was ordained in 1959.

He was later assigned to the Philippines and then to Brazil. It was in South America that the teachings of liberation theology, with its emphasis on addressing social, political and economic inequity in the service of ultimate salvation, began to take hold.

“He was subjected to real poverty there,” Ms. Radake said.

He returned to the United States in 1973. The Cold War was grinding on, the Vietnam War was nearing its end and the impact of the reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s was still rippling through the country’s Catholic ranks.

The Oblates said that Father Kabat had embraced a statement included in Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris”: “Justice, right reason and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation of the arms race.”

Father Kabat spent several years translating the works of the liberation theologian José Comblin into English. He also made common cause with groups like Amnesty International. He joined Jonah House, a Baltimore collective founded by Philip Berrigan, by then a former priest, and his wife, Liz McAlister, a former nun. Soon he was protesting at the Pentagon, splashing blood on the steps in a precursor to the Plowshares Eight episode.

From 1977 to 2002, his official assignment with the Oblates was “peace activist,” a title he carried to small towns like Graterford, Pa., and Sandstone, Minn., and cities like Baltimore and Bismarck, N.D. His itinerant life followed a pattern: protest, arrest, prison, repeat.

In 1984, as appeals in the Plowshares Eight case continued, Father Kabat, his brother Paul and two other people cut through a chain-link fence at an Air Force base in Missouri, used a jackhammer to damage a missile silo’s concrete cover and then offered a Eucharist. Father Kabat served about six years in federal prison as a result.

“To beat the sword into a plowshare, you need a hammer,” he told St. Louis magazine in 2010. “Well, jackhammer is just a little bigger hammer.”

He explained in the same interview that he had begun dressing as a clown for protests rather than in his typical sweatshirt and khakis in 1994 after realizing that Good Friday and April Fools’ Day fell on the same day.

“I know it’s silly,” Father Kabat said.

“Justice is serious,” he added. “And nuclear weapons are insane, eh?”

In 2006, he and two other men, all dressed as clowns, disabled a missile silo cover at a launch site near an Air Force base in North Dakota. Father Kabat was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Three years later, he was arrested after cutting through a fence around a Minuteman silo near Greeley, Colo., and displaying antiwar banners. He was convicted of criminal mischief and trespassing and spent 137 days behind bars.

He was still committing acts of civil disobedience in his 80s. In 2016 and again in 2019, he splashed red paint on an entry sign at the National Security Campus in Kansas City, Mo., a federal Energy Department facility that makes non-nuclear parts for nuclear weapons systems. In both instances, he was charged with trespassing and damaging property.

Interviewed by The Greeley Tribune of Colorado in 2009, Father Kabat said he wanted his tombstone to say, “He really lived.”

“Joyfulness is very, very important,” he said. “Do what a person can do, then sing and dance.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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