An Interview with Martha Hennessey

Updated: Sep 16

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



Dr. Knight: It has been a while since Dr Fisher interviewed you. But since you are an international leader in the Peace Movement, I thought that it would be helpful to interview you again. Could you tell us your interest in the Catholic Faith?

Martha: I was born on the Feast of St. Benedict and baptized on the Feast of St. Martha. I was raised Catholic until we stopped attending church in my teens. I did not raise my children in the faith but returned to the Church myself at age 50 under my own free will. I understood my grandmother Dorothy Day’s engagement in issues of social justice in her time, as well as participating in the work of the Catholic Worker community. But I felt uncomfortable with the Catholic Church hierarchy. I was able to overcome this and now very much appreciate the Mass, daily readings, and the study of Catholic Social Teachings. The lives of the saints and the physicality of our churches are also a comfort to me. Also, Pope Francis is a great inspiration in these times. The opportunity to travel in Europe and the Middle East also planted seeds for my return to the Catholic Church.

Dr Knight: How were your parents involved in the Catholic Church? Did that make a difference for you?

Martha: My father was born Irish Catholic. My mother was baptized at age one, and her mother was baptized in the Catholic Church shortly thereafter. I was raised a cradle Catholic but also came from a background of adult conversion on the part of my mother’s mother.

My parents were practicing Catholics however my father left the family when I was six. We drifted away from the Church in my teen years. I do remember my Catechism classes, my confirmation, and first communion. I grew up with many books and discussions about the Catholic faith. I was aware of the presence of God from a very early age, and that remained with me my whole life. I have pictures of my baptism and am very grateful for my family background as Catholic.

Dr. Knight: This year we celebrate the dropping of the Bomb. It is the 75th Anniversary of this awful event. Tell us your involvement in this event.

Martha: There is no celebration with this anniversary of terrific war crimes gone unindicted. We mourn the fact that we have lived with the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, along with our children and grandchildren all these years. This year on August 6th I participated in an interview that was aired on a Birmingham, NY radio station. That evening I participated in a Zoom conference opposing nuclear weapons. I was due to participate in a NY Pax Christi event on August 9th but had an emergency visit with an ill family member. I reread Dorothy’s words written in September of 1945 about this event. She understood the Mystical Body of Christ in that we were inhaling the dust of our Japanese brothers and sisters whom we destroyed with the Bomb. As part of my education on the subject of the nuclear bomb I have read about the national and international treaties violated over the years, and how the US nuclear program picked up where the Nazis left off as we took in and used their scientists for the Manhattan Project.

Dr. Knight: What in your early schooling led you to invest yourself in the serious issue of nuclear warfare?

Martha: I remember the practice of duck and cover in elementary school and was aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis as it was happening. Dorothy gave me the book “Hiroshima” by John Hershey and my understanding of the horror and crime of nuclear weapons remained with me.

When I was 15 a nuclear power plant was built in southern Vermont where I grew up, and I knew this was related to the weapons industry. I simply grew up with the understanding that nuclear weapons and power were an anti-life, anti-God force. I knew that Dorothy clearly and consistently spoke against the nuclear arms race. I was conceived and born during the open-air bomb tests and have lived with the nuclear arsenal my entire life. I also learned about how Marshall Islands people and US soldiers were deliberately exposed to the radiation as experimentation.

Dr. Knight: You will be sentenced on Oct.15/16 for your serious investment in the abolition of nuclear warfare. Tell us what the sentencing entails.

Martha: We were put on trial on October 21st, 2019, and found guilty of charges unrelated to our nonviolent, sacramental nuclear disarmament of April 4th, 2018. We were allowed no defense relating to why we chose to come to Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia that maintains half of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet. We were not allowed any expert witnesses or testimony on the topic of the dangers of nuclear weapons or the violation of international treaties that the US nuclear arsenal represents. We were due to be sentenced in May of this year but COVID-19 became a concern regarding travel and the spread of the virus in the prison system. We have a constitutional right to appear before the judge for sentencing and so we asked for continuances rather than submit to video sentencing. One of our co-defendants Liz McAlister, was sentenced by video in June. Another, Father Steve Kelly, SJ, has remained in jail since the April 2018 action. We are still discerning whether to travel in October to Georgia, (a current COVID hotspot), or appear via video, or ask for another continuance. We are facing 18 to 24-month federal prison sentences and thus far the judge has followed the recommendations of the government prosecutors. We were given an “enhancement” following the trial for “risk of death” when entering the base despite evidence in trial that at no time was there danger to anyone’s lives. This enhancement makes us ineligible for home confinement and brands us as a danger to the public.

Dr. Knight: Pope Francis is clear on calling for nuclear abolition and a discussion in the US Catholic circles seem to call for this discussion. What are your thoughts?

Martha: We studied the December 2014 contribution of the Holy See, “Nuclear Disarmament: Time For Abolition”. We understood that nuclear abolition was a Catholic obligation even prior to the September 2019 “Statement On International Day For The Total Elimination Of Nuclear Weapons”. We were also aware of the November 2017 Vatican Symposium regarding Pope Francis’s statement that the possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons is immoral, while we were in discernment for our Plowshares action. As Catholics who studied the issue, we felt the need to respond to our faith-based belief that nuclear weapons must be protested via Catholic action. We took heart in the Pope’s visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the fall of 2019. We are waiting to hear from the US bishops and from the pulpits around the country for a call to action to pursue nuclear abolition. We hope to see an update of the 1988 USCCB call for disarmament, to add this teaching to the Catechism, and to reflect the current dangers of the doomsday clock being placed at 100 seconds to midnight. Our federal case attempted to give evidence of the illegality of the recent dissolution of critical treaties that prevent nuclear war. It would also be a very strong message if the US Catholic bishops agreed that the US should ratify the Treaty on The Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons put forth by the UN in July of 2017. The Vatican and many other countries support this treaty but none of the nine nuclear states have stepped forward. The US Catholic Church could have a key role in global nuclear abolition.

Dr. Knight: You have worked with an outstanding group of people on this issue. What does this collaboration mean to you?

Martha: The Plowshares movement taught me that self-disarmament is the first step in this journey for nuclear abolition. The nuclear weapons possess our hearts rather than God’s love of the world. I could not have taken the action I did, going onto a military base to deliver an indictment and Daniel Ellsberg’s book “The Doomsday Machine” without my community and without our preparation through Bible Study, prayer, and historic review of Catholic Action in the peace movement. I am deeply grateful for the “Cloud of Witnesses” who walked before us to show the way of faithful discipleship of our nonviolent Jesus. Eucharistic resistance as practiced at the naval base on Jeju Island, Korea gives us direction and inspiration as well in resisting US militarism.

Dr. Knight: What are your hopes for the Catholic Church of the future?

Martha: Pope Francis is a pope after Dorothy Day’s heart, and he mentioned her works of mercy to both houses of Congress in 2015. I pray for the US Catholic Church to realize its role in checking our country’s abuse of superpower status around the world. In order to proclaim the Good news, our church must find the right relationship to the State and that does not mean collaboration. As Peter Maurin, founder of the Catholic Worker movement started, the Church is holding down the lid to the box of dynamite that is Catholic Social Teaching that is based on the Gospel teachings.

Dr. Knight: What should be our top priorities in a world that is in need of peace?

Martha: I like to remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referring to our own moral bankruptcy if we pursue violence and oppression, the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. Nuclear weapons give us a false sense of security and we practice idolatry by using them to threaten other countries. Jesus tries to teach us enemy love as an article of faith.

Thomas Merton also reminds us that the biggest threat to our spiritual lives is to be living lives based on non-reality. We must see the suffering and injustice that violence and racism encourage in our economic and political systems. We must disarm and retool the national security state that uses violence and authority in our names to falsely claim it is the savior of the world while plundering the remaining resources that belong to all people. We must reflect true trust in God rather than complaining against God and each other.

Dr. Knight: Thank you for your devotion to alleviate people from this burden of the constant threat of nuclear warfare even during this time of a pandemic.

Martha Thank you very much and God bless you and your work.

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