NOTE: All of us at Pax Christi USA mourn the loss of Fr. Carl Kabat, OMI. We give thanks for the witness and life of this prophetic peacemaker and ask for his intercession for the work of peace as a member of the great cloud of witnesses.
By Art Laffin, Pax Christi USA 2016 Teacher of Peace
On August 4, 2022 God called home Fr. Carl Kabat, OMI, age 88, a renowned Catholic peacemaker and a friend to me and many Catholic Workers, members of Pax Christi USA and the wider faith-based nonviolent movement for peace and justice. He died at the Oblate Madonna House in San Antonio, Texas where he was in hospice care since March.
Born on October 10, 1933 in Scheller, Illinois, the third of five children, Carl grew up on his parents’ farm. He was ordained a priest with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1959. His ministry including serving in the Philippines and Brazil. In 1976, following his return to the U.S., he became associated with Jonah House, a Christian resistance community in Balitmore, Maryland. During this time, he was arrested for two peace actions at the Pentagon for which he was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Carl had a close affiliation with the Catholic Worker and lived for several years at the Karen House Catholic Worker community in St. Louis.
In 1980 he took part in the Plowshares Eight action, the first plowshares witness involving the symbolic disarmament of nuclear weapons. I can still see and hear Carl leading the singing of “The Lord’s Prayer” at different time during the Plowshares Eight court proceedings. Carl would go on to do seven other plowshares actions. He spent a total of over 17 years in prison for acts of nonviolent witness calling for nuclear abolition. He also was arrested on several occasions for calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
Carl was involved in four plowshares actions addressing the Minuteman II and Minuteman III missile silos. In 1984, his brother Paul, also an Oblate priest, joined him in the Silo Pruning Hooks action at a Minuteman II missile silo controlled by Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Missouri.
Considering himself a “fool for Christ,” he dressed as a clown for two of the Missile Silo actions. On April 1, 1994 (Good Friday and April Fool’s Day), while still on parole for the Silo Pruning Hooks action, he entered the Grand Forks Missile Field in North Dakota dressed as a clown. After cutting through a fence surrounding a Minuteman III missile silo (not scheduled to be deactivated under the START I agreement), he proceeded to hammer on a combination dial for the silo as well as the silo lid. He prayed, sang and hung a banner on the silo fence which said “Stop Nuclear Weapons.”
(A play was done about this action — A Clown, a Hammer, a Bomb and God — by playwright Dan Kinch.)
On the morning of June 20, 2006, Carl, along with Mike Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, dressed as circus clowns and walked on to the Launch Facility E-9 Minuteman III nuclear weapon of mass destruction site in McLean County, North DK, on the Fort Berthold Reservation of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations (known as the Three Affiliated Tribes.)*
In a statement he released explaining his August 6, 2009 plowshares action at a Minuteman Missile silo 30 miles northeast of Greeley in Weld County, CO, he declared:
“The Roman Catholic Church, of which I am a priest, at the close of its Vatican Council II in 1965 condemned nuclear bombs as a crime against humanity and are to be condemned unreservedly. The World Council of Churches has proclaimed that ‘the manufacture, deployment or use of nuclear bombs is a crime against humanity.’ … The nuclear bomb that is in the ground here is more than 20 times more powerful than the atomic bombs we dropped on the Japanese. Each of those bombs killed more than 100,000 people…The Bible says in the words of Isaiah: ‘They shall beat their spears into pruning hooks and their swords into plowshares.’ May the Holy One have mercy on us for not doing so.”
On July 4, 2011 and again on July 4, 2012, Carl entered the property at a nuclear bomb plant under construction in Kansas City, MO. The Kansas City National Security Campus (KCNSC) — formerly known as the Kansas City Plant — is a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) facility managed and operated by Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies that manufactures 85 percent of non-nuclear components that go into U.S. nuclear weapons. Explaining his July 4, 2011 action he declared:
“I, Fr. Carl Kabat, OMI, have been pondering an appropriate way to celebrate the fourth of July, commonly called Independence Day. Today it would be more appropriate to call it Interdependence Day since all of us live on this small planet Earth. To show my patriotism and love for my country and the good of my country, I have decided on a pruning hook action in Kansas City, Missouri. The opinion of the 1995 World Court is that weapons of mass destruction are a crime against humanity. Christian churches have said that it is a sin to build a nuclear weapon. Churches have declared that nuclear weapons are a crime against the Holy One and humanity and are to be condemned unreservedly! Some have further stated that the manufacturing, deployment or use of nuclear weapons must be condemned unreservedly. The Nazis during WWII killed and burned six million of our Jewish sisters and brothers and five million sisters and brothers (who were communists, priests, Gypsies, enemy combatants, homosexuals, people with disabilities, etc). Now four of our Minuteman III’s could, in 30 minutes, go halfway around the world and kill 12 million of our sisters and brothers. We have become very sophisticated and efficient in our killing and burning. We have more nuclear weapons than all the rest of the world combined and at one time could kill everyone on this planet fifteen times over. Eighty-five percent of the parts for nuclear bombs are made by the people of Kansas City. May the Holy One have mercy on us all! By my action I wish to enflesh the reversal of our insane actions and hope that we will start to celebrate an interdependence and rid ourselves of nuclear weapons.”
Compelled by the mandate of Gospel nonviolence and the Vatican II documents condemning nuclear weapons, he implored the USCCB to condemn the possession and threatened use of nuclear weapons as immoral, a stance that would later be adopted by Pope Francis. And a new UN treaty would be enacted making nuclear weapons illegal. In 2017 Pope Francis became the first to declare that the possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. Also in 2017, an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations adopted a landmark global agreement to ban nuclear weapons, known officially as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). On January 22, 2021, the TPNW was ratified by 50 nations and entered into force, thereby making nuclear weapons illegal under international law. To date 66 countries have ratified the TPNW, however the U.S. and other eight nuclear armed stated refuse to do so.
Tragically, despite enduring long imprisonment for his steadfast Gospel witness, Carl was not supported by the U.S. Catholic hierarchy. His relationship with his own order was lacking in support and difficult. However, later in his peace ministry this relationship changed. During Carl’s 2013 protest, his then-provincial, Fr. Bill Antone, joined him in a witness at the Kansas City nuclear weapons plant, saying he did it to protest nuclear weapons, “but mostly to support Kabat.” “I’m here to be in solidarity with Carl and what he’s done and, in [crossing the line], to show that there is an affirmation and a support and understanding that what he’s done is valid,” Antone said at the time, adding that Kabat had a “heroic persistence” and has been “a real witness to our faith [and is] something that we as oblates can be proud of.”
I first met Carl in the late 1970s and for over four decades he was a great inspiration. In between prison stints, Colleen McCarthy and I were blessed to have him present at our wedding. He was also an athlete who enjoyed playing basketball. It was always great fun to play with him, even if he always invoked the “Kabat Rules.” He was also an avid St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan.
During the last four months I was able to have several “virtual” visits with Carl through WhatsApp, arranged by two longtime friends, Chrissy Kirchhoefer and Cassandra Dixon, who were accompanying him during his time in hospice. During my time with him his eyes were mostly closed, he was resting comfortably and he didn’t speak. I did make a point to convey to Carl, via Chrissy and Cassandra, the love and prayers from many of his friends and co-conspirators. Chrissy and Cassandra said he could hear what I was saying and was able to open his eyes and smile at me at different times.
Chrissy, Cassandra, and Carl’s sister Mary Ann were with Carl earlier this week singing, holding his hand and lovingly tending to him. When they were with him on Wednesday (the day before he died), before leaving he was attentive the whole time and even seemed to sing of sorts while his head was being massaged. They conveyed to Carl everyone who was sending their love and prayers.
Carl’s spirit was indomitable and his steadfast faith in following the nonviolent Jesus was exemplary. During this August 6-9 time marking the 77th anniversary of the criminal U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let us recommit ourselves to working for the abolition of nuclear weapons and a disarmed world and making God’s reign of justice, love and peace a reality.
Deo Gratias for the life, friendship and courageous Gospel witness of Carl Kabat who is now among the holy cloud of witnesses advocating for us!
Click here for Information about funeral arrangements.
For YouTube interviews with Carl see:
Art Laffin is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. He is a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C., is co-editor of Swords Into Plowshares, and author of the new edition of The Risk of the Cross: Living Gospel Nonviolence in the Nuclear Age.
Featured image: Carl Kabat, April 2015, outside federal court in Kansas City, Mo. Photo by Lu Mountenay.
*Correction from earlier text which misidentified the indigenous people of Ft. Berthold Reservation.