James Colaianni; theologian decried napalm, priest celibacy
NEW YORK — James F. Colaianni, a former radical lay theologian and senior editor of Ramparts magazine in the 1960s who crusaded against napalm as a weapon in Vietnam and celibacy as a prerequisite for Roman Catholic priests, died Oct. 6 at his home in Galloway, N.J. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his son Louis.
Mr. Colaianni (pronounced coe-lee-AH-nee) owned Sunday Sermons, a subscription service that sold thousands of homilies as a resource for preachers. He wrote many of them himself and produced dozens of books.
One book, “Married Priests & Married Nuns,” a collection of essays published in 1968, included candid personal accounts and blamed celibacy, in part, for a shortage of priests.
John Macquarrie, an Anglican priest and professor at Union Theological Seminary, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that the collection, which Mr. Colaianni edited, “deserves to be read above all for bringing the problem of celibacy into the open.”
That same year, Mr. Colaianni wrote “The Catholic Left: The Crisis of Radicalism in the Church,” an antiwar manifesto that advocated racial and social justice.
He served as managing editor, religion editor, and assistant publisher of Ramparts from 1965 to 1967, only a few years after it was founded as a “showcase for the creative writer and as a forum for the mature American Catholic,” as the magazine described itself.
It became a bible of the New Left, publishing, among other things, the diaries of Eldridge Cleaver, the imprisoned Black Panther member, and of the guerrilla leader Che Guevara. It was investigated by the CIA over unfounded allegations that it was covertly subsidized by the Soviet Union.
Mr. Colaianni took on the US military’s use of the jellylike chemical firebomb napalm in Vietnam in the article “Napalm: Made in USA, a Smalltown Diary,” which Ramparts published in August 1966. It was described as the first nationally circulated article denouncing napalm. The article focused on the efforts of his fellow residents of Redwood City, Calif., to defeat a plan by the napalm manufacturer United Technology Center to produce 100 million pounds of the substance at a plant there.
“I recall the priest’s sermon at Mass last Sunday,” Mr. Colaianni wrote. “He was defending the church’s right to identify and preach certain moral absolutes, e.g., ‘Under no circumstances is it morally acceptable for a validly married person to divorce and remarry.’ ‘’
“I can’t help wondering,’’ Mr. Colaianni added, “If he can be all that absolute about marriage, why can’t he preach ‘Under no circumstances is it morally acceptable for a nation to pursue a military adventure that includes roasting babies alive with napalm?’ ”
The New York Times quoted him as saying, “We’re talking about the systematic murder of tens of thousands of civilians who have nothing to do with the war.”
The article generated national media attention, but Mr. Colaianni’s advocacy went beyond the printed word.
He was the chairman of a committee that organized a referendum challenging the authority of port commissioners in Redwood City, on San Francisco Bay, to sublease a Standard Oil site for the napalm plant.
He predicted that the vote would be “the first time since the start of the Vietnam War that the people will have an opportunity to express themselves at the ballot box on a specific issue connected to the war.”
Petitions with more than the requisite number of valid signatures were submitted, but a judge and city officials ruled that the sublease was not subject to review by referendum. The plant soon began producing napalm and packing it into bomb casings.
After leaving Ramparts in a dispute over editorial control, Mr. Colaianni became director of the Liturgical Conference, a Christian ecumenical organization in Washington committed to revitalizing worship.
He aligned the group with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to advance a civil rights agenda, protested the church’s opposition to birth control and produced one of the first rock ‘n’ roll Masses to emerge in the 1970s, recruiting soul singer Minnie Riperton and her group the Rotary Connection to perform.
He married the former Patricia Kelly. Besides his son Louis, Mr. Colaianni leaves his wife; his daughters, Karen Johnson and Janice Sosebee; two other sons, James Jr. and John, a jazz pianist and recording artist who is billed as John Colianni; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.