Robert F. Drinan, S.J., the first Catholic priest elected to Congress, and the first Representative to introduce a resolution to impeach Richard Nixon, died yesterday at the age of 86. In 1970, Father Drinan defeated John Kerry, among others, to win a citizens' caucus to run as an anti-Vietnam war candidate against Massachusetts Representative Philip Philbin, vice-chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Philbin had defeated a primary challenge in 1968 from an antiwar state Rep, Joe Bradley. Father Drinan upset Philbin in the Democratic primary and defeated him again in November when Philbin ran as a write-in.
William F. Buckley Jr. called Father Drinan "the greatest threat to orderly thought since Eleanor Roosevelt." In 1974, Republican Party national chairman George H.W. Bush said there wasn't another representative for whose defeat he more strongly hoped than Father Drinan's. But Drinan, who had quickly become one of the Congress's most liberal members, easily held his seat until 1980, when Pope John Paul II compelled him to choose between Congress and the priesthood.
The Pope Votes Out Drinan, as Time Magazine wrote:
"Few congressional seats seemed safer than the one held by Democrat Robert F. Drinan. His toothy grin and liberal views were popular enough in Boston's western suburbs to win him five terms by growing margins; in 1978 the Republicans did not even put up a candidate against him. Campaign Manager Jerome Grossman expected that Drinan would have no significant opposition this year either. Grossman learned last week that he could not have been more wrong. From Drinan came a shocking phone call: "I'm not running for reelection. I've been forbidden to do so by the Pope."
The priesthood truly was Father Drinan's vocation. As the "Boston Globe reports: "It is just unthinkable," he said of the idea of renouncing the priesthood to stay in office. "I am proud and honored to be a priest and a Jesuit. As a person of faith, I must believe that there is work for me to do which somehow will be more important than the work I am required to leave." Father Drinan gave up his safe seat in Congress, making way, as it happened, for Barney Frank.
Father Drinan graduated from Boston College in 1942. He became a Jesuit that same year, gaining ordination in 1953. In 1956, Father Drinan became Dean of the Boston College Law School, and was instrumental in transforming the law school into a first-rate academic institution. AFter leaving Congress, Father Drinan became a law professor at Georgetown, where he taught international human rights, constitutional law, civil liberties, legislation, and advanced legal ethics. He also served as chair of American Bar Association Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities. In October 2006, the Georgetown University Law Center established the Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair in Human Rights "for his half century of involvement in the cause. Drinan was a founder of the Lawyers’ Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control and the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry (pdf). He was also the vice chair of the National Advisory Council of the ACLU and a member of the Helsinki Watch Committee [predecessor to Human Rights Watch]." Father Drinan also served on the boards of the International League for Human Rights, ,Human Rights First, Bread for the World, the Council for a Livable World Educational Fund, Americans for Democratic Action (which he also served as president), People for the American Way, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. (Right-wing Catholics were incensed by Georgetown's action.)
An important voice for human rights, Father Drinan also supported a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. Although he regarded abortion as a form of infanticide, he also viewed abortion's legality as a separate question from its morality. In 1996, for example, Father Drinan supported President Bill Clinton's veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. According to Time Magazine in 1980, abortion may have cost Father Drinan his seat in Congress:
Some Drinan supporters in Massachusetts believed that the Pope ruled against the priest-politician primarily because of his support of federal funding of abortions for the poor. Drinan does not personally favor abortion, but argues that Because the operation is legal in the U.S., it would be unjust for the Government to deny abortions to women who cannot afford to pay for them. Said David J. O'Brien, who teaches modern Catholic history at Holy Cross College: "I can't help but think that Drinan was done in by the right-to-life people."
"Last year," .The Washington Post reports, "Father Drinan was one of four former members of the House to be honored with the Congressional Distinguished Service Award. In 2004, the American Bar Association called him amazing and 'the stuff of which legends are made' in awarding him the ABA Medal."
A regular contributor to the National Catholic Reporter, Father Drinan's books include: