Robert Drinan, Jesuit Priest and Congressman, Dies at Age 86

By Feuerherd, Joe | National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

Robert Drinan, Jesuit Priest and Congressman, Dies at Age 86


Feuerherd, Joe, National Catholic Reporter


Jesuit Fr. Robert F. Drinan, the former five-term Congressman and prolific writer, died Jan. 28 following a brief illness. He was 86.

To his countless friends and admirers, he was a tireless advocate for human rights abroad and justice at home who integrated Catholic social teaching and a love of the law into results-driven battles for the common good.

To a legion of critics he was an unapologetic liberal Democrat pushing social programs, an opponent the war in Vietnam and an open adversary of Republican President Richard Nixon. Activists in the pro-life movement mostly recall him as the 1970s-era priest-congressman whose support for abortion rights angered church officials and emboldened a generation of Catholic pro-choice politicians.

At the time of-his death, Drinan was teaching two courses at Georgetown Law School in Washington, where he served as a professor since 1981. He was a longtime contributor to NCR where his columns ran regularly for more than a quarter-century.

Robert Frederick Drinan was born in Boston Nov. 15, 1920, and spent his early years in Hyde Park, a suburb south of Boston. After graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1938, Drinan received both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from Boston College in 1942 and entered the Society of Jesus the same year. He received his law degree in 1949 and his master's of law 1951, both from Georgetown Law, and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1953.

Drinan served as dean and professor of law at Boston College Law School from 1956 to 1970, specializing in criminal law, constitutional law, family law, philosophy of law and church-state relations. During the tumultuous public debate over school busing in that city, Drinan entered the fray as a supporter of school integration.

But it was his strenuous opposition to the Vietnam War that motivated him to run for Congress. In a 1999 NCR column he recalled the time: "In 1969 the Fellowship of Reconciliation invited me to be in a group it was sending to observe the war in Vietnam. The 10 days I spent with this nine-person team changed my life. I saw how horrible the war really was."

Future NCR editor and publisher Tom Fox was Drinan's tour guide.

"I took him and Congressman [John] Conyers to Con Son Island to investigate the Tiger Cages, also introduced him to students, Buddhist leaders, progressive Catholics, all offering their misgivings about the war and how it was 'progressing,'" recalled Fox. "He said that visit helped convince him to work harder against the war."

Indeed, Drinan later recalled, it was that visit that inspired him to challenge a 14-term hawkish Democratic incumbent. He won that race and was victorious in four subsequent campaigns. He was the first priest elected to Congress.

Drinan sat on several congressional committees, including serving as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Criminal Justice Subcommittee, where he spearheaded a rewriting of the U.S. Criminal Code that would reach fruition only after he left Congress.

In 1973, he introduced a resolution to impeach President Richard Nixon on the grounds that he had ordered an illegal invasion of Cambodia. As a member of the Judiciary Committee he supported the impeachment resolution related to the Watergate scandal that eventually forced Nixon from office. His opposition to the president earned him a place on Nixon's infamous "enemies list."

"It was never easy keeping Bob in office--he was a political consultant's nightmare," recalled Clark Ziegler, who during the 1970s rose through the ranks of Drinan's congressional office from intern to chief of staff.

"He was always on the Republicans' short list" of Democrats targeted for defeat, said Ziegler. Many were uncomfortable with a priest's serving in elected office. And the issues--Vietnam, abortion, busing--were intense. But over time, recalled Ziegler, "people [in the congressional district] really came to believe that he was a decent and honorable guy who was out to do the best he could for the people he represented and for the country. …

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