Drinan Praised for Rights Work

Posted January 29, 2007 at 6:54pm

Father Robert Drinan (D-Mass.), the first Catholic priest ever elected to Congress, passed away Sunday at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was 86 years old.

Drinan first came to Congress in 1971 running largely on his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. He beat longtime Rep. Philip Philbin (D-Mass.) twice to gain the seat; first in the Democratic primary and again in the general election when Philbin ran as an Independent.

In Congress, Drinan was a man of many firsts. Not only was he the first Catholic priest ever elected to Congress, but he made history as the first Congressman to push for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, though not for the offense that ultimately forced the former president to resign his office.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who succeeded Drinan in the House, remembers him as an exceptional human being who proved himself in many different fields.

“He was an extraordinary man with a number of careers, any of one which would have been impressive,” Frank said in an interview. Frank noted that while Drinan served only five terms, he will be remembered for the quality of his efforts if not the quantity of his time there.

“He was only here 10 years, but most people would have thought he was here longer,” Frank said.

His career after Congress also was worthy of note, according to Frank, who called the cleric a “major force for establishing international human rights standards.” Frank observed that while some liberals only attack human rights abuses by conservative regimes and some conservatives only target human rights abuses by leftist regimes, Drinan was unique in that he “stuck it to both sides equally.”

Born in Boston, Drinan earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Boston College, in 1942 and 1947, respectively. Drinan went on to earn two law degrees from Georgetown University in 1949 and 1950 and earned a doctorate in theology from Rome’s Gregorian University. Having entered the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits) in 1942, he became an ordained priest in 1953. In 1955, he became a professor and associate dean at Boston College Law School. One year later, he became the dean of the school, serving in that capacity until 1969. From 1969 to 1970, he was the vice president and provost of the college before making his run for Congress.

His dual roles as a priest and lawmaker drew criticism, however. Some Catholics opposed the idea of clergy serving in elected office, while others in the church criticized his stance on abortion. While he personally opposed abortion, he also opposed laws restricting the practice.

A staunch Nixon foe, Drinan was the first to call for the impeachment of the president on the grounds that his bombings of Cambodia during the Vietnam War were illegal. He also was a strong advocate for the plight of Soviet Jewry while in Congress.

After Pope John Paul II barred priests from serving in elected political positions in 1980, Drinan did not seek re-election later that year. Following his exit from Congress, Drinan became a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where he served until his death. Up until the end he remained outspoken on behalf of liberal causes, both as an author and as an activist.

A recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, Drinan was given the American Bar Association Medal in 2004, the group’s highest honor. Last May, he was presented with the Distinguished Service Award by Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), then Speaker of the House, and then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Last year, Georgetown Law honored Drinan by naming a chair in human rights after him.

On the Hill, he is remembered fondly by his colleagues.

“This is a man who never stopped serving,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said in an interview. “He was one of my heroes while in Congress … I thought the world of him.”

Speaking to the fact that Drinan often sent him articles, sometimes highlighted, and speeches, McGovern said that “even after he left Congress, [Drinan] remained thoroughly dedicated to shaping public policy.”

Calling him the “conscience of the House of Representatives,” Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement: “We have lost a gifted and inspiring educator, church leader and human rights champion. It was an honor to serve with him and to seek his guidance and advice on issues such as halting the spread of nuclear weapons, mitigating the plight of Soviet Jews, and protecting the rights of political prisoners.”

Markey concluded by noting that “the world has lost a bright star in the moral firmament, and I have lost a special friend.”

“I’m saddened to learn of Father Drinan’s death,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “All of us who knew him and served with him admired him for his deep faith, his profound commitment to public service, and the bold actions he constantly urged us to take to live up to our principles, especially in ending the Vietnam War.”

Massachusetts’ other Senator, John Kerry (D), called Drinan “a gentle, resilient, tenacious advocate for social justice and fundamental decency,” in a statement. Speaking of the resolution that he plans to introduce today along with Kennedy, Frank and the rest of the Massachusetts delegation, he said: “It’s appropriate that we honor him in Congress, where he served with such conviction, and continues to be an example to all of us.”

In the end, it was the cloth that Drinan was most drawn to.

“The Jesuit Conference of the United States joins in a prayer of thanksgiving for the life of a dedicated servant of God, the Church and people in need,” Jesuit Conference of the United States Secretary for Communication James Rogers said in an e-mail. “Father Drinan tirelessly sought to put his faith into action on behalf of God’s people.”