Who really was Robert F. Drinan, SJ? One of only two priests ever elected to the United States Congress, he has now been dead for three years, yet his legacy remains uncertain, and the man himself elusive.

Courteous and kindly, Drinan was also a fiery opponent of the Vietnam War who once blessed himself on the floor of the House and denounced President Richard M. Nixon as “a fascist war criminal.” Though personally opposed to abortion, he supported abortion rights and argued for federal funding of the procedure, insisting that if it’s legal, poor women should have the same access to it that rich women do. These prochoice views placed Fr. Drinan at the center of controversy. And over the course of his decade in the political limelight, they raised a basic question: Is it finally possible in America to succeed at the double role of priest and partisan politician?

In the 1960s, this question was a matter of theological as well as political debate. How could two life-consuming professions coexist in a man dedicated to God? Drinan hinted at the personal significance of this dilemma in the title of one of his last books, Can God and Caesar Coexist? Invited in 1970 to submit an essay to an anthology on “hyphenated priests,” he agreed, but never delivered. What he could not rationalize on paper, however, he lived out in public, making the rounds of Capitol Hill in his trademark black suit and clerical collar, pursuing a steadfastly liberal Catholic social-justice agenda of disarmament, concern for the poor, and opposition to the death penalty and unjust war.

Drinan often used humor to deflect a question. He wore clerics on Capitol Hill, he said, because he didn’t own another suit. But when asked in another interview about that black suit, he forthrightly admitted it was to attract attention. There were many, including a few in his inner circle, who viewed wearing priestly garb in a political role as unwise. And yet for ten exciting years, the strategy worked. When Drinan entered a room, people knew he was there; when he called a press conference, reporters came.

I first met Drinan in 1981, the year after he left Congress, at Rockhurst College in Kansas City. As dean, I had invited him to Rockhurst to speak, and afterward I took him and some faculty to a pub for a post-lecture round of burgers, beer, and politics. Aware of his reputation as an uncritical supporter of Israel, I asked him if he would ever speak up on behalf of the Palestinians.

He looked at me and snapped, “Eat your hamburger.”

That was classic Drinan. Confronted by something he didn’t want to hear, he could be abrasive—and in this case he presumed (correctly) that, with a younger and admiring fellow Jesuit, he could get away with it. His retort also betrayed his dogmatic habit of mind. A law-school dean told me that once Drinan made up his mind, new information was frozen out. He took strong positions and held to them; and he equated disagreement with disloyalty.

That supreme moral certainty often served him well, and suited the challenges of the time. In 1970 Vietnam was escalating, Nixon was ruining the country, and Drinan proved to be just the man the moment required. As dean of Boston College Law School, he had visited South Vietnam and seen the injustices inflicted on critics of the American-backed regime. Indeed, his career as a legislator would be influenced profoundly by his travels abroad, beginning with his tertianship, a year of spiritual training after his ordination in 1953. That year in Italy, including a trip to Morocco to say Mass at army bases, began the transformation of a relatively provincial young man into an informed advocate for the oppressed all over the world. Over subsequent years Drinan traveled frequently to promote human rights—sometimes at personal risk—to South Africa, Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union, and Latin America. He returned from these trips morally inflamed, and voiced his outrage in articles in America, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter, as well as Protestant, Jewish, and secular publications. As a congressman, he made the plight of Soviet Jews a priority, and his greatest thrill was joining a flight of refugees from Russia who sang their national songs of joy as they landed in Tel Aviv.

I got to know Drinan better over the years—in 1995, while working on a biography of Eric Sevareid, I lived with him at Georgetown University—and after his death, I decided to write about him. For a year I scoured the archives of Boston College, the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, and Georgetown, conducted dozens of interviews, and read scores of letters, trying to understand the man who was the first American priest elected to Congress.

What I discovered was that few knew much about Drinan’s inner thoughts. He was close to his older brother, Frank, a physician who died in 1977, and devoted to his brother’s family, including a nephew whose early death devastated Drinan. But most of his letters were short, dictated paragraphs, with a “Come visit me” penned at the bottom. Indeed, if there exist intimate letters between him and his friends, I did not find them. A few rare personal retreat notes from 1968 express his ambition and his frustration with what he considered the weak leadership at Boston College, where he himself was considered for the presidency. But only much later, after leaving Congress, did Drinan reminisce about his youth, dwell on the details of his old-fashioned personal piety, or reveal his spiritual confrontations with the bewildering mystery of death.

And so a biographer looking to understand Drinan must assess the public man and his public life. At the risk of oversimplifying, I found three versions of the public Robert F. Drinan. First, and perhaps most conspicuous, was the Pied Piper, the leader who would identify a large challenge and then boldly take it on, dismissing obstacles and winning people to his side in the process. As dean of Boston College Law School from 1956 till 1970, Drinan was determined to move the little-known school to national prominence; to this end he recruited top faculty—including the school’s first Jewish professors—and lured superior students he met in his travels with on-the-spot scholarship offers. (One such spontaneous acceptance was Kwang Lim Koh, whose son is Harold Hingju Koh, former Yale Law School dean and now assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Obama administration.)

The Pied Piper Drinan was very much in evidence during his first political campaign, in 1970, when young people by the thousands flocked to Massachusetts’s Third District to help him defeat an incumbent Democrat, Philip J. Philbin, who supported the Vietnam War. “Come follow me,” Drinan said, and some who did follow him to Washington stayed friends for life—including the young John Kerry, who, having almost beat Drinan for the nomination, went on to serve as a leader in his campaign. (The Boston Phoenix gave Kerry credit for nixing the irreverently aggressive campaign-slogan idea “Vote for Father Drinan or Go to Hell!” in favor of the far gentler “Father Knows Best.”) Drinan’s ability to draw people to him was no simple matter of personal charisma. He was not a spellbinding orator. But people were attracted to his burning idealism, and in particular to his unshakable conviction that a bad war must be stopped.

The second Drinan could be called the Advocate. During his decade in Congress, Drinan sponsored or cosponsored thousands of bills. Many went nowhere, and some were highly quixotic—a bill to require the Voice of America to broadcast to Russia in Yiddish, for example, or one to link the states with bike trails. But others effectively expressed a fervent and dedicated liberalism. One such bill proposed having Congress pay attorney fees in cases involving civil, constitutional, consumer, and environmental rights. The Handgun Control Act of 1975 proposed stringent measures against the possession of handguns. In the same year, Drinan also proposed a law to protect journalists; another version of that proposal is before Congress today. Drinan the advocate called early on for Nixon’s impeachment over the illegal bombing of Cambodia. Tip O’Neill, building the dossier on Watergate, prevented the motion from coming to a vote. It was a vote sure to be lost, and it would have been extremely difficult to try to impeach Nixon again on another count. Nevertheless, Drinan found it strange to prosecute Nixon for a bungled burglary while giving him a pass on the Cambodia bombing, and he never stopped saying so.

Finally, there was Fr. Bob, the Priest-Politician. Those who favored priest-candidates believed that the spirit of Vatican II called for involvement in political and social affairs in the pursuit of justice; and to Drinan, who considered himself a “moral architect,” the combination of roles was a natural fit. Not everyone agreed, however, and Drinan knew it. Speaking to supporters in 1970, he read a statement by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then general of the Society of Jesus, urging Jesuits to be involved in political issues. But he conveniently left out the part where Arrupe opposed involvement in political parties—and when Arrupe learned Drinan was running, he telegraphed a stern no, before eventually (and warily) yielding to American Jesuits.

The prochoice positions Fr. Bob took while in office made him a conundrum, even a vexation, to many Catholics. Prior to Roe v. Wade, Drinan had published and lectured against the practice of abortion. But clearly he was conflicted. In 1964, Robert and Ted Kennedy invited leading moral theologians, including Fr. Charles Curran and Richard McCormick, SJ, to Hyannisport to help craft an abortion position that could satisfy both the Massachusetts electorate and the church. Drinan, though not a moral theologian, was also invited; and when the group recommended outlawing abortions while allowing for specific hard-case exceptions, he alone dissented, insisting that abortion remain the prerogative of a woman and her doctor. In short, he favored abortion on demand.

Drinan’s ongoing attempt to balance personal opposition to abortion with support for abortion rights proved difficult (many thought it impossible). In 1970, while opposing abortion in a panel debate on a radio show, he suddenly stood up and tried to leave the studio mid-broadcast, announcing that he was fed up with “stupid arguments.” When prolife advocates pleaded with him—as a priest—to join their cause, he demurred: they should find a legal case, he insisted, to take to the Supreme Court and try to overturn Roe. Meanwhile, he would support the law as it stood. Over time his position hardened: he accepted Roe v. Wade; voted against the Hyde Amendment; and declined to advocate either Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” analogy for a consistent life ethic or the U.S. bishops’ 1983 letter, The Challenge of Peace. Years later, long after his political career had ended, Drinan wrote two op-ed articles in support of Bill Clinton’s veto of a ban on partial-birth abortions. The Jesuits made him retract.

These positions cemented his reputation among his critics as a priest out of step with the church’s teaching. Throughout Drinan’s tenure in Congress, angry letters poured into the New England provincial’s office, expressing outrage at the prochoice priest, even as members of the U.S. hierarchy, including Cardinal Bernardin, complained to the Vatican. Drinan reminded his Jesuit superiors that his policies supported the social goals of the church, and pointed to the numerous honorary degrees granted him by Catholic universities. But time was running out on his political career. Finally, in 1980, citing the canon law prohibiting priests from holding political office, Pope John Paul II ordered the Jesuits to call him in. Stunned by his removal—“hurt, bitter, and confused,” he said—Drinan nevertheless chose his Jesuit priesthood over his political office, calling the alternative “unthinkable.” His forced retreat from politics took its toll. A woman who heard him speak a year or so later remarked that the light seemed to have gone out of his eyes.

In time, teaching and other civic commitments revived Drinan’s spirits and gave him a new career, one dedicated to legal ethics and, increasingly, international human rights. He thrived at Georgetown Law School. A Jesuit colleague in Washington who told me that he had found Drinan “snarky” as a politician now found him mellowed. Generations of students saw him as a legend, and flocked to his classes. When Drinan died of pneumonia and congestive heart failure on January 28, 2007, at age eighty-six, he was honored at two funerals, in Washington and Boston. He was buried at the Jesuit cemetery at Weston College, where he had long ago studied philosophy and theology, and where he had more recently made a habit of visiting the old and dying men when he was back in Boston. When I visited his grave in the summer of 2008 to pray that he help me write his biography, I found his headstone decorated with a small bouquet of flowers—and an American flag.

Related: David J. O'Brien reviews Schroth's biography of Drinan.

Raymond A. Schroth, SJ, is Jesuit Community Professor of the Humanities at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey.
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Published in the 2010-04-23 issue: View Contents
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