Fr. Robert Drinan, SJ, served ten years in the United States House of Representatives from Massachusetts—the same district, with a few changes, now represented by Barney Frank. In 1970, urged on by a cadre of anti–Vietnam War activists, Drinan made himself available to a progressive citizens’ caucus. They chose him to carry their antiwar cause into a very tough primary battle with veteran Democratic Representative Phil Philbin. A narrow victory was followed by a tough campaign against a strong moderate Republican.

Drinan won five elections before withdrawing under Vatican orders. None of his victories was easy. According to Drinan’s able biographer, Raymond Schroth, SJ, Drinan’s liberal backers, many of them Jewish, naively thought Catholics would rush to support a priest. They were shocked when large numbers went for Philbin, a Catholic whose brother was a Jesuit, or for Republicans, some because of old loyalties, some because they were put off by Drinan’s persistent liberalism, and many because they did not like a priest in politics. Drinan, at first awkward in public, quickly learned his way around the complicated, often morally ambiguous political process. He knew the law, he learned politics, and he was good at both.

Drinan was the first Catholic priest to serve as an elected member of the House of Representatives. That alone would have made him famous, but he emphasized the point by always wearing his clerical collar. His outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War added to his celebrity, as did his offering the first call in the House for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Drinan played a visible role in the impeachment deliberations, where he emphasized the illegality of the secret bombing of Cambodia. During his five terms he continued the pursuit of peace, championed civil liberties and civil rights, defended immigrants, and advocated for prison reform. He earned the respect, if not the affection, of his House colleagues. He quickly mastered constituent service, lectured across the country, and wrote about issues in both the Catholic and secular press.

Drinan enjoyed the full support of his Jesuit superiors and the more passive but friendly support of the archbishop of Boston and the bishop of Worcester. But the Vatican, and Jesuit leaders in Rome, including the beloved Jesuit general Pedro Arrupe, had reservations about a priest in politics. Once Pope John Paul II arrived, Drinan’s days in office were numbered. A month before the filing deadline for the 1980 election, the Vatican officially directed that he withdraw, which he did. It seems that he never considered the possibility of leaving the priesthood or the Jesuits in order to continue in office. He settled in as a professor at Georgetown Law School, served on many boards of human-rights and public-interest organizations, and continued to speak and write on national and global political issues. Schroth’s biography understandably concentrates on the years in Congress but also offers a short, comprehensive survey of Drinan’s later years as scholar, teacher, and citizen.

Schroth has done readers a great service by preparing this initial biography of Drinan. It was not easy. Despite his public prominence, Drinan apparently was a very private person. He spoke little about his family or his early years, and he seems to have kept no journals. His letters, like his conversations, were short and direct, with few clues about his personal feelings. He was very faithful to his religious duties, and at one point said that his spiritual life was his greatest satisfaction. But we know little beyond his training for and practice of the Jes-uit spiritual exercises. Schroth knows Jesuit life well and skillfully connects Drinan’s career as law professor, dean, politician, and public intellectual to his Jesuit formation. But otherwise readers, like so many of the young people Drinan inspired and befriended, are kept at a distance.

Still, some things about Drinan the man come through: he was smart, quick, and every inch a lawyer. He had a lifelong passion for justice. He had a special concern for the rights of Jews and African Americans. He affirmed the rights of conscience and supported civil disobedience, and he believed he had a vocation for public service. As for his shortcomings, he was impatient with people who bored him, disliked and turned away from criticism, and rarely revisited a position once he had worked it out. His self-confidence often bordered on arrogance. These negative qualities hurt when the abortion issue came to override, at least for his fellow Catholics, all the other issues to which he devoted his life.

This story of Bob (the name he preferred) Drinan forces responsible American Catholics to think hard about the politics of abortion. That question plagued Drinan’s public life, it shaped his forced withdrawal from office, and it led many of his fellow Catholics, and some of his Jesuit brothers, to distance themselves from him. There was a sadly muted, cautious tone to the tributes offered by Catholics when he died. He cared deeply about the unjust war in Vietnam, about the dangers of nuclear war, about human rights across the globe, about racial and economic justice at home, but he came to be defined among Catholics for what they took to be his prochoice position.

Critics got away with slotting him as prochoice and blaming him for his party’s almost mindless mantras about “a woman’s right to choose,” in part because he stubbornly refused to engage his critics. As Schroth makes clear, Drinan worked out fairly early his position that abortion was “a sin but not a crime.” He rarely engaged in dialogue about it after some remarkable reflective sessions in 1964 sponsored by Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. He very clearly affirmed the sacredness of life and the moral evil of ending it. He also believed that morality need not, and in some cases should not, be enforced by law. A blanket ban on abortion would be unenforceable, and bans in limited cases would place the state in the position of deciding that some would live and others would not. Accordingly, the decision about abortion—a supremely serious moral decision—should be made by persons, while the church should concentrate on education and social service. Drinan’s position was legalistic, as Schroth argues, but it did not rely on the Court’s emphasis on the right to privacy or on women’s rights, which seem not to have been a major consideration for Drinan, but on the very seriousness of the moral question involved.

Schroth, like many of Drinan’s admirers, finds flaws in this position. If life is precious, as Drinan always believed, was he not obliged to regularly champion it and criticize those who treated abortion as simply a medical procedure, even though he believed that legislation was not the best way to protect life? Furthermore, did the state’s lack of capacity to make the actual decisions about life eliminate its responsibility to take positive steps to encourage probirth decisions? At times he said so, but he never took up the cause of abortion prevention, as the Shrivers did. Skilled in lawyerly argument though he was, dialogue was not Drinan’s long suit. He might have helped head off the polarization of prolife (pro–unborn child) and prochoice (pro–pregnant mother) positions that has been disastrous for American public life and for the church. In any event, the abortion issue has been decisive in the development of American Catholic political consciousness in recent decades. Drinan is perceived as having been on the losing side, relegated to the newly constructed moral margins of the church, along with many other Catholic Democrats of his generation and beyond.

This is in part because the most interesting feature of Drinan’s public career has received so little attention. He chose politics, engaged and responsible citizenship, as the vehicle for bringing the gospel to life in his time and place. On most public issues, Drinan practiced politics with a small p. He mastered the ins and outs of power, self-interest, and idealism, figured out media relations and constituent service, searched for common ground among contending factions, and subjected even the most serious moral questions—impeachment, nuclear weapons, civil rights, though not abortion—to the give and take of negotiation and compromise required by the political process.

Unfortunately, many people don’t like democratic politics in practice, especially in the case of a priest-politician, and by implication, in the case of any “faithful citizen.” We Americans fight wars aimed at bringing murderous rivalries and rivals to the bargaining table, seeking to replace violence with politics among people who hate each other, and have good reason to do so. We ask them to lay down their arms, form political parties, participate in elections, accept the responsibilities of governing if they win, the responsibilities of political, not military, opposition if they lose. Yet here at home we distrust government, despise politicians, and deeply distrust the political process. Drinan saw that mood rising in the 1960s and he chose to try to make democratic politics work. He admired and defended fellow Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, but he saw himself drawn to “the art and science of politics.” He entered it at a time of deep, sometimes violent, divisions. He offered himself to a citizens’ caucus, then, on their behalf, sought election. He worked responsibly to help govern a struggling country, and every two years he returned to seek renewal of his status as a representative. The Vatican and many others thought this risked obscuring the prophetic role of the priest, but prophecy is not often seen among the hierarchy, and the prophetic Fr. Berrigan was honored even less than the political Fr. Drinan.

The real problem, at least in the United States, is pastoral, for bishops and priests are supposed to unite their people, whatever their politics. But democratic politics is about differences, and religion has to affirm procedures for dealing with differences, especially serious differences, as citizens carry on a common life. But we are learning once again that this only works when there is some underlying consensus, some belief that the common good is a genuine good, which in turn limits our pursuit of our own version of what is good. Good religion, at least in a democracy, helps us stay in touch with that underlying truth of solidarity as we carry on all our political negotiations, in workplace and community as well as the public square. To carry out those responsibilities, pastors should affirm basic principles of human dignity and solidarity, but not in most cases practice politics with a small p.

This excellent initial biography makes clear that Bob Drinan, like Dan Berrigan, bore witness to important truths about our shared political responsibilities. Berrigan did so by prophetic calls to conscience, Drinan by honoring the democratic political process as legal scholar, teacher, advocate, and, for a decade, politician. Both Jesuits challenged Americans, Catholics among them, to grow up and face their responsibilities as citizens. For his work in politics, before, during, and after his terms in Congress, Drinan deserves respect and gratitude, especially from American Catholics.


Related: Hyphenated Priest, by Raymond A. Schroth

Published in the 2011-02-11 issue: 

David J. O’Brien is University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton.

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