Father Robert Drinan, SJ, the first priest ever elected to the U.S. Congress, died on Jan. 28 in Washington, D.C., where he had taught for many years at Georgetown University’s Law Center. He also had been dean of the law school at Boston College, another Jesuit institution.
In 1970 he challenged a 14-term Democratic Congressman in a Massachusetts primary in which the central issue was the war in Vietnam, not unlike today’s divisive debate over the war in Iraq. Father Drinan strongly opposed the war; his opponent supported it. Drinan won the primary, but the incumbent remained in the race as an Independent. There also was a Republican candidate.
Father Drinan won the three-way race by about 3,000 votes, and would almost certainly have remained in Congress for as long as he wished, except for the Vatican order in 1980 to withdraw from elective office. The order came after heavy pressure from politically conservative Catholics in the United States.
For their trouble they got Barney Frank as Father Drinan’s replacement. Frank is still in Congress and, with the Democratic victory in the November elections, is now head of the House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee.
Although Father Drinan was 86 at the time of his death, he had continued to live a full and active life — as a professor of law at Georgetown, a much-in-demand lecturer, and the author of several books and many articles and columns. Indeed, he had been traveling the week before his death, contracted pneumonia and died of congestive heart failure at a local Washington hospital.
Father Drinan remained throughout his priestly life a tenacious advocate for the poor and the powerless, at home and abroad. He once called ending world hunger his “number one passion” (Mark Feeney, “Congressman-priest Drinan dies,” Boston Globe, 1/9/07).
In a personal tribute in The Washington Post (“Father Drinan, Model of Moral Tenacity,” 1/30/07), Colman McCarthy encapsulated Father Drinan’s sometimes complicated personality in a single sentence: “Bob Drinan had mastered the art of being professionally angry but personally gentle.”
That was, in fact, the Robert Drinan that I knew, first as a colleague at Boston College and then after he went to Congress and was later summarily ejected from it, not by the voters of the third district of Massachusetts but by a combination of ecclesiastical and political forces operating under cover of darkness — until the official edict came down.
That decision — so last-minute that the primary election had to be conducted by stickers because there was no time to print new ballots — hurt Father Drinan very deeply. But that is exactly what his critics wanted, of course. Such types derive enormous personal gratification from the shaming and humiliation of others. And even from their deaths.
Perhaps they have found something in the teaching of Jesus that grants them divine permission, even encouragement, to dance gleefully on the graves of their presumed adversaries. It may be in a part of the New Testament other than where Jesus talks about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us, or where he insists that we must forgive one another not seven times, but “seventy times seven,” that is, without limit.
Those self-appointed “defenders of the faith” were in striking contrast to Father Drinan himself, who was not at all immune from making serious mistakes but whose passion was centered always on the well-being of others, with no desire whatever to push his critics out of the church, much less into eternal hellfire.
When Father Drinan was confronted with the Vatican’s demand that he either relinquish his Congressional seat or resign from the priesthood, he said that it was “just unthinkable” that he leave the priesthood. He insisted that he was “proud and honored to be a priest and a Jesuit,” and expressed the hope that there would be other work for him to do, even more important than the work he was forced to leave.
At the time of Father Drinan’s dismissal from Congress, I wrote the following in my weekly column: “In accepting the directive with such docility and with such a strong reaffirmation of his priesthood and his commitment to the Society of Jesus, Father Drinan has effectively pulled the rug out from under the feet of those who have vilified him for years and have characterized him in such an unchristian manner.
“Bob Drinan acted in the end as he is and always was: a priest of complete integrity and a Catholic Christian of unchallengeable commitment and dedication to the Gospel and the mission of the church.”
I would not change a word of it today.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.