In Appreciation: Robert F. Drinan, S.J., 1920 - 2007
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February 1, 2007


In Appreciation: Robert F. Drinan, S.J., 1920 - 2007

When former congressman Robert F. Drinan, S.J. (D-MA), died on January 28 of pneumonia and congestive heart failure at 86, his participation in the historic impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon was thirty-three years behind him, and he had been retired from Congress for twenty-six years. Yet Drinan, the first Roman Catholic priest to serve as a voting member of the U.S. Congress, was still an active and respected voice in human rights and international law.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) called Drinan “a profile in courage in every sense of the word.” Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) called him “the conscience of the House.” Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who succeeded Drinan in representing the 4th District, had paid tribute to him from the House floor on December 7: “Few people in our history have had as great a dedication to the cause of human rights and have been so consistently effective in advocating for this cause. Unlike many who have tried to make this a partisan issue, Father Drinan was equally fierce in his objection to human rights violators of the left, right and center, and accepted no excuses from those who would deny the basic rights of others.”

Drinan was elected to Congress in 1970 on a platform of opposition to the war in Vietnam. He had received permission to run for Congress from Richard Cardinal Cushing, in accordance with Church canon law which required the local bishop’s approval. A decade later, Pope John Paul II was unhappy with priests holding public office, particularly Latin American priests who embraced Marxist-inspired Liberation Theology. A worldwide order was issued forcing priests to choose between their oaths of office and their holy vows, and Drinan chose to leave Congress. He never considered renouncing the priesthood, and said at the time, “I am proud and honored to be a priest and a Jesuit. As a person of faith I must believe that there is work for me to do which somehow will be more important than the work I am required to leave.”

Drinan was one of the most liberal members of Congress. In July 1973 he was the first to introduce an impeachment resolution against Nixon, for the secret bombing of Cambodia. Nothing came of it. The articles of impeachment passed a year later by the House Judiciary Committee under Chairman Peter Rodino (D-NJ) dealt with Watergate-related obstruction of justice, misuse of presidential powers, and failure to comply with congressional subpoenas.

Upon leaving Congress, Drinan took up a teaching post at the Georgetown University Law Center, where he remained until his death. He specialized in international human rights, legal ethics and constitutional law. He wrote a dozen books and numerous law review articles. He joined human rights missions to countries ranging from France to Nicaragua to the Philippines and Vietnam. He served on the boards of the International League for Human Rights, the Council for a Livable World Education Fund, the International Labor Rights Fund, Americans for Democratic Action, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He helped found the Lawyers’ Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control and the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry. In 2004, the American Bar Association gave him its highest honor, the ABA Medal.

In 2006, Boston College Law School, which Drinan had served as Dean before entering Congress, established the Robert F. Drinan, S.J. Endowed Chair. Also in 2006, the Georgetown University Law Center established the Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair in Human Rights.

In December 1998, Drinan testified before the House Judiciary Committee under Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL) against what he called “vindictiveness” in the impeachment effort against President Clinton, contrasting it with his experience in 1974: “At that time, the country knew there was extensive lawlessness in the White House. The documentation of appalling crimes was known by everyone. Abuse of power and criminality were apparent to the American people.... The procedure followed by the House Judiciary Committee at that time was, however, even-handed. Months of hearings took place with the president’s lawyer, Mr. Jim St. Clair, always present in this room and free to make any comments and ask questions. Today the scene is startlingly different. No investigation has been made by the House Judiciary Committee nor have any fact-finding hearings been held. The 21 Republicans have no support whatsoever from the 16 Democrats....”

Father Drinan earned the ire of Vatican officials and American conservatives with his pro-choice stance on abortion. While he was personally opposed to abortion, calling it “virtual infanticide,” he distinguished between moral standards and legal standards in the same manner that many Catholic laypersons do. Church officials in Rome have never recognized this distinction, any more than they recognize the distinction between religious marriage and civil marriage.

On the March 27, 2005 Meet the Press, Drinan said, “The problem is when some religions say that you have to impose in the law our particular beliefs. Certain fundamentalists think that gays should be discriminated against, and that’s not in the common tradition. There’s a common core of moral and religious beliefs, and frankly, we are in total violation of that. We are supposed to be good to the poor; we have more poor children in America than in any other industrialized nation. We’re supposed to love prisoners and help them; we have 2.1 million people in prison, the largest of any country of the Earth. We also allow eleven children to be killed by guns every day. All of the religions are opposed to that. That’s violence. Why don’t we organize on that?”

The complaint by conservatives that Drinan’s work as a politician interfered with his religious vocation would have been more persuasive if the Vatican held itself aloof from worldly affairs and did not continually seek to conform civil law to its own dictates. As it was, Drinan benefited from his membership in the Society of Jesus not only because it afforded him greater independence than among diocesan clergy, but also because of the strong Jesuitical tradition of seeking God in all human disciplines.

Drinan was a critic of American exceptionalism, by which the U.S., as if by divine entitlement, habitually exempts itself from the international standards it helped create and by which it continues to judge others. He was nonetheless proud of those standards and of his country’s role in establishing them, and did not shrink from applying them wherever they were violated. Publishers Weekly wrote of Drinan’s 2001 book, The Mobilization of Shame: A World View of Human Rights, that “what ultimately distinguishes this book is its balance. Drinan praises the United States for being a leader in human rights, but at the same time criticizes it for not recognizing economic rights and for refusing to sign onto the International Criminal Court. He acknowledges complaints from the developing world about the biases of the human rights movement, but, at the same time, does not let these countries off the hook on issues such as slavery and genital mutilation.”

His 2004 book, Can God and Caesar Coexist?: Balancing Religious Freedom and International Law, explored the failure of international agencies to combat religious persecution, and the task of creating secular mechanisms to give practical effect to the 1981 United Nations Declaration on Religious Freedom. In this work he grappled with a key question of our time. As a teacher vitally engaged in the world, who challenged his students to ask difficult questions and seek pertinent solutions, he honored the best of the Jesuit tradition and demonstrated that faith can inspire not only dogma but discovery.

Copyright © 2007 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.