Remembering Father Robert Drinan

by Chris Borgen

Father Robert Drinan, Catholic priest, former member of Congress, human rights activist, author, and law professor, died on Sunday from complications relating to pneumonia. He was 86.

Father Drinan will be remembered for having been the first priest to be elected as a voting member to Congress (Michigan, then a territory, sent a priest as a non-voting delegate in the 1830’s). He served from 1970 until 1980, when Pope John Paul II issued a worldwide ban on priests serving in political office. At the time, Father Drinan had become somewhat of a theological lightening rod expressing views on abortion and birth control which were perhaps closer to those of his district in Massachusetts than of the Church.

Yet, years later, a friend of mine was speaking to Father Drinan and asked him if he hesitated in following the papal order. He smiled and said something to the extent of, “Not at all. I had made those vows years before I joined Congress.”

While these are some of the topics on which obituaries will focus, as international lawyers we will perhaps smile in remembering Father Drinan’s efforts for the international rule of law. The New York Times wrote:

His bid for office came a year after he returned from a trip to Vietnam, where he said he discovered that the number of political prisoners being held in South Vietnam was rapidly increasing, contrary to State Department reports.

In a book the next year, he urged the Catholic Church to condemn the war as “morally objectionable.”

Father Drinan ran for Congress on a platform of opposition to the Vietnam War…

And he became the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon — although the call was not related to the Watergate scandal, but to what Father Drinan viewed as the administration’s undeclared war against Cambodia.

“Can we be silent about this flagrant violation of the Constitution?” Father Drinan asked. “Can we impeach a president for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?”

Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts told the Washington Post:

“When I arrived in Congress . . . Father Drinan was already serving as the conscience of the House of Representatives… 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.”

The Washington Post also noted that

Last year, Father Drinan was one of three former members of the House to be honored with the Congressional Distinguished Service Award. In 2004, the American Bar Association called him amazing and “the stuff of which legends are made” in awarding him the ABA Medal.

He was the author of a dozen books, the recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees, the founder of the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics and a visitor to 16 countries on human-rights missions.

When I was growing up, my parents held Father Drinan up as an example of what it meant to be a socially-engaged Catholic. This last year, I had the pleasure to get to know Father Drinan and to work with him and others on an upcoming issue of the St. John’s Journal of Catholic Legal Studies which will have a written symposium on Father Drinan’s recent book on international law and religious freedom, Can God and Caesar Coexist?

In the very short time I knew him, Father Drinan never donned the austere mantle of revered senior scholar; rather, he was always gracious and happy to engage me in my views not only related to his book (I respectfully disagreed with some of his contentions) but also about my own scholarship, current events, or the work of the Journal. He was warm and easy-going. Sometimes we would get on the phone and he could barely contain good news he had received; he was especially excited that his book was being translated into Turkish and would get a readership in the Muslim world.

Jesus had said that that we need to see the world through the eyes of a child. For all of his hard work opposing the war in Vietnam, protecting human rights, speaking for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and challenging nuclear strategy (to name only the international issues), Father Drinan kept a child-like enthusiasm to his final days.

May he rest in peace and may we take up his life’s struggle.

One Response

  1. A great tribute. As a product of Jesuit secondary education, I too became well acquainted with Father Drinan’s work as a young adult and came to view his career as a model of living one’s faith in the truest sense. I fear, though, that his passing is yet another marker of the subordination within the institutional Church of its commitment to social justice in favor of emphasis on matters of personal orthodoxy. In this regard I hope to be proven wrong.

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