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Remembering Fr. Robert Drinan: A lawyer who knew the limits of the law

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2007


Jesuit Fr. Robert F. Drinan, the former five-term Congressman and prolific writer, died Jan. 28 following a brief illness. He was 86.

To his countless friends and admirers, he was a tireless advocate for human rights abroad and justice at home who integrated Catholic social teaching and a love of the law into results-driven battles for the common good.

To a legion of critics he was an unapologetic liberal Democrat pushing social programs, an opponent the war in Vietnam and an open adversary of Republican President Richard Nixon. Activists in the pro-life movement mostly recall him as the 1970s-era priest-congressman whose support for abortion rights angered church officials and emboldened a generation of Catholic pro-choice politicians.

At the time of his death, Drinan was teaching two courses at Georgetown Law School in Washington, where he served as a professor since 1981. He was a longtime contributor to NCR where his columns ran regularly for more than a quarter-century.

Robert Frederick Drinan was born in Boston Nov. 15, 1920, and spent his early years in Hyde Park, a suburb south of Boston. After graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1938, Drinan received both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from Boston College in 1942 and entered the Society of Jesus the same year. He received his law degree in 1949 and his master's of law 1951, both from Georgetown Law, and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1953.

Drinan served as dean and professor of law at Boston College Law School from 1956 to 1970, specializing in criminal law, constitutional law, family law, philosophy of law and church-state relations. During the tumultuous public debate over school busing in that city, Drinan entered the fray as a supporter of school integration.

But it was his strenuous opposition to the Vietnam War that motivated him to run for Congress. In a 1999 NCR column he recalled the time: "In 1969 the Fellowship of Reconciliation invited me to be in a group it was sending to observe the war in Vietnam. The 10 days I spent with this nine-person team changed my life. I saw how horrible the war really was."

Future NCR editor and publisher Tom Fox was Drinan's tour guide.

"I took him and Congressman [John] Conyers to Con Son Island to investigate the Tiger Cages, also introduced him to students, Buddhist leaders, progressive Catholics, all offering their misgivings about the war and how it was ‘progressing,' " recalled Fox. "He said that visit helped convince him to work harder against the war."

Indeed, Drinan later recalled, it was that visit that inspired him to challenge a 14-term hawkish Democratic incumbent. He won that race and was victorious in four subsequent campaigns. He was the first priest elected to Congress.

Drinan sat on several congressional committees, including serving as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Criminal Justice Subcommittee, where he spearheaded a rewriting of the U.S. Criminal Code that would reach fruition only after he left Congress.

In 1973, he introduced a resolution to impeach President Richard Nixon on the grounds that he had ordered an illegal invasion of Cambodia. As a member of the Judiciary Committee he supported the impeachment resolution related to the Watergate scandal that eventually forced Nixon from office. His opposition to the president earned him a place on Nixon's infamous "enemies list."

"It was never easy keeping Bob in office -- he was a political consultant's nightmare," recalled Clark Ziegler, who during the 1970s rose through the ranks of Drinan's congressional office from intern to chief of staff.

"He was always on the Republicans' short list" of Democrats targeted for defeat, said Ziegler. Many were uncomfortable with a priest's serving in elected office. And the issues -- Vietnam, abortion, busing -- were intense. But over time, recalled Ziegler, "people [in the congressional district] really came to believe that he was a decent and honorable guy who was out to do the best he could for the people he represented and for the country."

A longtime civil libertarian, Drinan was a quick student of the politics of Capitol Hill. "One of his early accomplishments was the demise of the House Internal Security Committee [successor to the House Un-American Activities Committee]," said Ziegler. "He asked to be appointed to that committee so he could abolish it." The committee was disbanded in 1975.

Drinan was a demanding boss. "It was a seven-day-a-week job," not least for Drinan, who more often than not was working at his desk until late in the evening, said Clarke. "He was the kind of boss you really wanted to excel for -- he had high standards."

In January 1971, when Drinan entered Congress, abortion was not yet a federal issue. That changed two years later when the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, declared abortion a constitutional right. It was a decision that would ultimately cost Drinan his congressional seat, though not at the hands of the voters.

Drinan not only backed the court decision but supported government funding so that poor women could afford the procedure. The Roman collar-clad pro-choice congressman was a source of intense embarrassment to the U.S. bishops, who at the time represented the only significant organized resistance to the Roe decision. At roughly the same time, the Vatican was pressuring the Jesuit order to rein in its politically active priests, not least Drinan and Fernando Cardenal, minister of education in the leftist Nicaraguan Sandinista government.

On May 5, 1980, Drinan announced "with regret and pain" that he would not seek re-election because of an order from his Jesuit superiors. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Jesuit superior general, said the order reflected "the expressed wish" of Pope John Paul II.

At the news conference announcing his withdrawal from the race, Drinan said his goal in Congress had been "to work for justice in America and for peace throughout the world," objectives that were not, he said, counter to his priestly vocation.

"For a decade I have had a voice and a vote in the resolution of the most difficult problems confronting this country and this world," he said. "I worked for the termination of the war in Vietnam. I helped eliminate the military draft. I was a leader in the abolition of mandatory retirement based on age. ... I am grateful to have had these opportunities to be a moral architect.

"I can think of no other activities more worthy of the involvement of a priest and a Jesuit," he said.

Drinan, said Ziegler, viewed "abortion as a constitutional issue that had been settled by the Supreme Court and as a matter of constitutional law he felt an obligation to uphold that. The torment it caused him politically was painful to him, but on the merits he saw it as a matter of personal conscience."

While Drinan was easily caricatured by his opponents as "pro-abortion," his approach to the subject was far more complex. The origins of his thinking were contained in a 7,000-word 1967 speech on the matter. As he later explained in an NCR article that same year, he saw at that time two approaches. One was a law, the Model Penal Code, that was at the time being touted as a legal approach to limiting abortion. The code, said Drinan, allowed for abortion in "that very limited number of cases where the mother's physical or mental health is seriously endangered," in the case of rape or incest or where the fetus is "predictably deformed." He said the penal code, adopted in several states, also showed that "some abortions sought for reasons of convenience were permissible. And it is for this reason that I am opposed to the enactment of the Penal Code -- a law which will exalt the happiness and the convenience of the living over the very right to existence of certain unborn children. The Penal Code, if enacted, will (as it has in Scandinavia) increase the number of illegal abortions, introduce an insidious principle into the law and may well, in the long run, bring about a de facto legalization of abortion on request."

The other option, which he promoted, was withdrawal of criminal sanctions from the area of abortion, but with medical requirements for the procedure and an accompanying regulation requiring counseling. "A law which seeks to help women desiring an abortion rather than turning them into criminals is consistent with contemporary enlightened procedure which seeks to give aid and rehabilitation to alcoholics, drug addicts and vagrants rather than convict them of a crime," he wrote.

Jesuit Fr. John Langan, homilist at Drinan's Feb.1 funeral Mass in Washington, told the mourners that Drinan's public position was "not about the morality" of abortion. Instead, said Langan, Drinan's position was based on his view of "the appropriate limits of state action" and were a "matter of prudential judgment" and did not represent opposition to "church teaching."

Following his departure from Congress, Drinan accepted a teaching position at Georgetown University Law School. At the time of his death, he was teaching a class on religion and government and an advanced legal ethics seminar. He taught more than 6,000 students during his career.

But that was just a day job.

In 1980, at the bidding of then-editor Tom Fox, he began a regular column in the pages of NCR. "I picked up the phone and offered him a national forum, writing as a columnist for NCR," said Fox. "He obliged and seemed to relish the opportunity. He told me that people spoke about his columns wherever he went and he was heartened by that."

Drinan used the column as a platform. Over the years he argued against the Reagan administration's Central America policies and economic program, called for nuclear arms control, criticized the Bush I administration's military and domestic polices, and said that Bill Clinton was too cautious on too many issues.

But it was not all about politics. Reflecting on an eight-day silent retreat he wrote, "If holiness is one's desire, God will bring about whatever results he wants from the prayers and aspirations of those who believe in him." He continued, "In retreat, one almost inevitably sees one's failings: excessive attachment to learning, addiction to worldly things and an obsession with trivia. Even a few days without the often inconsequential pursuits of daily life make vivid the centrality of holiness, the abiding presence of God and the beauty of the invisible church, the mystical body of Christ."

Back in the world he pursued his commitment to liberal politics at home and international human rights abroad.

He chaired Americans for Democratic Action and sat on the board of such groups as the International League for Human Rights, Bread for the World, the Lawyer's Committee for International Human Rights, the Council for a Livable World Educational Fund, People for the American Way, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He was a cofounder of the Lawyer's Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control and the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry and served as vice chair of the National Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Drinan's participation was not nominal.

In the early 1980s, following the murder of four U.S. women working with the church in El Salvador, Drinan worked with New York-based Human Rights First to bring the perpetrators to justice. "We were trying to get an investigation," recalled Michael Posner, president of Human Rights First. Drinan "opened all kinds of doors for us in Congress -- he knew everybody and he was relentless," said Posner.

Ultimately, the group persuaded Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to visit El Salvador. Following his return from a second visit, Specter pledged to support a cut in U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government if a trial of the five national guardsman charged with the murders was not conducted. The trial and conviction followed shortly thereafter.

Drinan provided a "wonderfully clear voice of moral principle combined with very astute political judgment," said Posner. "He was driven by a deep commitment to social justice and human rights, but he also lived in the real world of politics and policy and he knew how to navigate."

Drinan's human rights activism was not limited to criticism of right-wing dictatorships. He led the committee advocating for Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky's release and was a regular at the annual protests at the Soviet embassy on behalf of Andrei Sakharov. He played a key role in the release of Argentine journalist Jacob Timmerman, while criticizing the government of Fidel Castro for its harsh treatment of long-term political prisoners.

To Drinan, said Posner, "human suffering was human suffering -- all human rights violations were of the same importance and all needed to be addressed."

He addressed these issues in numerous law review and policy journal articles and in a dozen books, including Can God and Caesar Co-Exist?: Balancing Religious Freedom & International Law (Yale University Press, 2004), and The Mobilization of Shame: A World View of Human Rights (Yale University Press, 2001).

Following Sept. 11, 2001, Drinan's columns were increasingly focused on civil liberties. Less than two months after those attacks he warned that "the serious erosion of constitutional rights legalized by Congress has received little public attention." Prior to the run-up to the war in Iraq he wrote that "it appears that revenge or retaliation for the 3,000 who died on Sept. 11 trumps every other concern. The United States acts like the Lone Ranger, disregarding the opinion of European leaders and almost impervious to the protests of international scholars."

In the 1990s, Drinan opposed legislation to outlaw what antiabortion advocates termed "partial birth abortion."

"Fr. Drinan, you're dead wrong," New York Cardinal John O'Connor wrote in response to a 1996 Drinan column in The New York Times in which the Jesuit argued that the proposed ban on the procedure "would allow federal power to intrude into the practice of medicine in an unprecedented way."

Drinan was showered with awards in the last years of his life.

The American Bar Association called him "the stuff of which legends are made" when awarding him its 2004 ABA Medal, an honor shared by Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O'Connor. Last summer Drinan received the 2006 Congressional Distinguished Service Award, which is given to former members of the House of Representatives who have performed their duties "with such extraordinary distinction and selfless dedication as to merit special recognition." He was the recipient of 22 honorary degrees and was a visiting professor at four American universities.

And on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, in December 2004, the board of NCR honored Drinan for "a career of service to the church and the wider human family."

In his acceptance remarks, the Jesuit spoke of the church. "For us, it is not a mere institution; this is the mystical body of Christ across time and space. This is the church that Vatican II named as the people of God. ... This is the living voice of Christ."

At the Feb. 1 funeral Mass eulogists included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Georgetown University President John de Gioia, and former Ambassador Max Kampelman. Funeral services were also scheduled to be held in Boston Feb. 3.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@ncronline.org. Catholic News Service contributed to this article.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

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"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."

First Inaugural Address, President Barack Obama

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