The Massachusetts summer of 1970 was hot as I walked around the Watertown section of the Boston suburban congressional district where Father Robert Drinan, longtime Dean of the Boston College Law School, and more recently (1969-1970) provost and Vice President of BC, was running against incumbent U.S. Representative Philip J. Philbin, who had occupied the congressional seat for 28 years. My wife and sons were away for the summer in northern Maine, and the activity gave me an evening distraction from concentrating on a scholarly doctoral dissertation of a detailed sort which, as a Polish linguist wrote of his own master’s thesis, might have damaged a young mind. I was canvassing a multiethnic lower middle class district of aging houses, walking up and down rolling streets, wearing a suit and tie which immediately marked me as an outsider but dissociated the Drinan campaign from hippy opponents of the Vietnam war. Among the Watertown residents I met that summer, a U.S. government employee made it clear to me that he could not engage in public political activity. An elderly Armenian woman from Iran gave me tea as we talked politics in French, our only mutual language. A Harvard doctoral candidate in English, working on his own dissertation on Middle English literature, and his dancer wife, startled me with their loving combination of learning and beauty. At one point, whether as a matter of optimism or out of a sense of humor at the campaign headquarters (the chairman of his campaign was the present Senator John Kerry), I was assigned to canvass a nunnery, where I soon encountered the hostility of parochial Catholicism to Drinan’s outspoken Catholic liberalism. I did not need to go very far inside the nunnery to encounter such views; I was not allowed to get much further. Thirty percent of the voters in Drinan’s district thought that it was not appropriate for a priest to be active in politics. With a more positive view of these issues, supporters of the Drinan campaign would refer to “Our father, who art in congress.”
Drinan won the primary, and then in November 1970 he beat both a Republican opponent and write-in votes from the Philbin faction. In so doing, after leaving his administrative position at Boston College over the objections of his superiors, he was the only Roman Catholic priest to be elected as a voting member of Congress, although Protestant pastors had preceded him. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming a member of the 92nd Congress the following January, and stayed in Congress for 10 years, until Pope John Paul II forbade priests to hold a legislative position, and Drinan was forced to either resign or cease to be a member of the clergy, which for him was unthinkable. In a 1992 interview with the Boston Globe, he commented “History will have to judge whether or not that was a wise decision”. You can read public statements from Senator Edward Kennedy and others in the New York Times and Washington Post for Jan. 29, 2007 as to what sort of congressman Drinan was: Kennedy said “The nation has lost one of the finest persons ever to serve in Congress.” In 2004, the American Bar Association awarded him the ABA Medal and described him as “the stuff of which legends are made.” Last year, he received the Congressional Distinguished Service award together with three other former members of the U.S.House. Rep. Edward J.Markey of Massachusetts described Drinan more pointedly, saying “When I arrived in Congress . . . Father Drinan was already serving as the conscience of the House of Representatives with every vote he cast.” An interesting point is that while serving in Congress, Drinan continued to wear his priestly clothing. He is quoted as saying “It’s the only suit I own”, but it is more likely that he saw his congressional activity as very much a continuation of his role as a Jesuit priest. John Kerry has phrased this same thought differently: the Globe obituary quotes him as saying “Father Drinan was a forever gentle, resilient, tenacious advocate for social justice and fundamental decency. . . . He lived out in public life the whole cloth of Catholic teachings.” The Georgetown Law dean, T. Alexander Aleinikoff, described him as “a man without rancor” whose beliefs made him view every human as “deserving respect and possessing dignity”, terms which should resonate with UUs.
Drinan, a distinguished legal scholar and teacher, had been Boston College law school dean and for a year (1969-1970) was vice president and provost of Boston College. He was effective as a member of the house Judiciary Committee. He was the first person “to file the resolution of impeachment against Nixon” (his own words), not because of the Watergate break-ins, but because of the massive bombing of Cambodia. Drinan opposed the draft and had liberal views about abortion and birth control which even now would arouse criticism in many religious circles. After stepping down from Congress, he accepted a position as law school professor at Georgetown University in 1981. “He taught courses on human rights, constitutional law, civil liberties, legislation, ethics and professional responsibility”, according to the New York Times.
Drinan was active for many liberal political causes, and wrote a number of books which were noteworthy more for legally informed advocacy of human rights than for traditional summaries for law students. Before campaigning for him, I had read two of his books on timely issues, “Democracy, Dissent, and Disorder” (1969) and “Vietnam and Armageddon” (1970), the latter of which even bore the imprimatur of Cardinal Cushing, the Archbishop of Boston. In recent years, he published “Can God and Caesar Coexist? Balancing Religious Freedom and International Law” (2005). He would have been teaching this semester, at age 86, if not for the failure of his health, which resulted in pneumonia and congestive heart failure from which he died on Sunday, January 28, 2007. You can find many more details in the obituaries noted above. At our local UU service last Sunday, I commented about him under “Joys and Concerns”, that his passing should be recognized not with grief at his death, but simply with joy that he lived.