Priest, Politician, Peacemaker
By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
There was nothing secular about Robert Frederick Drinan. He was a Catholic priest from his clerical robes to his Roman collar—a model for the church today in its disordered times, a man of great obedience who spoke from his heart no matter the consequence. While his critics often argued that his heart was misplaced, bowed to the left, the Jesuit scholar forever stood firm in his conscience and in his resolve. Difficult to stereotype, Fr. Drinan understood the principles of a higher authority, and conceded to a Vatican ruling in 1991 after representing Massachusetts’s 3rd District in Congress for ten years—resigning with “pain and regret” after the Chair of St. Peter had ruled that no priest, not even a human rights activist of Drinan’s ilk, could hold elective office. The silencing of independent thinkers would come back to haunt the church.
This nation has lost a clear, challenging voice that compelled one to think. Politics de jour from the left and the right seize on ideologues; Drinan spoke to edify and, like the law school professor he was, to cause us to confront our demons and reflect in logic. He was “a man without rancor” whose deeply held personal and political beliefs never prevented him from viewing every person as “deserving respect and possessing dignity…Few have accomplished as much,” Georgetown University Law Dean T. Alexander Aleinikoff told The Washington Post shortly after Fr. Drinan’s death Sunday at 86. Former dean of Boston College Law School, Fr. Drinan had taught law at Georgetown over the last 16 years.
Drinan’s political and academic accomplishments have been a subject of note in media across the world: author of a dozen books, recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees, a visitor to 16 countries on human-rights missions, founder of the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, honored in 2005 with the Congressional Distinguished Service Award, and recipient in 2004 of the American Bar Association Medal. The ABA called Fr. Drinan “the stuff of which legends are made.”
Far more than his accomplishments, it was his ethics that drove him. Fr. Drinan was a man of firsts when it wasn’t popular to be at the front of the line: the first Roman Catholic priest to serve as a voting member of Congress; one of the first clergy in Boston to speak out against the desegregation of the city’s public schools; one of the first to condemn the Vietnam War as “morally objectionable”; and as a fixture on the House Judiciary Committee, the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
I met Fr. Drinan about 17 years ago as a political reporter for the Boston Herald American and continued the source relationship as a writer at Boston Magazine, then publisher of The Cape Codder. His devotion to his personal convictions was stirring. I didn't always agree with all is positions, but I always respected the man. Respect for an individual, many would agree, is better than a life with sycophants. Concur with his beliefs or not, his death marks the passing of a true legend, a person of conscience who was never reticent to show it.