Robert F. Drinan, S.J., was elected to Congress in 1970 on his promise to be a “moral architect,” and in many ways he was. He steadfastly opposed the war in Vietnam, dared to be the first member of Congress to call for President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment and devoted himself to the cause of human rights in politically repressive countries like Argentina.
But the story of his decade in Congress, which came to an abrupt end when Pope John Paul II forbade him in 1980 to run again, continues to raise troubling questions at a time when the role of organized religion in politics is debated as hotly as ever. For although serving in Congress helped the priest-politician to call attention to such problems as world hunger and the arms race, his moral vision did not encompass rights for the soon-to-be-born, disappointing many fellow Catholics. Nor, in the end, did he make a convincing case that Catholic priests should hold elective office.
“Drinan seems to have been able to file away the issue of the three-way relationship between abortion, his priestly identity, and his role in Congress in the bottom drawer of his consciousness,” Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., writes in his precise, perceptive and evenhanded biography of the first Catholic priest elected to Congress.
As Schroth notes in the introduction, he admires his fellow Jesuit. They met often at Georgetown, where Schroth was doing research. Both wrote for America, where Schroth is now an associate editor. Both wrote regularly for The National Catholic Reporter for 30 years.
To some readers, this might sound like the introduction to a hagiography. But that is not the case; Schroth writes with a disciplined journalistic distance, carefully sifting the facts. He has produced a nuanced, engaging portrait of a man who worked prodigiously at bettering the world but who also had personal and political flaws.
Drinan was the dean of Boston College Law School when a Jewish campaign operative, Jerome Grossman, persuaded him to run for the Democratic nomination to Congress in a suburban Boston district in 1970. From the start, his candidacy was framed as a moral cause—to help end the Vietnam War by ousting a Democratic congressman who had supported it. Drinan was steadfast in this and ahead of the bishops, whose positions on the war and nuclear disarmament often disappointed him.
Being a “moral architect” did not always make for effective politics, however. Outraged by the war, Drinan moved in the House for Nixon’s impeachment—not because of the Watergate cover-up but for bombing Cambodia and lying about it. As Schroth notes, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. thought that although morally right, Drinan “damn near blew it” politically, since impeachment for the Cambodia campaign was unlikely.
The fact that Drinan was a priest helped him to stake out positions that other politicians might find politically unworkable, like favoring unilateral disarmament. But from the start, it was also an issue, both in the church and the political world.
Drinan tried to finesse reporters’ questions about this, but Schroth makes clear that being a priest was an essential part of who he was and how he presented himself. Drinan wore his clerical collar when campaigning and serving in Congress, and Schroth quotes him as acknowledging that it helped bring media attention to his causes. He notes that in one campaign, when Drinan’s support for abortion rights came to the fore, the congressman sent a memo telling his staff to “accentuate the Catholic background and Catholic activities in which I participate.” These activities, which included his writing for America and other Catholic publications, were to be “exploited.”
Drinan was not the only priest in politics during these years. Among the others was the Nixon speechwriter John L. McLaughlin, then a Jesuit and former America associate editor, and later host of television’s high-decibel “McLaughlin Report.” (McLaughlin charged that it was a “rape of justice” for Drinan to take part in the House Judiciary Committee’s Nixon deliberations because he already had proposed the president’s impeachment, Schroth notes.)
Drinan’s provincial superiors supported his foray into public office, but the Jesuit superior general, the respected Pedro Arrupe, S.J., was uneasy about it from the start. As Schroth recounts, Arrupe had written to Drinan shortly after his 1974 re-election to say he should not run again, but humbly allowed himself to be talked out of it with the 1976 campaign looming.
Criticism from other Catholics about Drinan’s support for abortion rights was no doubt a factor in the controversy over whether he should serve in elected office—particularly since Drinan argued to Arrupe that he was “a very important moral influence” in Congress.
Schroth does a good job of parsing Drinan on abortion, tracing his position through the years. He notes that one longtime adviser said Drinan had gone through “ten positions on abortion” but also reports Drinan’s view—which he spelled out at one point in a 12-page memo to his superiors—that he had been consistent in opposing abortion on moral but not legal grounds. Even after he left office, Drinan stirred controversy by defending President Bill Clinton’s 1996 veto of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.
Father Drinan, who died in 2007 at the age of 86, is thus a case study for many of the issues debated today about the church’s role in politics. Written with clarity, and fair and thorough reportage, this book brings his life the attention it deserves.