Career Interrupted: Robert F. Drinan's unscheduled retirement
Saturday, May 2, 1980, Chestnut Hill
Dottie Reichard, who had run the 1978 campaign, was worried. Something must be wrong. Massachusetts Congressman Robert F. Drinan, S.J., had seemed sad, silent, not himself all week. Over the years they had noticed that when these moods came along it was because he was having trouble with the Vatican. Now he had called her twice when she was out. She returned the call—he was in his Waltham, Mass., office alone.
“Bad news,” he said. “The pope says I can’t run again.”
Dottie drove to the office, where the two of them became very emotional and wept. But there was work to do. They assembled a core group of friends at Dottie’s lovely stucco house on hilly Monadnock Street, just a 10-minute walk from the Boston College campus in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Present were Father Drinan’s sister-in-law Helen; Jerome Grossman, who had persuaded him into politics; Tom Kiley, a former Jesuit; John Marttila, his campaign manager; and Robert and Ann Carleo. One had suggested the congressman might leave the Jesuits. Kiley told them: “You don’t know this man. He’ll never leave.”
Dottie’s phone rang. It was a neighbor, a New York Times reporter, calling to warn her that there was a Boston Globe photographer on the front lawn. How to escape?
While someone slipped out and moved Father Drinan’s car to the next block, Dottie led him through the basement and out the cellar door into the backyard, surrounded by one of those stone walls that New Englanders build to separate their property from their neighbors. He scrambled over the wall, headed for his car and disappeared. He had a meeting the next day with the provincial superior of the Jesuits in New England, the last of three who had fought the permission battle for him over the years.
The Last Days
A talk by Pope John Paul II, who assumed office in 1978, to the Latin American bishops at Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979, a harbinger of his removal of four priests in Nicaragua, was also a signal to Father Drinan’s Jesuit superiors that the clock had run out on the string of permissions that had kept him in Congress for five terms. At a meeting of the American provincials in October 1979, the new New England provincial, Edward O’Flaherty, S.J., and the Jesuit superior general’s representative, Gerald Sheehan, S.J., had several cases to talk about. One concerned a Jesuit who was campaigning for the ordination of women. The other was the need to “do something about” Father Drinan. The Jesuit general, Pedro Arrupe, had told Father O’Flaherty’s predecessor, Father Richard T. Cleary, that he wanted Father Drinan to leave Congress, but he left it to Father Cleary to determine the timing. Father O’Flaherty realized the time had come.
Several factors were at work. One was the personality of this new pope. His predecessor, Paul VI, was also both concerned by what he saw as the liberalizing tendencies of the Jesuits and opposed to priests holding political office; but he was also sympathetic toward the Society and was willing to allow more freedom because of his abiding trust. The new Polish pope, while he toured the world attracting huge crowds of worshippers, was quick to use his power to discipline and silence those he considered dissident or influenced by Marxism. The New York Times reported that in September 1979 the pope had directed the Jesuit general to remedy the “regrettable shortcomings” of Jesuits around the world, who had “secularizing tendencies” and did not practice “doctrinal orthodoxy” (May 6, 1980). And many noticed that the pope’s reaction was reserved when on March 24 El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass and when, later, crowds at his funeral were shot down.
Another factor, difficult to measure, was the growing determination by leaders in the American pro-life movement to remove Congressman Drinan from office. Since he was now apparently unbeatable in a Congressional election, their only means was an end run to ecclesiastical authorities, first to Cardinal Humberto Sousa Madeiros, the archbishop of Boston, and then to the pope in Rome. The conservative California Republican Congressman Robert Dornan was one of the congressman’s most outspoken critics. In May 1978 he approached Father Drinan on the way into the Congress and said, in effect, “Father, please do not cancel out my vote. Why are you doing this when it is against our Catholic training and the teaching of our church?” Father Drinan made no reply, turned and walked away. Mr. Dornan approached as many bishops as he could, including Cardinal Madeiros, and told a friend that he had succeeded in getting his letter on the pope’s desk. It is entirely possible that the Drinan issue was raised with the pope when he visited Boston in 1979.
Father Drinan seems to have been able to file away in the bottom drawer of his consciousness the issue of the three-way relationship connecting abortion, his priestly identity and his role in Congress, while in other minds—for example, Father Arrupe’s—this issue came to the fore. On April 10, 1979, Father Drinan wrote the Jesuit general a long letter trying to convince him that he is a “very important moral influence” in Congress, using the word “moral” six times on the first page. He describes his work on the criminal code as an opportunity to introduce into law a higher morality with regard to crime. His role as a congressman had led to his board membership at Bread for the World; his book Honor the Promise, urging support for Israel, received attention because he is a congressman. About to visit China, he suggests that he is doing in Congress what his fellow Jesuit Matteo Ricci did in China centuries ago. He encloses the citation on his Villanova honorary degree.
On Feb. 5 Father Arrupe wrote the New England provincial superior agreeing to allow Father Drinan more time to extricate himself from Congress; but he cannot understand Drinan’s position on the federal funding of abortion or how he resolves in his conscience the scandal caused by his position.
On Sunday, April 27, 1980, the Roman headquarters of the Society of Jesus called Father O’Flaherty with the news that John Paul II had ordered that Father Drinan withdraw his candidacy for a sixth term. Father O’Flaherty informed Father Drinan immediately but also agreed to appeal. Father O’Flaherty repeated to officials in Rome the familiar argument that this would be perceived as Vatican interference with American politics and pointed out that the date for filing a candidacy was May 6, just over a week away. On Monday night Jerome Grossman had dinner in Washington with the congressman. He sensed that something was bothering him: he was not himself. But Father Drinan told no one. He kept it all to himself. On Saturday, May 3, the Vatican said its decision was final.
The Long Weekend
As Father Drinan drove from Dottie Reichard’s house a few blocks away back to his gloomy little room in St. Mary’s Hall on late Saturday afternoon, he had a lot to do. He had a personal meeting with his provincial superior coming up the next day; to prepare Monday’s press conference. He had known this was coming for a week, but it is very likely that he entertained the fantasy that somehow the provincial’s appeal would work its magic, as it had every two years before. On the surface this was simply the application of canon law; in reality it was part of a pattern of decisions by the pope to silence what he saw as dissident voices and thereby to strengthen the “true faith.” Now Father Drinan had a day to prepare himself to face the press and explain why he would not simply break away, serve the people, as so many Jesuits had done in recent years. What would he say?
As he turned into Boston College, with St. Ignatius of Loyola Church, where he had celebrated his first Mass, a few yards away, we can be confident that his mind raced back to 1942, when he decided to become a Jesuit. Now that vow of obedience was depriving him of what he most loved—that job in Congress where he was doing so much good. But if he had not gone to Boston College and become a Jesuit and then dean of the law school, would he ever have had a chance to be where he was today? Now he had to reach deep down into the spirituality the Society had given him and find God’s will in this most terrible moment of his life.
That Sunday morning in Washington, Ken Bresler, who was 12 when he first worked on Father Drinan’s 1970 campaign and was now his legislative assistant, headed for the office when the phone rang. It was Clark Ziegler, the congressman’s administrative assistant, calling to tell him, “Rome says Drinan can’t run again.”
As he headed down the corridor of the Rayburn House Office Building, Mr. Bresler kept telling himself it was a joke. But it was no joke. For him Congressman Drinan was a unique link between the Christian and Jewish people. He knew that the Jesuit motto was “AMDG,” a Latin abbreviation of “For the greater glory of God,” and he felt that in working for the congressman he too was doing “G-d’s work.” In the office faces were filled with hurt.
One Catholic staff member announced, “I’ll never set foot in a Catholic church again.”
In the Boston Globe office Sunday night the page-one editor decided to run “Vatican Tells Drinan Not to Run Again” as the lead story, and he juxtaposed it with a large photo of the pope in Kinshasa, Zaire, perched on a high wooden throne, shaded by a thatched palm. He had ordained eight African bishops and told his audience to “leave political responsibility to those who are entrusted with it.” Nine people had been trampled to death and 69 injured in the rush to see the pope.
Drinan Meets the Press
That morning, May 5, before an audience of 30 reporters plus friends and supporters in Boston, as Arrupe in Rome issued a statement thanking Father Drinan for his loyal compliance with the directive reflecting the “expressed wish” of the pope, Father O’Flaherty gave the background facts. Father Drinan, in a short statement, asserted that he had spent 10 of his 27 years as a priest as a member of Congress, and that “I am certain that I was more influential as a priest in those 10 years than in my 14 years as dean of the Boston College Law School.” He listed his travels to Argentina, Russia and Southeast Asia and said he looked forward to flying to Amsterdam the coming Sunday for a conference to liberate Anatoly Scharansky from prison.
I am grateful to have had these opportunities as a moral architect. I can think of no other activities more worthy of the involvement of a priest and a Jesuit.
I am proud and honored to be a priest and a Jesuit. As a person of faith, I must believe that there is work for me to do which somehow will be more important than the work I am required to leave.
I undertake this new pilgrimage with pain and prayers.... I hope that in God’s providence I may be given an opportunity to work to alleviate world hunger and to stop the arms race.
On Thursday Congressman Drinan flew back to Boston College to support the kick-off of Barney Frank’s campaign for his seat. He responded to the many letters about his firing with, “God’s ways are not our ways.”
Fred Enman, a young Jesuit novice and a lawyer, at Georgetown for his novitiate “experiment,” in which Jesuits in training get a taste of different aspects of Jesuit life, asked Father Drinan how he felt. He replied, “Hurt, bitter and confused.”
Listen to an interview with Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.