A Moral Architect?

Book cover
Bob Drinanby Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.Fordham Univ. Press. 432p $32.95

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.

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7 years 10 months ago
THANK YOU FOR A FINE REVIEW OF drinan's biography;for perceptive fairness  i shall rate it at 6 in a scale of 1 to10;the reviewer i feel has failed to appreciate the fact that when challenged he chose to obey fallible men like ARRUPE and John Paul ii than cling to his elected office,whereas he could have chosen to tread other roads well travelled.
i BELIEVE that DRINAN accomplished more as a jesuit,priest,and congressman by his obedience than all that he accomplished as a congressman;that the hierarchy in the USA is still struggling with the question of BIRTH CONTROL,DISARMAMENT,POSSESION  OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS WITH AN INTENTION AT LEAST FOR A SECOND STRIKE ETC is a point to be kept in mind while judging Drinan;my nagging question  is:why don't those who find fault with Drinan's position regarding abortion call the CATHOLIC JUSTICES OF THE US SUPREME COURT to resign or not approach communion while they uphold the laws regarding capital punishment, abortion. immigrants etc... how to resolve permanently the tension between REASON and FAITH,eventho we as clerics have the glib answer that truths do not contradict.but the trouble is that these truths just do not float around disembodied but held to be true by fallible men,sinners like me;and as an indian belonging to a minuscule minority living in a sea of hindus where the law of the land has legislated in  favour of birth control,abortion and capital punishment, security demands the threat of atomic second strike against PAKISTAN....
I DO NOT WANT TO GO ON in the same vein.if the usa congress is truly representative of the people of the usa,then why not allow some priests to get elected,if they could,and be PROPHETS AND NOT LAWMAKERS. dID NOT nathan..jeremia actively dabble in politics of their time.did JOHN PAUL II DESIST FROM  INFLUENCING THE POLITICS OF POLAND;OF COURSE HE COULD DO THIS BECAUSE HE WAS SUMMUS PONTIFEX;What is sauce for the goose,i forget,is sometimes not good for the gander. 
i only wish a time would come when another jesuit,elected to the congress,would seek the directive of the usa hierarchy before casting his vote in Congress. after all your capitol has many steps for laying aside one's conscience...
sincerely M.Marialouis s.j.
Keyran Moran
7 years 10 months ago
Ray Schroth did a superb job not only in research, but in clarity, vividness and especially fairness. This book is Father Schroth's masterpiece-from a long life of thinking, writing and considering the Three Great Duties of Truth&Justice&Peace.
Leonard Villa
7 years 9 months ago
Fr. Drinan cooperated with one of the greatest of moral evils, what Vatican II calls an unspeakable crime, that of abortion.  He did this in defiance of the Church and his calling as a Jesuit.  All other social issues presume life.  Fr. Drinan was no hero. He harmed the Church, the country, and gave scandal to the faithful. Liberal politics became more important to him in my view than the Faith. Sorry I can't join these paens of praise for this man.
7 years 9 months ago
I thank Raymond Schroth, S.J., for one line in his "controversial life" of Bob Drinan, a line that spoke volumes: "He had been consistent in opposing abortion on moral but not legal grounds."

I remember a number of priests and some bishops who wondered about the wisdom of the papal directive that Father Drinan resign from Congress.

While a good Catholic must sincerely believe that it is the Spirit that guides the Church through human means, and that what the pope decrees today must be God's expressed will for us at this present moment, one may prudently consider whether a time-limited decision such as this may be wise for all time.

I am reminded of a statement by the president of Notre Dame University that I thought made very good sense some 35 years ago. At a New Orleans press conference he was being asked about Father Drinan's holding public office. Father Theodore Hesburgh answered that "many political issues today are in reality true moral issues: think of hunger, human rights, poverty, education... Because of that I think religious, priests, ministers and rabbis are seriously attracted to government today because they rightly think that this is their stock in trade."

But that was before the pope barred clerics from public office.


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