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Theological Notebook: The Death of Fr. Robert Drinan, Congressman from Massachusetts

A significant figure in the history of "religion and politics" in the United States has died. Fr. Drinan served in Congress for a decade before John Paul II issued a directive forbidding clerics from holding political office, which on the whole seems the better route, given the success the Vatican has enjoyed as a moral authority since the loss of the Papacy's own kingdom of the Papal States in 1870, which it had held since 756. And given that the Vatican's approach in the 1980s was one conceived in the light of John Paul's/Karol Wojtyla's resistance to the abuse of government authority in Communist Poland, it's even less surprising to see a strong Church/State division in Vatican policy of the time.

The article seems to think that Fr. Drinan's "left" tendencies (by American standards) is something remarkable, but that sounds perhaps more like the American media idea that "religion" is a "conservative" thing, despite the fact that Cathoic Social Justice teaching tends to be much farther to the political "left" than any Democrats today in Congress. I'm of two minds as to whether Drinan should have been allowed to serve by Church authorities as a Representative. I can understand the abuses that we were trying to move away from, historically, but I think that perhaps a priest (as opposed to a bishop) might well have been in enough of a non-authority position in the Church that he could have served in the legislature of a democracy.

Pioneering Rev. Robert Drinan Dies at 86
Jan 28, 9:41 PM (ET)


Former Massachusetts Rep. Father Robert Drinan holds up a copy of the 1974 impeachment report of President Nixon while testifying on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearing in this Dec. 8, 1998 file photo. Drinan, a Jesuit who - over the objections of his superiors - became the first Roman Catholic priest to serve as a voting member of Congress, died Sunday. . (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All right reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit who - over the objections of his superiors - was the only Roman Catholic priest elected as a voting member of Congress, died Sunday.

Drinan, 86, had suffered from pneumonia and congestive heart failure during the previous 10 days, according to a statement by Georgetown University which said he died at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington.

"His death was peaceful, and he was surrounded by his family," said the Rev. John Langan, rector of the Georgetown University Jesuit Community where Drinan lived.

An internationally known human-rights advocate, Drinan was elected on an anti-war platform and represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House for 10 years during the turbulent 1970s.

He stepped down only after a worldwide directive from Pope John Paul II barring priests from holding public office.

During his Congressional tenure, Drinan continued to dress in the robes of his clerical order and lived in a simple room in the Jesuit community at Georgetown.

But he wore his liberal views more prominently. He opposed the draft, worked to abolish mandatory retirement and raised eyebrows with his more moderate views on abortion and birth control.

"Father Drinan's commitment to human rights and justice will have a lasting legacy here at Georgetown University and across the globe," said Georgetown President John J. Degioia.

"Few have accomplished as much as Father Drinan and fewer still have done so much to make the world a better place," said Alex Aleinikoff, dean of the George University Law Center.

Drinan, dean of the Boston College Law School from 1956 to 1970, called for the desegregation of Boston public schools during the 1960s and challenged Boston College students to become involved in civil rights issues.

"He'll be remembered in the country for his advocacy for the poor and underprivileged," said John Garvey, the Boston law school's current dean.

Drinan was elected in 1970, after he beat longtime Democratic Rep. Philip J. Philbin in a primary - and again in the November election, when Philbin was a write-in candidate. The only other priest to serve in Congress was a nonvoting delegate from Michigan in 1823.

Although a poll at the time showed that 30 percent of the voters in his district thought it was improper for a priest to run for office, Drinan considered politics a natural extension of his work in public affairs and human rights.

His run for office came a year after he returned from a trip to Vietnam, where he said he discovered that the number of political prisoners being held in South Vietnam was rapidly increasing, contrary to State Department reports. In a book the next year, he urged the Catholic Church to condemn the war as "morally objectionable."

He became the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon - although the call wasn't related to the Watergate scandal, but rather what Drinan viewed as the administration's undeclared war against Cambodia.

"Can we be silent about this flagrant violation of the Constitution?" Drinan demanded angrily back then. "Can we impeach a president for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?"

Decades later, at the invitation of Congress, he testified against the impeachment of another president: Bill Clinton. Drinan said Clinton's misdeeds were not in the same league as Nixon's, and that impeachment should be for an official act, not a private one.

After leaving office in 1980 - "with regret and pain" - Drinan continued to be active in political causes. He served as president of the Americans for Democratic Action, crisscrossing the country giving speeches on hunger, civil liberties, and the perils of the arms race.

Drinan received more than 20 honorary degrees, and traveled extensively throughout the world in both official congressional delegations and privately funded trips. He wrote a number of books.
Tags: catholicism, constitutional, cultural, historical, jesuits, media, obituary, papacy, political, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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