Robert F. Drinan, 86; first priest to serve in Congress

From the Associated Press

Father Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit who became the first Roman Catholic priest elected as a voting member of Congress, died Sunday. He was 86.

Drinan, a Democrat who represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, had suffered from pneumonia and congestive heart failure during the previous 10 days, according to a statement by Georgetown University.

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


An internationally known human-rights advocate, Drinan served in the House for 10 years during the turbulent 1970s, and stepped down only after a worldwide directive by Pope John Paul II barring priests from holding public office.

“All of us who knew him and served with him admired him for his deep faith, his profound commitment to public service, and the bold actions he constantly urged us to take to live up to our principles, especially in ending the Vietnam War,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement Sunday night. “He was a profile in courage in every sense of the word.”

Drinan was elected in 1970 after beating longtime Democratic Rep. Philip J. Philbin in a primary -- and again in the November election, when Philbin was a write-in candidate.

According to a congressional Internet site, Robert J. Cornell, an ordained Roman Catholic priest in the Norbertine Order, was elected to two terms in the House from Wisconsin, serving from January 1975 to January 1979, but was defeated in the 1978 election.

Although a poll at the time showed that 30% 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. And in a book the next year, he urged the Catholic Church to condemn the war as “morally objectionable.”

Drinan ran for Congress on an anti-Vietnam War platform. During his congressional tenure, he continued to dress in the robes of his clerical order and lived in a simple room in the Jesuit community at Georgetown.

But Drinan 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.

And he became the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of President Nixon -- although the call wasn’t related to the Watergate scandal, but what Drinan viewed as the administration’s undeclared war against Cambodia.

“Can we be silent about this flagrant violation of the Constitution?” Drinan asked. “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.

He told the Judiciary Committee members reviewing Clinton’s case that in 1974 “the country knew there was extensive lawlessness in the White House.... The documentation of appalling crimes was known by everyone. Abuse of power and criminality were apparent to the American people.”

Drinan left office in 1980 -- “with regret and pain” -- finally succumbing to the increased pressure from his superiors, including the pope.

But he continued to be active in political causes. He served as president of Americans for Democratic Action, crisscrossing the country giving speeches on hunger, civil liberties and the perils of the arms race.

He lectured and wrote about gun control, world hunger and the war on terrorism’s effect on human rights.

In 1981, Drinan took a post as professor of law at Georgetown University, where he taught courses on international human rights, constitutional law, civil liberties, legislation, ethics and professional responsibility.

A native of Boston, Drinan was born Nov. 15, 1920. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1942, and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1953.

He earned his law degree at Georgetown University in 1949. From 1955 to 1970, he served as assistant dean and then dean of Boston College Law School.

While at Boston College, Drinan called for the desegregation of Boston public schools during the 1960s and challenged Boston College students to become involved in civil rights issues.