Master mixer of politics and religion


Master mixer of politics and religionWhen Fr Bob Drinan SJ, aged 86, collapsed with respiratory failure at Georgetown University in January, he promptly told the nurse that he was due for class at 11am. There were to be no more classes. Having been a long-time Democrat and one time congressman for Massachusetts, he then joked, “Some Republican must have done this”.

His funeral was, by all accounts, a grand affair with the eulogies becoming more political as the order of speakers proceeded, the last two being Senator Teddy Kennedy and the new leader of the house, Nancy Pelosi.

I had first met Bob in South Africa in 1995. He was larger than life, on his way to Australia, where he met my father, then Chief Justice. Later that year in Washington DC, I lived in the room opposite him for one semester, and attended his international human rights course. He was indefatigable. He taught a full class load even at an advanced age, and every weekend he was off to some other city in the US to talk to the local Bar or to some church group about human rights."

I happened to be back at Georgetown the week after the funeral. It was a delight to hear the reminiscences about this Jesuit lawyer who had served in Congress after being a successful dean of Boston College law school. When Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, the Superior General of the Jesuits, insisted that he retire from Congress, he then took up a teaching appointment at Georgetown Law School.

One of his political claims to fame was that he had moved the first motion of impeachment against Richard Nixon. He chose the issue of Nixon’s unauthorised bombing of Cambodia. Though morally outrageous, this offence did not have the political clout to carry forward an impeachment. Some of the mourners at the funeral had said that Bob almost blew the impeachment which later was carried on Watergate.

Mixing politics and religion is always difficult, especially on Capitol Hill when it comes to the abortion question. Even after leaving Congress, Drinan continued to buy into the question, incurring the wrath of pro-life groups for his 1996 opinion piece in the New York Times urging Congress not to override President Clinton’s veto of the ban on partial birth abortion. Much of the article made good sense, but it went a step too far in trying to shelter the Democrats from the political fallout on the abortion question.

He described the pro-life movement as being 'indignant', while claiming that Clinton was 'serious' about reducing the number of abortions. Like Clinton, he thought that any law limiting the availability of a particular abortion procedure should contain an exception for the health of the mother.

Pro-life groups were adamant that such an exception gave doctors carte blanche to use the procedure, their discretion about the mother’s health being judicially unreviewable. In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska State law banning partial birth abortion precisely because it did not contain an exception for the woman’s health. By then Drinan had been required by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archdiocesan authorities to issue a clarifying statement. He wrote:

"I … see abortion -- particularly partial-birth abortion -- as a grave evil and can understand why Church leaders are urging lawmakers to ban it. I do not want anything to impede that effort."

Pro-life groups were still not satisfied, but there was no further clarification or retraction required once the pro-life groups had exhausted their correspondence to Cardinal Ratzinger and Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach SJ.

Master mixer of politics and religionAt the time of his death, Drinan was one of only two Jesuits remaining on the law faculty at Georgetown University Law School.
The Georgetown web site is filled with email tributes from faculty, ex-students and friends testifying the natural generosity of this priest who always dressed in clericals and could mix with anyone — though amongst powerbrokers he maintained until his dying breath a distinct preference for the Democrats on Capitol Hill. He was well pleased that he lived long enough to feel the political wind change around the Washington beltway. Heaven for Fr Drinan will include a change in the White House in 2008.



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Existing comments

Beautifull written article. Drinan was clearly an amazing man. I would have liked more on how/why he was asked to step down from his seat in the House.
Caroline | 20 February 2007

In Frank's article please read the quote '...once the pro-life groups had exhausted their correspondence...',as '...after the anti-abortion nutters had given up their ranting scribbles'. I think Frank is having a both-ways bet here. On a personal note I beg that Frank might consider adjusting his 'coiffure' from floppy fringe to the old-fashioned brush-back. As an old baldy I consider that such an adjustment would add gravitas to his master class.
Claude Rigney | 22 February 2007

I thought his tireless defense of abortion barbaric.
Casey Collins | 29 June 2007

Fr Drinan did well for Soviet refugees, S American political prisoners, etc., and was widely regarded as a "human rights" champion. But on the fundamental human right, that of life, he was no help at all, ultimately defending the legality of even the gruesome partial-birth abortion. A Jesuit and lawyer knows better, or ought to. Illuminating exchange between a Baptist minister and Fr Drinan carried on PBS (American Public Television):
FALWELL: It’s shocking to me that you, a Roman Catholic priest, are part of a church that condemns abortion and calls it murder, as your pope did very courageously in America last year, how you could support federal funding for abortion absolutely in contradiction of everything the Church stands for . . . .

DRINAN: The Supreme Court said that there’s a constitutional right in a couple, or in a woman, to have an abortion. Can the federal government say that we are going to restrict and constrict that particular right? . . .

FALWELL: If the Congress, the Constitution, and the executive branch all legalized abortion, you and I as men of the cloth have a higher authority, in my opinion, and that is almighty God and the Word of God, and the church we represent. And all three in both instances—your church and mine—condemn abortion as the taking of human life, and I cannot see how you could possibly justify your position as a man of the cloth, repudiating the position of your own church, and voting regularly for federal funding of abortion.

DRINAN: I have not repudiated the position of my own church. I’ve said thousands of times that abortion is immoral in my judgment and coming out of my tradition, but that this is oversimplified piety, as if everything that the churches hold must in fact be put into American law. . . . A lot of Catholics in the Congress and throughout the country feel that the state should not deny Medicaid funds to people who are entitled to an abortion under the law. . . .

FALWELL: Your church believes that abortion is murder. . . . Why is it that you don’t support that, and why is [it] that you are constantly voting to pay for something that your church calls immoral? . . .

DRINAN: I think that there’s a constitutional right granted by the highest tribunal of the nation, and that a member of Congress takes an oath to support that Constitution.

FALWELL: Do you take the ruling of a Supreme Court above the authority of the Holy Father? . . . The question is, do you believe that the Supreme Court has more authority than your Holy Father does on this issue?

DRINAN: That’s not the question. The Supreme Court has authority in a field, and . . . we should sustain the Constitution as the Supreme Court has interpreted it, until or unless it’s reversed.

Casey Collins | 30 June 2007

It is not good to speak ill of the dead, but I feel distinctly uneasy about hearing a priest eulogised when he did so much damage to American society - particularly the unborn.
John Hammond | 20 November 2007


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