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Churchman and Statesman

When the Reverend Robert Drinan, S.J., was elected to Congress in 1970, the first and only Jesuit to serve in the House chamber, the religious influence on American politics came largely from the left, and Drinan fit in snugly. Opposition to the Vietnam War and support for the Civil Rights Movement were the two most religiously inflected political debates of the 1960s, and Drinan joined the pantheon of liberal Christian clergy alongside the recently martyred Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend William Sloane Coffin, and Drinan’s own archbishop in Boston, Cardinal Richard Cushing, friend to the Kennedys and a self-described admirer of Drinan. But a decade later, when Pope John Paul II ordered Drinan not to seek re-election, the face of Christian political involvement in America was the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the legions of conservative evangelical voters whom he represented. In only ten years, what happened?

This is only one of the questions left unasked and unanswered in a new biography of Drinan penned by his fellow Jesuit Raymond Schroth. Drinan’s life certainly requires a good biography, but this is not a good biography or even a good book. Riddled with the kinds of factual mistakes that rightly drive historians crazy, jumping around from issue to issue, with an uneven grasp of the questions at stake, and with a strangely short examination of Drinan’s post-Congressional career, this book does not do justice to the man and the minister at its center.

Drinan was born in the small town of Roslindale, south of Boston, in 1920, a second-generation Irish Catholic whose father was a once-prosperous builder who lost everything in the Depression. He attended parochial elementary and public high school, and then enrolled at Boston College in 1938, which was then a far cry from the modern research university it would later become. In the late 1930s, the school still followed the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum, heavy on rhetoric, philosophy, religion, and the Greek and Latin classics, light on research and the sciences. It was a fine if unmodern education and in some ways better than the undergraduate education many receive today, filled as it is with discrete but unconnected points of knowledge, heavy on specialization and short on intellectual synthesis.

In 1942, after graduation, Drinan joined the Society of Jesus, attended law school at Georgetown, another Jesuit institution, and then studied theology in Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1953. He lived in Florence for two years and returned to Boston College as dean of its law school in 1956. As dean, he sought professors dedicated to scholarly research and writing, he hired Jewish professors, he enrolled minorities, and generally tried—and succeeded—at bringing the school up to the level of its secular competitors. Drinan also became a prolific writer, penning columns for the Jesuit weekly America and other Catholic publications as well as the occasional article for secular scholarly and popular journals. And, most importantly, he became active in the anti-war movement.

In 1969, Drinan went on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam with a group of other clergy. He was appalled by what he saw. The corruption of the South Vietnamese government, the effects of the American bombing, the torture (“harsh interrogation techniques”) used in military prisons and the “tiger cages,” and the complicated loyalties of the civilian population all served to increase his opposition to the war. Back in Massachusetts, he came to the attention of Jerome Grossman, a prominent anti-war activist who was looking for a candidate who could successfully challenge Congressman Philip Philbin, a pro-war Democrat who had served in Congress for twenty-eight years. Drinan fit the bill and was nominated by a caucus of progressive Democrats, beating out a newly returned Vietnam veteran named John Kerry for the endorsement. He went on to win the primary and the general election, but not before his religious superiors voiced their misgivings about a priest running for partisan political office. Drinan interpreted the instructions that he received broadly, and convinced his immediate superior that dropping out would cause a scandal, thereby placating the Jesuit leaders in Rome.

In Congress, Drinan became a vocal opponent of the war. On July 31, 1973, the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuits, Drinan introduced the first congressional resolution calling for Nixon’s impeachment. His ground for impeachment was not Watergate; Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up would not be known for another year. Drinan believed that the secret bombing of Cambodia violated the Constitution. Eventually, the Cambodia charge would be the fourth article of impeachment voted on by the House Judiciary Committee, but it lost on a close vote. Watergate, not Cambodia, would force Nixon from office.

Drinan also became heavily involved in a series of important but not necessarily headline-grabbing issues. He worked on reforming federal sentencing guidelines and improving prisons. Then, as now, no one in America gave a damn about prisoners and Drinan gets high marks for pursuing an issue that warranted the attention that he sought to gain for it. He worked on the issue of fair housing, which was controversial in Boston, which had endured race riots over forced busing in the 1970s. He was singularly devoted to fighting for the underdogs in society and the world. 

One of those underdogs was Israel. Drinan was fearless in his defense of the country, which played well back in his district, with its heavy Jewish population. But his commitment to the Jewish state was more than tactical. It was a matter of personal conviction. Within Catholic circles, he was involved in ecumenical affairs and would frequently quote Reinhold Niebuhr’s claim that “one cannot be a good Christian unless one is first a good Jew.” Drinan used his voice and his vote to urge the Soviet Union to let more Jews emigrate to Israel. He made a visit to the Soviet Union and met with leading dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Sharansky. In 1976 he was one of forty Christians to attend a conference on Soviet Jewry held in Brussels. At a celebration of America’s Bicentennial sponsored by a local Jewish group in Faneuil Hall, Drinan likened the early American experience to that of the Jewish pioneers in the land of Israel.

One issue dogged Drinan throughout his career—before, during and after his ten years in Congress: abortion. In the 1960s, he had written extensively about his opposition to abortion, but as individual states began to liberalize their abortion laws Drinan’s own views began to change. He was a lawyer, not a moral theologian, and he perceived that the greatest danger in the debate was the possibility that the government would categorize different types of fetuses and decide who would live and who would die, by allowing abortions when fetal abnormality was present, a position supported by public opinion polls. Drinan opposed any right “to prefer bright and healthy offspring to retarded and defective offspring.” This horrified Drinan, understandably. He thought it better to leave the government entirely out of the equation and hope that expectant mothers and doctors who had taken the Hippocratic Oath, with its explicit vow not to participate in abortion, would not choose to abort on account of the unborn child having Down’s Syndrome or some other abnormality. Drinan appears to have been sincere in his concern about the involvement of the state, but he was incredibly naïve about how the issue of abortion would play out. Once Roe v. Wade essentially permitted abortion-on-demand, the number of abortions skyrocketed.

Worse than his strictly legalistic fear about state involvement, Drinan adopted a turn-of-phrase to describe his position on abortion that undercut the efforts of his church to convince the nation that Roe was a moral disaster. He liked to say that “abortion is a sin, not a crime,” to be denounced from the pulpit not the judicial bench. He worried that a law that was badly enforced would breed contempt for the law in general. This was the Jesuit equivalent of “You can’t legislate morality.” Of course, liberals in America had just achieved three of the nation’s most significant attempts to legislate morality in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. These pieces of morally ambitious legislation were more recent than Prohibition, which was often cited by those in favor of liberal abortion laws. Drinan also opposed the Hyde Amendment, which perfectly expressed the ambivalence that many Americans felt about abortion. It is difficult not to conclude that Drinan was blinded either by the wishes of his constituents or by the intellectual milieu in which he moved. Either way, his claim to being a “moral architect” in Congress was undercut by his unwillingness even to raise his voice on behalf of the unborn. His constituents may have had a claim on his vote; his conscience should have urged him to at least try and convince those constituents that they were wrong.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II gave an explicit order that Drinan not seek re-election and, to the surprise of many, Drinan complied. He was, first and last, a Jesuit, a man under obedience. The Pope doubtlessly had other politically involved clerics in mind when he gave his order: in 1979, four priests took office in the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Drinan regretted having to leave a job he had come to love, but there was no question that he would obey a direct order. He returned to teaching, this time at Georgetown Law Center, penned articles for the Nation Catholic Reporter and other Catholic magazines, and was heavily involved in liberal groups such as Americans for Democratic Action. He died in 2007.

Schroth’s biography fails for a number of reasons, not least the many historical mistakes that litter the text. For example, Schroth writes that, in the summer of 1942, London had been bombed “since the previous summer,” when in fact the bombings had been going on for two years. This lack of accuracy extends also to claims about Drinan. Schroth writes that Drinan “learned to recite Newman’s 1842 sermon ‘Second Spring,’ on the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England,” but in 1842 Newman was not yet a Catholic and the hierarchy was not yet restored.

The greater problem is that Schroth spends so little time on Drinan’s years after leaving Congress that the reader has no idea what the priest made of the nation’s (and Rome’s) rejection of his brand of liberal Catholicism. Drinan embodied an intellectual and moral approach to the problems of his day, and it resulted in a counter-movement, the religious right, that not only helped destroy the New Deal coalition of liberals and Roman Catholics of which Drinan was a last disciple, but also changed the way Americans viewed Christianity in the public sphere. Within the Catholic Church, the pendulum swung as well, with more conservative clerics and bishops rising to positions of influence and re-shaping the political agenda of the Catholic Church in the United States. Did Drinan fail to appreciate the way his highly public role had inadvertently provided kindling for these conservative reactions, or are they simply unimportant to Schroth? Drinan’s highly significant and emblematic career demands a more searching examination that the one found in these pages.  

Michael Sean-Winters writes the “Distinctly Catholic” blog on politics and religion at the National Catholic Reporter.