A Lasting Legacy: The Rev. Robert Drinan's Voice For Justice Will Be Sorely Missed

The Rev. Robert F. Drinan entered Congress in 1971 as the first elected Roman Catholic priest and a staunch opponent of America's increasing military involvement in Vietnam.

Drinan, who died Jan. 28, served five more terms, during which he built a reputation as a leading proponent of human rights, civil liberties and the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

Drinan's tenure in Congress was at times tumultuous. He sparked attention calling for President Richard Nixon's impeachment, not because of the administration's attempts to cover up the Watergate burglary, but for its covert approval of bombing Cambodia. Drinan's outspokenness on the former president's foreign policy garnered him a place on Nixon's "enemies list."

But Drinan's pattern of splitting with some aspects of church doctrine as a lawmaker hastened his departure from Congress.

A strong proponent of pro-choice legislation and of protecting the church-state wall, the Massachusetts Democrat regularly railed against legislation seeking to pave the way for school-sponsored prayer and other religious activities in the classroom.

The Boston Globe wrote that it was those actions that angered some Catholics, and that in 1980, "Pope John Paul II ordered Father Drinan to either forgo re-election or leave the priesthood."

Although a popular congressman representing Boston's western suburbs and almost certain to win another term, Drinan decided against running again.

After leaving Congress, Drinan remained a thoughtful, persistent and passionate advocate of an array of civil liberties concerns. He spent his remaining years teaching law at Georgetown University and authoring books and articles.   In 2004, the American Bar Association awarded him the ABA Medal, saying that he is "the stuff of which legends are made."

His voice on a range of national issues will be sorely missed.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a prepared statement that Drinan "was a profile in courage in every sense of the word, and the nation has lost one of the finest persons ever to serve in Congress."

Indeed, Drinan was an eloquent and forceful defender of keeping church and state separate.

In the Jesuit magazine America, Drinan wrote about a pending Supreme Court case on school-sanctioned prayer at public school football games in Texas. He concluded, "It is undeniable that one form of Christian piety (in most cases Baptist) is being preferred and imposed on all present regardless of their desires or wishes."

In a June 19, 2000, interview on CNN, Drinan expressed support for the Supreme Court decisions forbidding school-sponsored religious worship. "I think that the Supreme Court has been consistently right," he said, "going back to [Abington v.] Schempp in 1963."
 
Drinan also took note, on occasions, of the Religious Right movement.

Praising Jimmy Carter's 2005 book, Our Endangered Values, Drinan wrote that Carter "clearly repudiates the fundamentalists who continue to seek to impose their simplistic view of the Bible on the American people."

Advocates of the church-state wall have lost a dear friend in Robert Drinan.