Ethics & Public Policy Center

Demythologizing Father Drinan



Before the gossamer threads of mythology being woven around the memory of the late Father Robert Drinan, S.J., harden into what some might take for facts, a visit to the historical record is imperative.

(1) In a memorial essay in the Washington Post, Colman McCarthy asserted that Drinan’s presence in the House of Representatives “had been sanctioned by…the U.S. episcopate, the cardinal of Boston, [and] his own Jesuit superiors…” That is false.

An exhaustive study by historian James Hitchcock, “The Strange Political Career of Father Drinan,” was published in 1996 in Catholic World Report. Using documents from the archives of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, Hitchcock demonstrated that the Father General of the Society, Pedro Arrupe, expressed serious concerns about Drinan’s political career numerous times.

On several other occasions, Arrupe tried to communicate, through the New England Province leadership, his desire that Drinan leave electoral political life. Arrupe eventually withdrew his objections, but as Hitchcock writes, this “occurred [in 1976] only after Drinan had several times run for Congress in defiance of the General’s express command.”

In 1972, Cardinal John Krol, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, stated that Drinan’s presence in Congress was contrary to the policy and wishes of the U.S. bishops. That same year, Bishop Bernard Flanagan of Worcester informed Father Arrupe that both he and Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston disapproved of Drinan serving in Congress. Arrupe reported this to Drinan in a letter, reiterating his command that Drinan cease and desist. Drinan did not reply.

A reasonable reading of Hitchcock’s article suggests that Drinan defied or ignored his Jesuit superiors in Rome on a dozen occasions; he seems to have done the same with the relevant U.S. bishops at least four times.

(2) The Post‘s McCarthy, like others, suggested that Pope John Paul II ordered Drinan to leave Congress because of pressure from “rankled American conservative Catholics.” That is also false.

John Paul’s proscription on priests in elective politics, which was universal in scope, involved the theology of the priesthood. How, the pope asked, could a priest live out his sacramental ordination as an embodiment of the Church’s unity if he engaged in partisan politics? This was a problem in Latin America, where priests were engaged in sometimes-lethal partisanship; it was also a problem in the (somewhat) more genteel halls of Congress.

Hitchcock’s article also offers a depressing reminder that Drinan’s New England Jesuit supporters insisted to Father Arrupe that there was no layman qualified to take Drinan’s seat in Congress — a breathtaking example of clericalism, and another falsehood to boot.

(3) Questions about the secular canonization of Robert Drinan as a forceful champion of human rights are also in order. The abortion license is the gravest (and certainly most lethal) violation of human rights in America today. Father Drinan was a consistent pro-abortion vote in Congress; in 1980, a National Abortion Rights Action League fundraising letter argued that Drinan’s re-election was essential.

After becoming president of Americans for Democratic Action [ADA] in his post-congressional life, Drinan dispatched an ADA fundraising letter urging the election of pro-abortion members of Congress on moral (sic) grounds. In 1996, Drinan penned a New York Times op-ed attacking the partial-birth abortion ban, misrepresenting the facts about the medical “necessity” of this gruesome procedure, and thanking President Clinton for vetoing the bill.

How any of this comports with a devotion to “human rights” is unclear. On the great human rights and civil rights issue of American domestic politics these past three decades, Father Drinan was on the wrong side: consistently, persistently and with no public evidence of regret. In the 1980s, the New England province Jesuit leadership claimed that Drinan’s was a uniquely moral voice in American politics. That was untrue then; recent, similar claims about Father Drinan’s legacy are also untrue.

There is no pleasure to be had in writing these things. The Drinan case is, however, an important cautionary tale about the corruptions of judgment that ensue when truths are fudged in service to political power, and when that power is thought to be of greater consequence than the truth.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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