By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007; B06
The Rev. Robert Drinan, 86, the Roman Catholic priest who played a unique and historic role in American public life as a lawyer, law school teacher, opponent of war and advocate of human rights and as a congressman who recommended the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon, died Jan. 28 at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Father Drinan, who had taught at Georgetown University law school since ending his 10 years as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, had been suffering from pneumonia and congestive heart failure. He lived at the Jesuit residence on the Georgetown campus.
Last year, Father Drinan was one of four former members of the House to be honored with the Congressional Distinguished Service Award. In 2004, the American Bar Association called him amazing and "the stuff of which legends are made" in awarding him the ABA Medal.
He was the author of a dozen books, the recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees, the founder of the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics and a visitor to 16 countries on human-rights missions.
"The nation has lost one of the finest persons ever to serve in Congress," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement.
"Few have accomplished as much," said Georgetown Law Dean T. Alexander Aleinikoff, "and fewer still have done so much to make the world a better place."
Father Drinan was described as the first Roman Catholic priest to serve as a voting member of Congress. (When Michigan was a territory in 1823, it had sent a priest to the Capitol as a nonvoting delegate.) Emphasizing his opposition to the war in Southeast Asia, he won a vigorously contested election in 1970 to take his seat the next January as a member of the 92nd Congress.
A recognized scholar and teacher of the law who had been dean of the Boston College law school, he found himself on the Judiciary Committee. That panel investigated the conduct of Nixon after the 1972 Watergate break-in.
"I was the first to file the resolution of impeachment against Nixon," he recently told the Heights, an independent Boston College newspaper. "We worked every day with hearings on every aspect of this thing."
Years later, he was called upon as a voice of experience when Congress considered whether it should impeach President Bill Clinton. It was reported that he joined other former Judiciary Committee members in arguing that while reprehensible, Clinton's conduct did not match the egregiousness of Nixon's offenses.
Father Drinan was born Nov. 15, 1920, in Boston. He played clarinet in the Boston Civic Symphony. After graduating in 1942 from Boston College, he began studies at Weston College, in Weston, Mass., which led to his becoming a Jesuit priest.
Ordained in 1953, Father Drinan took an interest in the intersection of religion and public policy, becoming a specialist in family matters and civil rights issues and expressing his belief in law as the protector of the powerless. As a member of an advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, he conducted hearings in 1966 on conditions in African American sections of inner-city Boston. He wrote on school prayer, abortion and birth control, and he called for mandatory efforts to reconcile couples who wished to divorce.
When he sought elective office, he was considered a symbol of a New Politics that melded thoughtful advocacy with organizational efficiency. He used computers, endorsements and television ads.
But he also confronted doubts over the propriety of a priest seeking a seat in Congress.
Winning his seat required him to dislodge 28-year-incumbent Philip J. Philbin in the Democratic primary and then to overcome a Republican opponent and a write-in campaign by Philbin.
"When I arrived in Congress . . . Father Drinan was already serving as the conscience of the House of Representatives," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass).
"It was an honor to serve with him and to seek his guidance and advice on issues such as halting the spread of nuclear weapons, mitigating the plight of Soviet Jews, and protecting the rights of political prisoners," Markey said.
When Father Drinan took office, he said he would continue to wear clerical garb. "It's the only clothes I have," he said.
He "loved his time in Congress," Aleinikoff, the Georgetown Law dean, said. He "was absolutely delighted" with the award he received last year.
Expressing "regret and pain," Father Drinan left the House in 1981 after the Vatican ruled that no priest could hold a legislative position.
Only the sudden onset of illness prevented him from continuing his teaching duties this semester, Aleinikoff said.
He was "a man without rancor" whose deeply held beliefs never prevented him from viewing every person as "deserving respect and possessing dignity."