Father Drinan, Model Of Moral Tenacity

By Colman McCarthy
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

If you've ever wondered whether God laughs, think back to 1980, when the Rev. Robert Drinan was ordered by Pope John Paul II to get out of politics and leave Congress. The Jesuit priest, who died on Sunday, was finishing his fifth term representing a suburban Boston district that included Cambridge and Brookline. The pope had been hearing from rankled conservative American Catholics--the Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley Jr., William Bennett wing of the church -- that Father Drinan, a purebred Democrat, was a dangerous liberal. His voting record on abortion was seen as too pro-choice.

Father Drinan's presence in the House of Representatives had been sanctioned by the previous pope, Paul VI, as well as by the U.S. episcopate, the cardinal of Boston, his own Jesuit superiors and emphatically by the voters in his district.

No matter.

John Paul, knowing that Jesuits take a vow of loyalty to popes, had his way. And who replaced the dangerously liberal Father Drinan? The more dangerously liberal Barney Frank--as ardent an advocate for abortion rights and as he was for gay rights. If there is a God, the Frank-for-Drinan trade surely had Him laughing at the Vatican's expense.

From Congress, Bob Drinan went a few blocks to Georgetown University Law Center.

It was a natural transition, from practicing the politics of peace and justice to teaching it. His classes on human rights law, constitutional law and legal ethics were routinely oversubscribed. Though I had met him before his days in Congress, when he served as dean of Boston College Law School, it was at Georgetown Law that our friendship grew. My classes there for the past 20 years have attracted the same kind of students that his did -- future public-interest lawyers, poverty lawyers, human-rights lawyers, and, in good years, a future Jack Olender or William Kunstler.

After my Tuesday afternoon class, I would often go by Bob Drinan's fourth-floor office to get energized. I saw him as a towering moral giant, a man of faith whose practice of Christianity put him in the company of all my Jesuit heroes--Daniel Berrigan, Horace McKenna, Teilhard de Chardin, John Dear, Francis Xavier, the martyred Jesuits of El Salvador and the priests who taught me in college. In his office, ferociously unkempt and as tight as a monk's cell, our conversation ranged from politics to law to the morning's front pages. He was as knowledgeable about the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 as he was about the many allegations of international lawbreaking by the current Bush administration. Bob Drinan had mastered the art of being professionally angry but personally gentle.

As a priest, he was a pastor-at-large. He was at the altar at journalist Mary McGrory's funeral Mass. He celebrated the Nuptial Mass at the marriage of Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and his wife, Lisa. And always, there were plenty of baptisms. As a writer, he produced a steady flow of books on human rights, poverty and social justice. He saved his most fiery writing for the National Catholic Reporter, the progressive weekly to which he contributed a regular column. His final one appeared on Dec. 15, a piece about the 26th anniversary of the martyrdom in El Salvador of Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford.

The column began: "In the 1980s I gave a lecture at Jesuit Regis High School in New York City, where the students are all on scholarship. I spoke about the war being waged by the Reagan administration against the alleged communists of El Salvador.

"In the discussion period, three students took issue with my remarks, making it clear that they and their families agreed with the U.S. policy of assisting the Salvadoran government. The atmosphere was almost hostile until one student stood and related that his aunt, Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, had been murdered by agents of the government of El Salvador. I have seldom if ever witnessed such an abrupt change in the atmosphere of a meeting."

One of my students at Georgetown Law last semester was also one of Father Drinan's: Chris Neumeyer, a former high school teacher from California. His father, Norris Neumeyer, was in town earlier this month and wanted to meet his hero, Father Drinan. The two lucked out and found the priest in his office. Yesterday, Norris Neumeyer, after learning of the priest's death, e-mailed his son and recalled asking if Father Drinan knew his often-jailed fellow Jesuit Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip. He did. The difference between himself and the Berrigans, Father Drinan believed, was that they took action outside the system while he took action inside.

Papal meddling aside, it was enduring action.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace and teaches courses on nonviolence at four universities and three high schools.

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