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Former Congressman Rev. Robert Drinan Dies at 86

by Pamela Leavey

The Rev. Robert Drinan passed away Sunday at 86. Drinan was the only Roman Catholic priest ever elected to Congress as a voting member. He represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House for 10 years in the midst of the turbulent ’70’s. After a “worldwide directive from Pope John Paul II barring priests from holding public office” Drinan stepped down but he continued to champion political causes including human rights and teaching law at “Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC from 1981-2007, where his academic work and classes focused on legal ethics and international human rights.”

During his Congressional tenure, Drinan continued to dress in the robes of his clerical order and lived in a simple room in the Jesuit community at Georgetown.

But he wore his liberal views more prominently. He opposed the draft, worked to abolish mandatory retirement and raised eyebrows with his more moderate views on abortion and birth control.

“Father Drinan’s commitment to human rights and justice will have a lasting legacy here at Georgetown University and across the globe,” said Georgetown President John J. Degioia.

“Few have accomplished as much as Father Drinan and fewer still have done so much to make the world a better place,” said Alex Aleinikoff, dean of the George University Law Center.

Drinan, dean of the Boston College Law School from 1956 to 1970, called for the desegregation of Boston public schools during the 1960s and challenged Boston College students to become involved in civil rights issues.

“He’ll be remembered in the country for his advocacy for the poor and underprivileged,” said John Garvey, the Boston law school’s current dean.

Drinan was elected in 1970, after he beat longtime Democratic Rep. Philip J. Philbin in a primary _ and again in the November election, when Philbin was a write-in candidate. The only other priest to serve in Congress was a nonvoting delegate from Michigan in 1823.

He initially ran for office “after he returned from a trip to Vietnam, where he said he discovered that the number of political prisoners being held in South Vietnam was rapidly increasing, contrary to State Department reports.”

In a book the next year, he urged the Catholic Church to condemn the war as “morally objectionable.”

He became the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon _ although the call wasn’t related to the Watergate scandal, but rather what Drinan viewed as the administration’s undeclared war against Cambodia.

“Can we be silent about this flagrant violation of the Constitution?” Drinan demanded angrily back then. “Can we impeach a president for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?”

Decades later, at the invitation of Congress, he testified against the impeachment of another president: Bill Clinton. Drinan said Clinton’s misdeeds were not in the same league as Nixon’s, and that impeachment should be for an official act, not a private one.

On August 24, 2006 Drinan wrote an OP/ED for the Boston Globe defending federal justice Anna Diggs Taylor ruling that “Bush’s move to bypass FISA was unconstitutional.”

Senator Ted Kennedy released the following statement on the news that Drinan had passed away:

“I’m saddened to learn of Father Drinan’s death. All of us who knew him and served with him admired him for his deep faith, his profound commitment to public service, and the bold actions he constantly urged us to take to live up to our principles, especially in ending the Vietnam War. He 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.”

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