Our father, who art in Congress

February 1, 2007

One night last spring, working as a host at a ritzy Washington restaurant, I met a conservative congressman and his wife at the door. Knowing their table was far from ready, I started chatting while hanging up their coats. Discovering my Georgetown affiliation, the congressman’s wife demanded to know my religious and political views. The congressman rolled his eyes, clearly wanting to leave his work at the office, but when his better-half found out I was both a liberal and a Catholic, she demanded to know how I feel about abortion. The air of pleasant small talk dissipated after I said “pro-choice.” She smirked at me. “Not very Catholic, eh?” For the rest of the night, whenever we passed, she would lean over and ask, “Jesus change your mind yet?”

I would note, for the record, that they tipped quite well.

All this is to say I’m mourning the passing of Father Robert F. Drinan, SJ, who died last Sunday at the age of 86. Fr. Drinan was a man of much accomplishment: author of 12 books, beloved professor at the Georgetown Law Center, former dean of the Boston College Law School, former President of Americans for Democratic Action and most famously, the democratic representative to Congress from the Third District of Massachusetts from 1971 to 1981.

Fr. Drinan is the only Roman Catholic priest to have been elected to Congress, and while he was there he was among its most liberal members—he ran on a staunch anti-war platform. Among other legislative activities, he tried to impeach President Richard Nixon for illegal bombings in Cambodia and found a spot on the President’s infamous enemies list, advocated for civil and human rights and, though adamantly against abortion himself, supported pro-choice policies, even the federal funding of abortion. He wore his clerical collar on the floor; he embodied the gospel as a call to action.

And like, it seems, all good liberal Catholics, he was told to sit down and be quiet. Pope John Paul II gave Fr. Drinan an ultimatum in 1980: You can either be a priest or a congressman, but not both. So, despite the sanction from the previous Pope, the Cardinal of Boston and the Jesuit community, Fr. Drinan was forced to leave the House of Representatives to protect his calling, and in a stroke of what I believe is divine justice, the even-more-liberal Representative Barney Frank replaced him. Fr. Drinan came to Georgetown, where liberal Jesuits are put out to pasture.

Fr. Drinan didn’t go quietly, of course, and continued his important work with the ADA, on human rights, in the legal realm, and as a pastor. At the Law Center’s online memorial for Drinan, friends ranging from Professor Viet Dinh, author of the Bush Administration’s Patriot Act, to Professor Peter Rubin, founder of the liberal American Constitution Society, share heartfelt memories of the great man, who kept teaching and working practically until the day of his death.

Drinan drew criticism from conservative Catholics for his public support for abortion rights.

But how will Drinan’s work live on in the current church? The feature story in this week’s Voice is about those of our generation who feel a vocation to the Priesthood. These are men who are worthy of admiration for their willingness to sacrifice so much for the Church, but many of them are more orthodox than their Vatican II-era forebears. Some of Georgetown’s Jesuits worry about the future of their order, which famously works for the principles of social justice exemplified by priests like Fr. Drinan or Daniel Berrigan or Teilhard de Chardin.

In his writing, Fr. Drinan references “awesome demands for justice in the Bible,” reminding us that “the criterion for separating the sheep and the goats will be how they treated the son of man when he was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison.” Drinan worried that those Catholics who did not understand this had “too narrow a view of the scope of Catholicism.” It is Fr. Drinan’s Catholicism, I think, that will bring our Church through this post-modern age, a Catholicism of the active gospel, not a Catholicism that confronts liberalism as an enemy. That, more than any other reason, is why we must keep Fr. Drinan’s legacy alive.

We have a particular obligation to fight this fight at Georgetown, America’s pre-eminent Catholic institution, especially when the Church as a whole is trending conservative, and Pope Bendict expresses a willingness to shed the Church’s big-tent approach and streamline the Church in the image he prefers. This is a time of war, mirroring the conditions of Fr. Drinan’s political prime, and we need Catholic leaders who will fight for just American policy.

Jesus has not yet changed my mind about my pro-choice views. But I hope that, in His infinite wisdom, he guides Catholics—all of us—towards a more perfect understanding of our duty to seek social justice. That would be a legacy to make Fr. Drinan proud.

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