The Priest On The Hill

On the same day that tens of thousands of people marched in Washington against the Iraq war, the country lost one of its most principled and dedicated antiwar voices. Rev. Robert F. Drinan, the first Roman Catholic priest to serve as a voting member of Congress, died in the nation's capital at age 86.

Elected in Massachusetts in 1970 during the height of opposition to the Vietnam War, Father Drinan left his seat 10 years later out of deference to a papal order that said no clergy should hold public office. In perhaps his last public appearance, he celebrated mass on Jan. 3 for Nancy Pelosi at her alma mater, Trinity College, an all-women's Catholic college.

In a measure of how much the intersection of politics and religion has changed, Drinan noted that Pelosi is the first "mom" to become Speaker of the House. The fact that she is also Catholic was a footnote. And nobody was checking with the Vatican to see if it was OK, least of all Drinan. If Rome thought this progressive priest would be silenced once he left Congress, they were mistaken. If anything, he expanded his repertoire of causes, writing extensively and lecturing about everything from his moderate views on abortion and birth control to protecting the rights of political prisoners, even serving for a time as president of the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal interest group.

Long before Drinan was elected to office, he had been a community activist. In 1966, as a member of an advisory board to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, he held hearings on the disgraceful conditions in the African-American neighborhoods of inner-city Boston. In 1970, he fended off John Kerry, in an early test among liberals trying to coalesce behind a single antiwar candidate, to beat an entrenched pro-war Democrat, Philip J. Philbin, in the primary. Philbin, a 28-year incumbent, could not believe he had lost to this upstart priest, and ran in November as a write-in candidate. Drinan prevailed again, this time over both Philbin and a Republican opponent.

Once in Congress, he was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which would soon take center stage for its investigation of the 1972 Watergate break-in. A legal scholar who had been dean of the Boston College law school, Drinan was the first member of Congress to call for President Nixon's impeachment. It was not the crimes associated with Watergate that drove Drinan to advocate what initially seemed like drastic action, it was Nixon's widening of the war into Cambodia without congressional authorization. "Can we be silent about this flagrant violation of the Constitution?" he asked. "Can we impeach a president for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?"

Drinan lived in housing provided for the Jesuit community at Georgetown University, where he taught until this semester when his health began to fail. He was a familiar figure in Washington, gaunt in his clerical garb, which he always wore, even while in Congress. "I have no other clothes," he explained. He had no other persona, and in a city of so much opportunism, his unflinching directness will be missed.

Rep. Edward Markey served alongside Drinan in the Massachusetts delegation to the U.S. House. Markey, a graduate of Boston College Law School, where Drinan had been dean, said he would always look up on the board that displayed members' votes and take careful note of Drinan's. His vote, Markey knew, would be "unencumbered by any political considerations." Drinan typically won re-election by narrow margins, Markey recalled, but he didn't seem to care. "He was only there to be the conscience of the Congress," Markey said. "He lived the Beatitudes."