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Robert Drinan, Priest and Longtime Social Activist, Dies


On Sunday, one of America's most outspoken peace and civil rights activists died in Washington, D.C., at age 86. Robert Drinan was a Jesuit priest, lawyer and law professor, onetime congressman and social activist, and prolific author.

Father Drinan led Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy organization, for four years in the early 1980s after serving the entire decade of the 1970s in Congress, where he was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War. More recently, as a Georgetown University academic and ethicist, Father Drinan traveled the world many times over on human rights and arms control missions.

So he was perhaps the prototype of what some people fondly - and others not so fondly - call a Massachusetts liberal.

Yet Robert Drinan was the son of an arch-conservative Boston businessman who lost most of the family fortune in the stock market crash of 1929 that heralded the Great Depression. Young Bob Drinan was a pious altar boy and a bright student. Years later, as dean of Boston College's law school, he was outraged by the votes of a pro-war congressman who represented his district. And Father Drinan ignited a furor in the church by running for, and winning, the man's congressional seat.

Everybody who takes a position on anything is controversial," Father Drinan once said. "Especially if you're a member of Congress, and you vote 6,000 times. People who disagree with some of your votes would say, 'Well, he's controversial.' And that's supposed to be pejorative. I think it's praise."

Robert Drinan was well known for speaking his mind. In Congress, he drafted the first proposed article of impeachment of disgraced president Richard Nixon in 1974. Many people picture Father Drinan carrying placards in street rallies and marches. No, he said. That's some other priest. That is not my thing. I've never been in a demonstration. I go the orderly process. When I announced for Congress in 1970, kids were taking to the streets. And I said, 'That's not our way. We have to change the process.'

Perhaps the most revolutionary position of this Catholic priest was his unflagging support of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in the Supreme Court in 1973 that legalized abortion in the United States. He did so, he said, wearing his lawyer and ethicist caps. The church is split," he remembered. "You have this minority that is very militant 'pro-life.' For them, the Congress should just reverse Roe v. Wade and re-criminalize abortion. That's not going to work. These people don't realize that abortion has now been legalized in virtually every nation of the earth, including all the Catholic ones. So what do they want? They want to put people in jail for this? The doctor or the mother, or what? There are certain things you cannot penalize successfully or effectively by law.

Robert Drinan said he was troubled by what he saw as arrogance by a nation with 4 percent of the world's population that consumed 40 percent of its resources. We have everything here, we like to think. Most Americans have never really traveled to Asia or Africa, and we're infantile with regard to the learning of languages. People in power just cultivate people for their own self-interest. We don't care as much about the poor as we say."

Borrowing a term coined by Amnesty International to expose human-rights violators, Robert Drinan said there should be a mobilization of shame to bring attention to the bleak state of many of the world's - and America's - children.

Where do children in secular America find their moral compass? he was once asked. Fifty percent of them - almost 50 percent - are the children of divorce," he reflected, "and that has a big impact. And many of them have not been trained in religion at all. They get their morals from a wide variety of sources, and sometimes I'm very pleased to see how generous and humanitarian they are."

Looking back at his long and eventful life, Robert Drinan admitted he had at least one regret.

I should pray more," he told a VOA reporter. "We pray every single day, but we're not monks or Trappists, praying regularly in silence. I think everybody - as he or she looks back on your life - thinks, 'I should have been more contemplative, more in silence, talking with God.' I think everybody could say, 'I have not been as attentive to the voice of God as I might have been.

Are you happy?" he was asked. "Have you had a happy life?

Drinan responded with a chuckle, Are you practicing psychiatry without a license?!

Three years ago, the American Bar Association awarded Robert Drinan its highest honor - the ABA Medal - which it has also presented to eight U.S. Supreme Court justices. One of the admirers who nominated him for that award summed up Father Drinan's long career in academia, the law, and public service by describing him as an eloquent and effective advocate for the most downtrodden in society. And he was still at it shortly before his death at age 86.

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