Action Alert!

Catholic World News News Feature

The Strange Political Career of Father Drinan July 01, 1996

By James Hitchcock

In the summer of 1992 a Jesuit graduate student at Harvard, Father Paul Mankowski, completed the background research for an article he planned to write on the relationship between the Society of Jesus and the congressional career of Father Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest who had compiled a consistent record of public support for legalized abortion. The original purpose of the article was to have been the exoneration of the former Superior General of the Jesuits, Father Pedro Arrupe. Father Mankowski intended to show that the Drinan candidacy was stage-managed from the US in such a way that Father Arrupe did not have the information he needed in order to make a prudent decision, and could thus be absolved from complicity in the scandal created when a Jesuit priest voted to support abortion. With the knowledge and consent of the archivist for the New England Province of the Society, Mankowski made photocopies of the correspondence and office memos pertinent to Drinan’s political career. He was anxious for the opinion of a professional historian in determining how the various documents could be used responsibly as supporting evidence for his essay, and provided me with a copy of the correspondence for that purpose. Further scrutiny of the papers convinced Mankowski that Arrupe's part in the affair did not exonerate him from blame, and he decided against going ahead with his original article out of reluctance to increase the opprobrium on the Society of Jesus, many of whose members had played an honorable, if ultimately futile, role in the political struggle against abortion. Now that Father Drinan has re-emerged as a political player in the abortion debate, that documentation has assumed a new timeliness.

* * *

In the United States even many liberal Catholics support Church teaching about abortion. This spring, when Congress passed a bill outlawing partial-birth abortions, the leftist National Catholic Reporter sharply criticized President Bill Clinton for vetoing the bill. A journalist who normally supports Clinton unwaveringly, Mary McGrory, reported having attended a gathering of liberal Catholics who were outraged at the President's action, which was condemned in the strongest terms by the Holy See and by the leaders of the American hierarchy.

It was therefore shocking to many people that one of the president's strongest defenders was a Jesuit priest, Father Robert Drinan, who published articles in both the Reporter and the New York Times attacking the bill and praising the President for having vetoed it. In both articles he accepted at face value the claim--refuted by knowledgable people--that the brutal "dilation and extraction" method is sometimes medically necessary. He also demanded that Congress include an exception to allow the use of the partial-birth procedure if a doctor deemed it necessary to preserve the "health" of the mother--a vague phrase which pro-lifers long ago realized could be used to justify practically any abortion.

Drinan also attacked the bill as a mere political weapon to used against the President, and in his Reporter article twice urged that the bill be rejected because it is likely to help Republicans in this year's presidential campaign. All in all the column was as blatantly partisan an argument as it would be possible to find. Such open partisanship is unusual among American priests, but it was not surprising in view of the fact that Father Drinan himself for ten years (l97l-8l) served in Congress, as a Democrat, and that while there was perhaps the single most reliable supporter of abortion "rights." His public espousal of that issue this year recalls the unusual circumstances of his congressional service.


In l970 Drinan was a well-known priest-lawyer and an official of Boston College. Ironically, in view of his present support of late-term abortions, he once proposed that abortion be legal during the first six months of pregnancy, after which point he proposed that it be treated simply as homicide.

In February, l970, Father Pedro Arrupe, the Father General of the Jesuits world-wide, queried the provincial of the New England Province, Father William G. Guindon, concerning a rumor that Drinan was planning to run for Congress. Arrupe had recently delivered a speech in Spain in which he had urged Jesuits to become socially involved, but also forbade partisan political activity. Citing his own speech, Arrupe warned Guindon that Jesuits could not endorse the actions of any political party. The warning was especially significant because Arrupe was generally viewed both by Jesuits and others as a highly "progressive" man who was moving the Society in new directions.

About a week after Arrupe's warning, Drinan informed Guindon that he would indeed seek the Democratic nomination for Congress from a suburban Boston district and, in a curious twist, cited Arrupe's speech in Spain as his warrant for doing so. Although Guindon knew at that point how Arrupe intended that his speech should be understood, he evidently did not inform Drinan that he had misinterpreted it.

After Drinan’s candidacy was publicly announced, Arrupe on February 25 cabled Guindon, saying flatly that Drinan could not run for office, and if elected could not serve. With Guindon out of the country, another New England Province official, Father Paul T. Lucey, replied with a cable asking Arrupe to withhold all public comment until he received word from New England officials.

While Guindon was out of the country, Drinan telephoned the provincial's office and dictated to Lucey, the draft of a letter to be sent to Arrupe. Whether that letter was ever sent is not clear, but it is illustrative of the thinking of both Drinan and his superiors at the time.

Lucey responded to Arrupe by saying that the General’s query about Drinan was surprising, because Drinan had Guindon's full support and his candidacy was fully in keeping with the official commitments of the Society. Lucey went on to say that Guindon regarded Arrupe's letter of warning as a mere suggestion and that Lucey had told the press that no special permission was needed for Drinan’s candidacy. A reversal of that announcement would be a rebuke to Guindon, Lucey argued, and would also be unfair to Drinan.


Although Drinan sought to become the candidate of the Democratic Party, Lucey assured Arrupe that the priest would not be affiliated with any political party in a negative sense. He was not being nominated or endorsed by a political party, Lucey claimed, but merely by a group of citizens.

Warming to a theme which American Jesuit leaders would adhere to over the next decade, Lucey again told Arrupe that he had kept the general's query confidential because he thought that disclosure of its contents would have severe negative consequences for the Jesuits and for the Church in America. Although the Jesuit order traditionally laid great stress on obedience, even to the point of urging Jesuits to follow superiors' wishes as well as their formal commends, Father Lucey now told Arrupe that he was refusing to act on the latter's letter because such action would violate Drinan's rights. He even accused Arrupe of failing to understand his own speech about Jesuit involvement in political life.

Drinan himself contacted Guindon, predicted that a scandal damaging to the Catholic Church would result if he were forced to withdraw his candidacy, and asserted that no serious argument against that candidacy had been advanced by anyone. If Arrupe attempted to enforce his policy, he argued, it would provoke a crisis of authority among American Jesuits.

Guindon subsequently met with Drinan and told him that it was the consensus of New England Jesuit officials that he should continue his campaign for Congress. It was also their consensus that public knowledge of Arrupe's position would create a scandal damaging to the interests of the Church and the Jesuits. In March, Guindon was in Rome and met with Arrupe, who summarized their conference by telling Guindon that the provincial had the responsibility to develop a plan whereby Drinan would withdraw from the congressional race, since his candidacy was contrary to the official policies of the Society. Assuring Guindon that he understood the reasons for the candidacy, the General nonetheless ruled that they were not sufficient to outweigh Jesuit policy.


In April the issue took an unexpected twist when Guindon denied the request of Father John McLaughlin, another Jesuit priest of the New England Province, to become a Republican candidate for the Senate from Rhode Island. Guindon specifically cited Arrupe's wishes and the policies of the Society forbidding the candidacy, and urged McLaughlin to show loyalty toward Arrupe, even as he himself facilitated Drinan’s candidacy.

A few days later, after receiving a reminder from Rome to reply to Arrupe's order, Guindon told a member of Arrupe’s staff that he had delayed doing so because for the first time in his life as a Jesuit he sensed a real conflict between conscience and authority. Affirming his obedience to Arrupe, Guindon nonetheless told the General that he found himself in a quandary of having to choose between that obedience and his own conscientious judgment. Drinan's candidacy seemed to him such a good thing for the Church in America that it decisively outweighed Arrupe's command to the contrary. At the end of April, however, Arrupe again told Guindon that no Jesuit could run for public office without the general's express permission.

In addition to the permission of his Jesuit superiors, Church law also required that a priest in Drinan's situation receive the permission of the bishops in whose dioceses he was working. At the beginning of his candidacy Drinan told his Jesuit superiors that he had received informal assurances of approval from the Archdiocese of Boston and from the Diocese of Worcester, and the New England Province had forwarded this claim to Rome.

However, Arrupe now queried the two bishops and reported to Guindon that he had received letters from Cardinal Richard J. Cushing of Boston and Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan of Worcester stating that their permission had never been sought and thus had never been granted. Jesuit headquarters then pointed out to Guindon that Canon Law requires a priest in Drinan's situation to obtain the bishop’s permission. Guindon told Arrupe that he had been unaware of the relevant section of Canon Law governing the case, and had interpreted the silence of Cardinal Cushing and Bishop Flanagan as tacit consent. He also reported to Arrupe that he had been asked by Boston archdiocesan officials about a rumor that Arrupe had forbidden Drinan to run. Guindon admitted that he did not acknowledge the truth of the rumor--which he thought would not be helpful to anyone involved--but had satisfied the official by stating that Guindon's own permission was sufficient.

A week later Guindon proposed to a Boston archdiocesan official that Cardinal Cushing write a second letter to Arrupe stating that he was not opposed to Drinan's candidacy. The suggestion was rejected. In June, Drinan wrote to Arrupe saying that Bishop Flanagan had offered to issue a public statement on his behalf, although this was never done. Arrupe replied that he accepted these reports and believed that they constituted the requisite canonical approval. However, he also warned that further matters of this kind would have to be decided by his office. In his reply to Arrupe, Guindon developed what would be the American Jesuits’ basic argument against requiring Drinan to withdraw from the election: that it would be seen as Church interference with democratic politics. In making the case Guindon condemned past Vatican interventions in Italian politics, which he said had been one of the reasons for the rise of Fascism.

Guindon also defended Drinan's candidacy as essential because of the stands the priest would take in Congress--against racism, against the Vietnam War, and in favor of increased foreign aid. If Drinan were forced to withdraw, Guindon warned, the Church would be seen as supporting racists, militarists, and selfish nationalists. Guindon asserted that that no one whose judgment he valued thought Drinan should withdraw from the race; the only people opposing him being one embittered older Jesuit and a few lay people adverse to change.

But Guindon went further still in his claim that Drinan's candidacy was not a proper concern of the Jesuit General. At a recent meeting of the New England Province, a proposal had been introduced to ask the General to clarify the conditions under which a Jesuit might run for public office. The proposal had received practically no support, since it was deemed completely outside the General’s competence,

During this same province meeting, Guindon reported, Drinan had defended his position, in part by charging that Jesuit higher education had failed morally and that it was necessary for him to seek office because none of the thousands of graduates of Jesuit schools were willing to fight against racism, war, and selfish nationalism. The Jesuits present applauded Drinan vigorously, the only time this happened during the meeting.


Drinan's candidacy also escaped the strictures of Canon Law, Guindon argued, because of the nature of American politics. Republicans and Democrats scarcely differed from one another except on petty issues of local politics, he said. Drinan, although seeking election as a Democrat, was supported by a broad bipartisan group and if elected, would not be known by the label "Democrat." This was a truly extraordinary argument, given the fact that Richard Nixon was then in the White House, after an unsually bitter election, and that the country was perhaps more divided along partisan lines than it had been in for decades.

Guindon accused Drinan's critics of hiding under a cloak of anonymity because their arguments could not withstand public scrutiny, and he charged that local diocesan officials would not dare publicly oppose him. He apologized to Arrupe for not being able to carry out the General’s direct command, but concluded that in conscience he simply could not do so.

Arrupe then requested that Drinan come to Rome to meet with him--a request Drinan apparently ignored as he began his campaign for Congress. Following his election in November, he wrote to Arrupe informing him of his success and stating that he viewed his entry into politics as fully in keeping with the Society's commitment to social justice. Although promising to keep in mind Arrupe’s warning about the intrinsic difficulty of a priest’s serving in politics, he made no reference to the General's repeated prohibitions of his candidacy. He said nothing to Arrupe about having been asked to come to Rome, but reported to Guindon he that his political schedule now precluded it. Arrupe in turn sent Drinan good wishes on the occasion of his election.

Guindon met with Drinan and told him that Arrupe was subject to Vatican pressure over the Jesuit's election. Arrupe, the provincial reported, wanted to extract from Drinan a promise that he would not seek re-election and that he would not oppose any legislation which the American bishops favored. Guindon told the Congressman that he personally was opposed to both of Arrupe’s requests, and suggested that Drinan meet with Arrupe when the latter next visited the United States. Guindon then proposed such a meeting to Arrupe, adding not only that Drinan was not free to go to Rome but also that it would be dangerous if the Congressman were seen in Rome in the company of the Jesuit General. Guindon also informed Arrupe of his own opposition to the promises the general was hoping to extract from Drinan. One ranking New England Jesuit, Robert J. Starratt (who later left the Society), wrote to Arrupe warning in the strongest terms against such a meeting; once again on the grounds that it would constitute scandalous interference by Rome in American politics.

When Arrupe came to the United States in April of l97l he did meet with Drinan, but apparently the results were inconclusive. While Arrupe was in Washington, Drinan arranged for him to offer a prayer at a session of Congress--an occasion when Drinan seemed happy to be seen in public with his general, despite all the warnings Arrupe had received that such an appearance would be damaging to the Church. Among other things, Arrupe’s appearance before Congress helped quiet rumors that he disapproved of Drinan’s candidacy.


However, early in l972 the president of the American bishops’ conference, Cardinal John J. Krol of Philadelphia, indicated publicly that Drinan's presence in Congress was contrary to Church policy and against the wishes of the bishops. In response a Jesuit historian, Vincent A. Lapomarda, publicly criticized Cardinal Krol as ignorant of Church history, charging that to require Drinan to resign from Congress would be to "thwart the teachings of the New Testament on these issues." Guindon himself stated on national television that Cardinal Krol's remarks were "completely impertinent" and "unwarranted and unjustified."

A week later Arrupe formally told Drinan that he could not run for reelection, basing his decision on the judgment of the Americans bishops that the appropriate circumstances did not exist which would justify it.

Guindon protested to Arrupe because the letter had been sent to Drinan without prior consultation with the provincial. Once again he repeated his arguments why the priest should be free to seek reelection. Guindon again charged that Arrupe's letter was inconsistent with his own past statements about Jesuit involvement in social apostolates. He denied Arrupe's claim, based on the reports of American bishops, that qualified laymen were available to run for Drinan’s office, and stated flatly that no layman had demonstrated the moral vision necessary for such an office. The American bishops had a surreptitious political agenda of their own, he asserted, and their judgment in the Drinan case was based on outdated theology. In general the reputation of the American bishops, including Cardinal Krol, was low, he concluded. Arrupe responded by repeating that he could not reverse his decision and specifically that he could not approve an arrangement whereby Drinan would make the decision based solely on his own conscience. Larger issues were at stake, the General noted, and he would not approve Drinan's bid for re-election unless he received written statements of approval from and Bishop Flanagan and the new Archbishop of Boston, Humberto S. Medeiros. He also hoped that Guindon's criticism of Krol on national television would not have negative repercussions.

Guindon replied that he was certain Drinan would obtain formal permission from the two prelates and said that his criticisms of Cardinal Krol were made necessary by the latter's entry into the political arena. Meanwhile Guindon responded to a letter from Father John Foley, editor of the Philadelphia archdiocesan newspaper, by asserting that the question of whether Drinan had received episcopal permission was of no concern to anyone except those immediately involved. (Foley is now an archbishop, and head of the Vatican Office of Communications.) And Guindon responded to letters of criticism against Drinan by assuring people that the priest had full ecclesiastical permission to run for office and that Cardinal Krol’s statement was false.

In mid-March, Arrupe informed Drinan that he had received a letter from Bishop Flanagan stating that both he and Archbishop Medeiros disapproved of Drinan's running for reelection. Arrupe then repeated his own prohibition. Drinan did not respond to the letter and a few weeks later Arrupe contacted him again, expressing concern over newspaper reports that the priest was in fact already running for re-election.

Guindon now argued that in l970 Drinan sincerely believed he had all necessary ecclesiastical permission to seek office and that no further permission was needed for reelection. Drinan made the same argument in a letter to Arrupe, and also claimed that Bishop Flanagan agreed with him. He said he had also met with Archbishop Medeiros, who made no objections to his renewed candidacy.

Arrupe now, for the first time, retreated from his consistent position. He informed Drinan that although he was troubled by the absence of written statements from Archbishop Medeiros and Bishop Flanagan, he would accept Drinan 's assurances that the hierarchy did not oppose him, and would therefore withdraw his own objection while refraining from granting actual permission.


In due course Drinan was re-elected and in l974 prepared to run for third term. In the meantime, however, the face of American politics had changed irrevocably by the sudden intrusion of the abortion issue into the national arena after a l973 Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional "right" to abortion.

Drinan's position has always been that he fully accepted Catholic teaching on the subject. However, even before the Supreme Court decision he had supported, with increasing passionate intensity, every proposal to make the procedure legal and to fund it with tax money. The elevation of the issue in l973 was especially sensitive in Drinan's case because of his repeated claim, endorsed by his superiors, that he brought a unique perspective of Catholic moral awareness to public life--a perspective one which no layman was qualified to bring.

Shortly after Roe v Wade, Drinan wrote a public defense of the decision, recognizing that it had flaws but finding it on the whole a beneficial judgment. He then proceeded, over the next several years, to compile an almost perfect pro-abortion voting record in Congress, often speaking passionately about a woman's "constitutional right" to abort, even while stating that this right went completely contrary to his own conscience.

If Drinan’s superiors, prior to l973, had found practically no one who criticized the priest’s presence in Congress, they now found themselves barraged with statements of outrage from all kinds of people, including other Catholic members of Congress. And if Drinan’s critics had once concealed their identities, as Guindon had charged, they were now more than willing to speak publicly.

In May, l974, Guindon's successor as New England provincial, Father Richard T. Cleary, called a press conference concerning the status of John McLaughlin, the New England Jesuit who had been denied permission to run for the Senate in the same year in which Drinan had been encouraged to run for Congress. McLaughlin was by then one of President Richard M. Nixon’s White House staff members, and Cleary was concerned that his public statements would be construed as reflecting his status as a Jesuit. McLaughlin's position was religiously indefensible, since he was not living as a Jesuit and made public statements dismissing the importance of poverty and obedience. Recalled to Boston for "reflection," McLaughlin instead left the Society and married; he eventually built a successful career as host of the popular television program "The McLaughlin Group."

At his press conference Cleary faced the inevitable question about Drinan’s position, and responded by saying that as a lawyer Drinan was free to advocate legal abortion, if as a priest he continued to oppose the practice on moral grounds. It was an odd defense on behalf of a man whose entry into politics had been passionately defended by his superiors precisely on the grounds that he was bringing moral principles to bear on public policy.


Early in the Fall of l974, with another election a few weeks away, the question of Drinan's permission to run again became public, after Drinan told the press "I have permission in black and white." This time Bishop Flanagan stated publicly that he had not given permission, while Cardinal Medeiros merely stated that the issue was an internal one for the Jesuits. When National Jesuit News, the Society's official American publication, also implied that Drinan did not have the requisite permissions and that this would be used against him in Rome, Drinan denounced the Jesuit editor as "a kid" (he was 44). Cleary then issued a statement that Drinan had run with Guindon’s permission and that this had been "ratified" by Arrupe, a claim which hardly seemed borne out by Arrupe’s own repeatedly stated position.

At this point the official story concerning Drinan’s permission began to unravel publicly, as Father Vincent O'Keefe, the highest ranking American Jesuit in Rome, told the press that despite his claim, Drinan had never had Arrupe’s permission. Recalling that Drinan had assured Arrupe that he already had the permission of the two Massachusetts dioceses where his district was located, O’Keefe indicated that belatedly Arrupe had learned that this was not true. However, to confuse matters still further, Father Paul O'Connell, a Worcester diocesan spokesman, told the press that the failure of the two Massachusetts bishops to speak publicly had amounted in effect to permission.

A lay staff member of the New England provincial’s office, James Boiselle, sent a detailed memorandum to Cleary summarizing the relations between Drinan and both the Jesuit and diocesan hierarchies since l970, and concluding that Drinan was the victim of various clerics’ evasion of their own responsibilities. Boiselle speculated that the press’s sudden interest in the question of Drinan's status was stimulated by some unspecified enemies of the Congressman, possibly within the Vatican itself. Cleary now wrote to Arrupe, once again claiming that Drinan was morally certain he had received permission from the two Massachusetts bishops in l970, and issued a press release repeating the same claim and stating that Drinan had every right to seek office.

Having previously declined public comment, Cardinal Medeiros in early October at last told the press that he did not approve of priests in politics, which was the position of the international Synod of Bishops. He also said that Drinan's having received permission from his provincial was not sufficient to justify his holding office. Around the same time Bishop Flanagan again noted that Drinan had never sought his permission and judged that the Congressman was "technically in violation of Canon Law." Despite these developments, Drinan proceeded with the campaign and was duly returned to Congress by his constituents. On election night he was sent a telegram by Father Joseph Devlin, a New England Province official, exulting that all the Jesuit saints were dancing with joy at the priest's victory. (As late as the Summer of l975, Devlin was writing to Drinan's critics claiming that the priest fully supported the Catholic teaching on abortion and birth control, gratuitously adding that Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was also "firmly" opposed to abortion.)

As the furor over Drinan's abortion stand continued to mount, Cleary for the most part ceased responding to complaints, often referring them to Drinan himself. From time to time Drinan reiterated his moral opposition to abortion, along with his doubts as to the proper way to oppose it. Sometimes he encouraged pro-life groups to work to overturn Roe v Wade, without telling them that he himself was working to support it in every way possible.