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THE STRANGE POLITICAL CAREER OF FATHER DRINAN June 27, 1996

by James Hitchcock

EWTN News

{The following investigative report is excerpted from a much longer article which appears in the July 1996 issue of Catholic World Report.}

When he wrote to applaud President Clinton's veto of a ban on partial-birth abortions, a controversial Jesuit priest was clearly out of step with the thinking of the Catholic Church. But his behavior was perfectly consistent with an ideological pattern that first became obvious when he ran for Congress--in direct defiance of orders from Rome. 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, with a particular focus on Drinan's voting record on 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 the issue. For various reasons Mankowski subsequently decided not to write an article. However, he then sought out the opinion of a professional historian, James Hitchcock, in determining how the various documents could be of use for the historical record. With the re-emergence of Father Drinan as a political player in the abortion debate, the documentation has assumed a new timeliness.

* * * In the United States even many liberal Catholics support Church teaching about abortion. It was therefore shocking that one of the president's strongest defenders was a Jesuit priest, Father Robert Drinan, who published articles in both the National Catholic Reporter and the New York Times attacking the bill and praising the President for having vetoed it. 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." In l970 Drinan was a well-known priest-lawyer and an official of Boston College. In February of that year, 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 warned Guindon that Jesuits could not endorse the actions of any political party. 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. 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. Although the Jesuit order traditionally laid great stress on obedience, an official of the New England province now told Arrupe that he was refusing to act on the latter's orders because such action would violate Drinan's rights. In March, Father Guindon was in Rome and met with Arrupe, who told the provincial that he must develop a plan whereby Drinan would withdraw from the congressional race. Assuring Guindon that he understood the reasons for the candidacy, the General nonetheless ruled that they were not sufficient to outweigh Jesuit policy. 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 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. 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, Drinan 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. Cardinal Medeiros would later reveal that he did not approve of the Jesuit's presence in Congress, while Bishop Flanagan said that the priest's candidacy was a clear violation of Canon Law. Despite these developments, Drinan proceeded with the campaign and was duly returned to Congress by his constituents. He was again re-elected to Congress in November of l976, and again in l978. In February, l980, another election year, Arrupe wrote to Father Edward M. O'Flaherty, now the New England provincial, again urging that Drinan retire from Congress. This time Arrupe expressed the personal opinion that Drinan's position on abortion was indefensible. How far that position actually extended was illustrated in a fundraising letter mailed that year by the National Abortion Rights Action League, which denounced the pro-life movement in the strongest terms and cited Drinan as a friend whose re-election to Congress was essential to the abortion cause. That same year the Holy See issued a general order requiring all priests to withdraw from politics, and in early May Father O'Flaherty announced that indeed Drinan would not be a candidate for re-election. Drinan's departure from Congress hardly marked his departure from politics, as in due course he became president of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). He became increasingly vituperative in his criticisms of the pro-life movement, and as head of the ADA sent out a fundraising letter specifically urging the moral necessity of electing pro-abortion candidates to Congress. It is now clear that, despite what Drinan and his supporters often claimed, he never had authority from Father Arrupe to run for Congress. It is equally obvious that Drinan never had the permission of the Archbishop of Boston or the Bishop of Worcester, despite what he told Arrupe. Drinan himself was sometimes eager to emphasize his clerical identity. But to the degree that there were potential conflicts between a priest's duty to the Church and a politician's duties to the voters, this actually proved definitively why priests should not be in politics--Drinan was bound to the Church and to the Society of Jesus by solemn vows much older and deeper than anything which bound him to the citizens of Massachusetts. Although Drinan's publicly expressed views on abortion seemed more moderate before l970 than they would later turn out to be, it was already evident that he was a priest-lawyer with whom Catholic moral teachings sat uneasily at a number of points. Abortion had not yet become a national issue, but the legalization of abortion was one of a widening circle of radical proposals for the reshaping of society, many of them in direct opposition to Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Church would inevitably be a major obstacle to such changes, and it probably occurred to at least some secular liberals that it would be an inestimable advantange to have in Congress a Jesuit priest willing to support virtually all of those changes enthusiastically. How could any layman--especially one who was not a Catholic--be faulted for supporting abortion if the most prominent Catholic priest in public life did the same? Drinan bears heavy responsibility for making the Democratic Party the party of abortion.