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A look back at the activist priest who served church and country

Father Robert Drinan, the controversial antiwar Catholic priest who was elected to Congress. Father Robert Drinan, the controversial antiwar Catholic priest who was elected to Congress. (Jack O’Connell/Globe Staff/File 1970)
By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / December 24, 2010

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At a community supper in Newton following the Oct. 15, 1969 antiwar rally on Boston Common, Jerome Grossman, one of the rally’s organizers, noticed a priest talking with a young Vietnamese man whose father was in jail in Vietnam.

“He seemed unusually kind and considerate to the young man,’’ Grossman recalled. “There was no question as to where his sympathies lay on the war.’’

Grossman, a businessman-turned-antiwar activist, was looking for a credible candidate to run for Congress against the hawkish incumbent. The priest, Father Robert F. Drinan, the Jesuit dean of Boston College’s law school, would become his candidate.

Eleven years later, in May 1980, Grossman had dinner in Washington with Drinan, who was expected to run for a sixth term in Congress.

Grossman recalled that something seemed to be bothering Drinan, but he did not let on what it was. But Drinan had learned that after years of receiving passive approval from his Jesuit superiors to serve in Congress, Pope John Paul II was preparing to order him not to run for reelection.

Those two events serve as bookends for a searching biography by Raymond A. Schroth, whose title, “Bob Drinan,’’ seems jarring to those, especially in the Massachusetts press corps, who invariably addressed him as “Father Drinan.’’

Schroth, a humanities professor at St. Peter’s College, captures the lively politics surrounding Drinan’s 1970 campaign. He won the Democratic nomination over, among others, the antiwar veteran John Kerry; then defeated the incumbent Philip J. Philbin in the primary, only to face him again running as an Independent in the November election — and probably drawing enough votes from the Republican John A.S. McGlennon to give Drinan the victory.

What Schroth overlooks is the sweeping change that was occurring on the Massachusetts political scene. In four successive elections from 1969 to 1972, antiwar Democrats — Michael Harrington, Drinan, Gerry Studds, and J. Joseph Moakley — won four congressional seats that had been held by Republicans or prowar Democrats.

Drinan’s controversial stance on abortion followed him into Congress. From a 1967 paper on “The Inviolability of the Right to Be Born,’’ he moved to seeking legislative compromise. His final stance, as Schroth puts it, was that “the law should say nothing about abortion,’’ because to legislate conditions for termination “would be to sanction the termination itself.’’

Among issues on which he took a special interest as a congressman were the right of Soviet Jewry to emigrate to Israel and later, the civil war in El Salvador, where fellow Jesuits had been targeted along with their parishioners.

Drinan’s forum was the House Judiciary Committee, where he called for President Nixon’s impeachment in 1973 over the secret bombing of Cambodia, and later during the 1974 Watergate impeachment hearings.

Drinan several times used the phrase “moral anchor’’ to describe his role in Congress. In a 1976 collection of essays on the 1974 congressional campaigns that Schroth cites, its authors wrote that Drinan “looks the part of the priestly zealot to perfection . . . [scolding] his opponents [and] proclaiming the undeniable fact that he is holier than almost anyone else in politics.’’ But he could get away with that role in Massachusetts, where “a Jesuit priest could play the Puritan moral crusader.’’

After Congress, Drinan taught at Georgetown Law School. He died Jan. 28, 2007. Schroth gives a final word to Grossman, who had been there at the beginning.

To the question of whether a priest could be an elected politician, Schroth writes, the pope had said no, and Drinan would say yes. But Grossman would also say no — except for Drinan, arguing that Drinan had a special mission, to stop the Vietnam War, and in that had done a great job.

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer who can be reached at mkenney777@gmail.com.

BOB DRINAN: The Controversial Life of the First Catholic Priest Elected to Congress

By Raymond A. Schroth

Fordham University, 393 pp., illustrated, $32.95