With great sadness, I report the passing of Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J. on January 28th, at the age of 86. Advocates of peace, justice and human rights throughout the world mourn the loss of this great leader. Father Drinan was the Chairman of PeacePAC since its inception in 1981.
The first time I met Father Drinan was on October 15, 1969, the day of the Vietnam Moratorium. He and I addressed a rally against the Vietnam War at Boston College attended by thousands of students and parents.
I knew Drinan as the Dean of Boston College Law School, a scholar and an excellent speaker. He was a one-man ecumenical movement in troubled Boston – a city with enormous problems in education and segregation where ecumenism was then rare. What I was not prepared for was Drinan’s passionate opposition to the Vietnam War.
Father Drinan had no political ambitions. Election to public office was unthinkable for a priest. But he did want a platform from which to preach against the death and destruction of the Vietnam War. Unpredictable events would give him that platform.
Following the massive turnout on Moratorium Day, peace activists in Massachusetts’ third Congressional District were determined to oust our hawkish incumbent Representative and win a congressional seat for an anti-war candidate. Our strategy was to unite behind one candidate chosen in an open caucus, so that the candidate would truly be selected by the anti-war grassroots. Drinan was one of six candidates. I was his floor manager at the caucus.
On the day of the caucus, 2,000 people arrived early and stayed late. After four ballots, Drinan achieved the two-thirds majority necessary for the nomination. This complicated process, organized by the grassroots, is probably the only authentic political draft in history. Among the other candidates not chosen, but who vowed to support Father Drinan, was an obscure young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry.
The caucus process was the key to Drinan’s victory in the September Democratic primary and the November election. Drinan immediately had 2,000 campaign workers and 2,000 financial backers. They were the people who won the election for him. They had a say in choosing their candidate, and they knocked themselves out for him. Some gave money over and over, worked week after week. Drinan did not have to raise the campaign money – we did. Drinan did not have to hire the campaign staff – we did. Drinan did not have to organize the unpaid campaign workers – they were already there. Drinan had only to preach the anti-war message – and he was inspiring.
Drinan’s victory was a watershed in Massachusetts politics, and had an effect in other states as well. The political establishment was dumbfounded that the liberals could pull themselves together and gather so many people and so many dollars to elect a frenetic guy in a Roman collar. In 1970, the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation was quite conservative. By 1980, it was the most liberal in the nation.
In his ten years in Congress, Drinan was an indefatigable crusader for peace, social justice and human rights everywhere. He helped end the Vietnam War. He filed the first impeachment resolution against President Nixon, fought U.S. funding for the death squads in El Salvador, ended the House Un-American Activities Committee, advocated for human rights all over the globe, and worked for the poor and friendless. He liked to think of himself as a politician, but, in fact, he was a moralist posing as a politician.
Drinan’s political career ended abruptly. In May 1980, the pope decided that Roman Catholic priests could no longer hold elective office. Father Drinan was clearly upset by the decision, but there was never any question that he would comply.
Father Drinan stayed active in politics by helping to establish PeacePAC, a division of Council for a Livable World – the electoral arm of the peace movement. PeacePAC helps to elect passionate advocates of peace and justice to the House of Representatives, as well as incumbent Representatives who have proven through their actions that they are dedicated to progressive causes. Since its founding in 1980, PeacePAC has helped elect 150 members of the House of Representatives, including 44 current Representatives.
Drinan also resumed his academic career, teaching law and ethics at Georgetown University Law School and lecturing and writing on human rights. He opposed the current Iraq war from inception with all his strength until his death a few weeks ago.
Father Drinan was a model of integrity, a brilliant speaker, and a person of conscience. He was my friend and co-worker. I was Chairman of the Drinan for Congress Committee for all five of his elections. To honor his life and work, PeacePAC has established a Robert F. Drinan Memorial Fund at Council for a Livable World. Contributions may be sent in the enclosed envelope.
Council for a Livable World
PS – While we mourn Father Drinan’s passing, our work in Washington, DC continues, as he would have wished.