WASHINGTON — The Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit who — over the objections of his superiors — was the first Roman Catholic priest elected as a voting member of Congress, died Sunday.
Drinan, 86, had suffered from pneumonia and congestive heart failure during the previous 10 days, according to a statement by Georgetown University which said he died at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington.
“His death was peaceful, and he was surrounded by his family,” said the Rev. John Langan, rector of the Georgetown University Jesuit Community where Drinan lived.
An internationally known human-rights advocate, Drinan was elected on an anti-war platform and represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House for 10 years during the turbulent 1970s.
He stepped down only after a worldwide directive from Pope John Paul II barring priests from holding public office.
During his Congressional tenure, Drinan continued to dress in the robes of his clerical order and lived in a simple room in the Jesuit community at Georgetown.
But he wore his liberal views more prominently. He opposed the draft, worked to abolish mandatory retirement and raised eyebrows with his more moderate views on abortion and birth control.
“Father Drinan’s commitment to human rights and justice will have a lasting legacy here at Georgetown University and across the globe,” said Georgetown President John J. Degioia.
“Few have accomplished as much as Father Drinan and fewer still have done so much to make the world a better place,” said Alex Aleinikoff, dean of the George University Law Center.
Drinan, dean of the Boston College Law School from 1956 to 1970, called for the desegregation of Boston public schools during the 1960s and challenged Boston College students to become involved in civil rights issues.
“He’ll be remembered in the country for his advocacy for the poor and underprivileged,” said John Garvey, the Boston law school’s current dean.
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Drinan was elected in 1970, after he beat longtime Democratic Rep. Philip J. Philbin in a primary — and again in the November election, when Philbin was a write-in candidate.
According to a congressional Internet site, Robert J. Cornell, an ordained Roman Catholic priest in the Norbertine Order, was elected to two terms in the House from Wisconsin, serving from January 1975 to January 1979, but was defeated in the 1978 election.
Although a poll at the time showed that 30 percent of the voters in his district thought it was improper for a priest to run for office, Drinan considered politics a natural extension of his work in public affairs and human rights.
His run for office came a year after he returned from a trip to Vietnam, where he said he discovered that the number of political prisoners being held in South Vietnam was rapidly increasing, contrary to State Department reports. In a book the next year, he urged the Catholic Church to condemn the war as “morally objectionable.”
First to call for Nixon’s impeachment
He became the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon — although the call wasn’t related to the Watergate scandal, but rather what Drinan viewed as the administration’s undeclared war against Cambodia.
“Can we be silent about this flagrant violation of the Constitution?” Drinan demanded angrily back then. “Can we impeach a president for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?”
Decades later, at the invitation of Congress, he testified against the impeachment of another president: Bill Clinton. Drinan said Clinton’s misdeeds were not in the same league as Nixon’s, and that impeachment should be for an official act, not a private one.
After leaving office in 1980 — “with regret and pain” — Drinan continued to be active in political causes. He served as president of the Americans for Democratic Action, crisscrossing the country giving speeches on hunger, civil liberties, and the perils of the arms race.
Drinan received more than 20 honorary degrees, and traveled extensively throughout the world in both official congressional delegations and privately funded trips. He wrote a number of books.
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