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Father Robert Drinan, a fixture at Georgetown University Law Center, passed away at 86 of congestive heart failure. Drinan served in the U.S. Congress from 1971 to 1981. He left Congress after Pope John Paul II barred priests from holding public office and moved on to Georgetown, his alma mater. Legal Times Supreme Court correspondent Tony Mauro interviewed Drinan extensively in November. That story follows…
It’s a sunny post-election day, and Father Robert Drinan is greeting fellow priests as he strolls through Georgetown University’s Jesuit residence. He’s behaving like the Democratic politician he once was. Drinan waves hello, then raises his hands and exults, “God heard our prayers!” All who hear him know he’s talking about the results of the midterm election. With Democrats about to resume control of Congress, Drinan is a happy man. But then Drinan, who turned 86 on Nov. 15, is perpetually happy, with a restless enthusiasm for life’s next challenge. The former Massachusetts congressman (1971 to 1981) still teaches classes on legal ethics and human rights at Georgetown University Law Center, writes books — 12 in all have been published — and travels often. In October, Georgetown established an endowed chair in human rights in his name. At the ceremony, Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh called Drinan “a father in more senses than one. He is the father of a remarkable revolution — a human rights revolution — and a person of simple, radical faith.” It’s more than enough to rest his laurels on, but Drinan will have none of it. Even at 86, he has given no thought to retirement. There’s too much left to do. “Jesuits don’t ordinarily retire,” he says with a shrug. “You just do what you do.” As busy as he is, he always circles back to Wolfington Hall, the newly built residence for the 56 Jesuit priests who teach and live at Georgetown. Rarely seen on the inside by the public, it is an airy, modern brick building with large windows but few adornments. It’s also a calming anchor for Drinan’s purposeful life. The priests celebrate mass jointly every evening before dinner, a daily reminder of his contemplative calling. This day, Drinan is contemplating the changes the elections will bring. For one thing, he is glad to see that his New England Democratic friends will be running things again. Rep. Barney Frank, who succeeded Drinan in Congress in 1981, will chair the House Financial Services Committee. “I’m sure the bankers are trembling today,” Drinan says with glee. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy will head the Senate Judiciary Committee. “A very nice man. He’s not going to confirm some of these judges. That’s a radical change.” And Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who helped Drinan get elected in 1970, will head the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. “He wears well. He’s right on the issues.” One change Drinan does not see coming in the next two years is the impeachment of President George W. Bush. Drinan was on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 when it served up articles of impeachment on Richard Nixon. But, just as he argued against impeaching Bill Clinton, Drinan doesn’t think George W. Bush is guilty of impeachable offenses, unless, he adds, “there is something we don’t know about.” He explains, “The standard is pretty high for impeachment — high crimes and misdemeanors. Every president makes a lot of mistakes and false policies.” That doesn’t mean, however, that Drinan approves of Bush’s policies. “I have so many grievances against President Bush,” Drinan says, with the war in Iraq at the top of the list. Before the war began, Drinan recalls, “The Polish pope [Pope John Paul II] felt so strongly about the war” that he sent an emissary to urge Bush not to start it. “He was brushed off.” Drinan shakes his head in disapproval. But overall, Drinan is unsure if the Nov. 7 election represents a “big swing. I don’t think it’s as important as 1980.” That’s the year that the Reagan Revolution began and also when, under orders from the Pope, Drinan didn’t run for re-election. Pope John Paul II decided he did not want any priest in elective office, but at the time many felt his edict was aimed at Drinan alone, in part because of his support for federal funding for abortions for the poor. Drinan obeyed the order without hesitation, and he has never looked back. “It was a good 10 years,” he adds. “We got rid of a president and ended a war, little things like that.” Republicans could return to power in two years, Drinan suggests, by riding Sen. John McCain’s presidential coattails. “Who could beat John McCain?” he asks, and it’s clear why he has a soft spot for McCain. “I hear his second wife is Catholic, and they sent their kid to the Jesuit high school in Arizona. That’s a plus.” What about Democratic presidential prospects? “It’s too early. Obama hits me as premature. He hasn’t done anything. I mean, who is he?” THE MORTAL MAN Drinan’s eyes are red-rimmed and sunken with age, but they burn brightly nonetheless, and his mind and memory are sharp. He eats in fits and starts, alternately leaning forward and slumping back in his chair, then coming to life again as if resting for too long could be fatal. Despite outward appearances, Drinan says over lunch at the residence, “I’m always relaxed, really. I have a very good life. I read a lot, pray a lot, talk a lot.” Food is of little importance to him, and he only eats at good restaurants “if someone else pays. I’ve never been into it that much,” he says, adding without regret that “Jesuits take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience.” But he does not pass judgment on lawyers, for example, who live the good life in the secular world. “Are they too affluent? Are they carried away by riches?” He shrugs. “You’ve got to work with these people.” It’s clear that he thinks the affluent — especially the Catholic affluent — have a duty to help the poor. “This country has 65 million Catholics, and 1.5 million went to Jesuit schools,” he says. “And 31,000 kids die of starvation every day” worldwide, he adds. Another recent milestone for Drinan is the 20th anniversary of a publication he launched: the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics. He’d seen a void that the journal has filled by exploring the myriad ethical dilemmas lawyers face. “There are new topics all the time,” he says. But perhaps surprisingly, Drinan thinks “the level of morality in the profession is higher than at any other time.” He is referring to improvements in the lawyer discipline system, not to any sudden bout of conscience by fellow lawyers. “Discipline is tight, and if anybody loses money, there’s indemnification of some kind for the widow or the orphan.” Drinan also resists drawing an easy connection between legal ethics and his other passion, human rights. Is it ethical for Bush administration lawyers and others to find legal justification for interrogation methods that could be labeled torture? “It’s a muddled mess,” he answers. The Bill of Rights bars cruel and unusual punishment, he notes, and international human rights law and conventions bar torture outright. But some of the classroom hypotheticals he uses make it hard to draw a bright line. “What if your child is kidnapped and the guy knows where he is or the guy knows where the nuclear weapon is and when it’s going to go off? What do you do?” Drinan asks. “It’s the hardest question.” Luckily, he says, the hypotheticals rarely occur in real life. HIGHER CONSCIOUSNESS What Drinan describes as the “explosion” in human rights consciousness is the greatest development Drinan has seen in recent years. “It’s the new glue, the moral consensus.” Once viewed as a function of natural law, with religious connotations, Drinan says it has blossomed as a more universal concept of international human rights. But human rights still has religious roots, Drinan says. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not mention God per se, Drinan notes, but “they had Catholics drafting it.” Catholics, Drinan clearly believes, have a duty to be a force for good. He is disdainful of defeated Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) describing him as “this super-Catholic who supported the war and went specifically against what the pope said.” Drinan is proud that 22 graduates of Georgetown, a Jesuit school, serve in Congress, “though not all of them think straight,” he adds with a mischievous smile. Drinan’s ingrained Jesuit modesty keeps him from responding to the inevitable legacy question: How will he be remembered? Mindful of the scandals that have beset the priesthood in recent years, Drinan allows himself one self-referential moment. “Maybe it’s been good for the church to have a priest who has brought some glory to the church.” But beyond that, he won’t venture a guess. “No one,” he says, “can be a judge in his own case.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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