“God’s Human Rights Lawyer – Father Robert Drinan”
We shall not again see the likes of Father Robert Drinan, who died this week at age 86.
Professionally he was one of a kind. Bob – or Bawb, as the former Massachusetts Congressman
would introduce himself – was both priest and politician, a combination later banned by the
Vatican, which forced the feisty champion of human rights to choose between callings in 1980.
He chose the priesthood. But just as he was no ordinary politician — he had run for Congress to
oppose the Vietnam War — he was also no ordinary priest. A lawyer as well, he crammed his
remaining decades with teaching at Georgetown law school, writing books and articles on human
rights, and testifying before Congress on human rights matters for the American Bar Association.
I had the privilege of coming to know him during what seemed to me his most energetic years –
his 70’s and 80’s. We both served on human rights committees within the ABA. On issue after
issue, there was Father Drinan, demanding that we do something about it, and now!
Bob was not always precise on technical points. But what he lacked on details he more than
made up for in passion and vision. Someone else might be more punctilious in delineating the
jurisdiction of an international human rights court. Bob would tell you why the court was vital
for victims of massacres and deserved American support.
Bob’s enthusiasm was evident even in the title of one of his books: Cry of the Oppressed: The
History and Hope of the Human Rights Revolution.
In personal relationships Bob was attentive and unrelenting. A couple of years ago he learned of
my move from Northwestern to Notre Dame Law School. He was alarmed: how would I survive
among the unrepentant conservatives on our faculty? It was practically as if I would be in
Even after I assured him that we liberals, too, have a place in South Bend, whenever I saw him
thereafter, his first question was always the same: How are they treating you at the law school?
And his gaze would not relax until I assured him that I had not been sacked or excommunicated.
One of my Notre Dame colleagues met Bob more than forty years ago. At the time my colleague
aspired to be a Jesuit. Entering the dining room at a retreat center, he noticed a priest whom he
did not know seated at a table by himself. Lest the poor fellow be left alone, my compassionate
colleague cheerily introduced himself, sat down and engaged Bob Drinan in conversation.
Only later did my colleague learn that Bob was alone, not for lack of friends, but because he was
on silent retreat. Perhaps Bob did not wish to embarrass the young novice by waving him away.
Or it may be – and this would be my bet – that the voluble Bob saw a good Christian excuse to
break his silence, and grabbed it.
Being a priest gave Bob a longer term view than most of us enjoy. Many Americans may recall
the public drama of his having to choose between Congress and the Vatican in 1980. One of
Bob’s research assistants at Georgetown later asked him about his decision not to run for
reelection. Expecting an answer that would reflect regret over opportunities missed, she was
surprised by his response: “Look, soon the Pope will be gone, and then I will be gone, and it
really will not matter at all. Life presents dilemmas and one has to make the best choice possible
at that time and then live with it.”
He answered with no apparent bitterness or anger, she recalls, just as a matter of fact.
Bob knew better than most of us that there are larger issues than his own life. On a beautiful
sunny day in Washington last weekend, as Bob lay dying a few blocks away, I had the pleasure of
joining perhaps 150,000 other Americans in what may have been the largest antiwar
demonstration since the Vietnam War. Other figures from the Vietnam era – Jesse Jackson and
Jane Fonda – were there to speak out against the war in Iraq.
Bob, of course, could not be with us. If he had, he might have reminded us of what he wrote in
one of his most recent articles, for the ABA publication Human Rights in 2003:
“Every war prompts Americans to go against the very essence of the Constitution for whose
truths they are waging that war: … The United States should adopt a policy of being a friend who
shares its legendary resources and wealth with the 800 million persons in the global village who
are chronically malnourished. … This cannot be done so long as the United States relies almost
exclusively on its military prowess for its foreign policy. Lawyers of America have to act as
moral architects who will restrain the impetuous policies of the government that teach that
violence, armed conflict, and military might can solve the moral, spiritual, and human problems
that overwhelm much of humanity.”
I missed Bob’s presence last Saturday. But in a larger sense his momentary absence did not
matter. Father Robert Drinan had already made his point, giving a lifetime so that other children
of God might have a better chance to live in peace and dignity.
Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the
Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening.
Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law
School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio