The Sad Story of Robert Drinan


I would guess that many, if not most, readers of NRO are not old enough to remember the Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest who served as a U.S. congressman from Massachusetts (1971-81), and was an extremely well-known figure back in the 1970s. His chief issue was opposition to the Vietnam War, but he also became a fervent advocate of legal abortion. A new biography by Rev. Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., puts Drinan’s form of moral reasoning on display, in a way which is intended to be sympathetic but conveys a deep failure of moral intuition on Drinan’s part. Here’s one quote, from a 1967 article by Drinan: “The law’s concern for the solidarity and the stability of the family as an institution suggests that the law should not forbid parents to terminate an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy.” This is quite an interesting and novel understanding of the concept of family solidarity: It peremptorily defines the unborn child as outside the circle of family solidarity, when in fact this is the precise point that would need to be proven.

Another remarkable passage in the book is not a direct quote from Drinan, but rather a paraphrase by his biographer: “If Catholics were to be engaged in this argument, Drinan said, they must be well informed. But we do not know whether there are 200,000 or 1,200,000 illegal abortions a year.” I wonder how Drinan would have reacted back in the 1970s if he had been told, “If you want to engage in this argument you must be well informed . . . but you do not know whether the U.S. has 200,000 troops illegally in Cambodia, or 1,200,000.” Or: “To engage in this argument, you must be well-informed . . . but you do not know whether 200,000 black applicants are kept out of college because of white racism, or 1,200,000.” I strongly suspect that, in both cases, Drinan’s passion for statistical accuracy (a passion whose sincerity I would not dream of questioning) would have given way quickly to an assertion of the moral principles that were in his view being violated. It’s amazing how quickly you can cut through a fog of detail when you actually give a damn about the underlying issue.

Drinan’s views on abortion are well known, at least among political observers of a certain age. But I didn’t remember, if I ever knew, that Drinan was also a strong supporter of the State of Israel. Schroth quotes from a 1977 book by Drinan: “America’s commitment to Israel cannot and will not be kept unless Christians, contrite over the unbelievable sins of Christians through the centuries against Jews, recognize that the Christians of this generation — especially in America — are called upon by their religion and by their government to undertake whatever extraordinary remedies might be necessary to protect Israel.” (The biographer quotes from a review by Michael Ledeen, in Commentary: “There are moments when one has the sensation of reading a latter-day Theodor Herzl.”)

Sadly, Drinan’s views on Israel have not had a great deal of staying power among his left-wing successors; just as sadly, his position on abortion has calcified into Left orthodoxy. The jacket copy of this biography says, “Drinan defined himself as a ‘moral architect,’” and adds, “He didn’t think of his mission in terms of left and right; as moral architect, he saw it in terms of right and wrong.” So, indeed, must we all; let Drinan’s failures serve us as a cautionary tale, and may he himself rest in peace. 

Michael Potemra — Michael Potemra was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1964, and spent his childhood years in Montreal, Canada. He received a B.A. in philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He ...