U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“The Greatest Threat to Orderly Thought”: Robert Drinan and Religious Progressives in Politics

Circa 1970s, courtesy Wikipedia

When Robert Drinan, S.J. (a Jesuit), ran as a liberal anti-Vietnam War, anti-Nixon candidate for a U.S House seat (MA’s 3rd District) in 1970, he upset a 14-term incumbent, Philip J. Philbin, in the Democratic Primary. He eventually became the first Catholic priest to hold an elected office after winning a three-way race in the general. He went on to serve five terms as a Representative.[1]

That year Drinan (1920-2007) earned a spot on President Richard Nixon’s famous “enemies list.” Along with his liberal politics, his Catholic background garnered the attention of William F. Buckley, who called Drinan “the greatest threat to orderly thought since Eleanor Roosevelt left this vale of tears.”

A study of Drinan’s political career brings a number of prominent late-twentieth-century politicians and interesting events into the picture. John Kerry served as Drinan’s campaign manager in 1970. Drinan was elected the same year as Bella Abzug (NY) and Ron Dellums (CA). Drinan would first introduce a resolution to impeach Nixon in July 1973 over the administration’s secret Cambodian bombing campaign. This occurred one year before the 1974 Watergate hearings, in which Drinan was televised as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. The 1973 resolution never came to vote, but his work in 1974 was, of course, more successful. In that same year future president George Herbert Walker Bush, as a Republican Party chairman, indicated that there was no one he wanted defeated in Congress more than Drinan. Senator Edward Kennedy would later cite Drinan as an inspirational figure–a courageous person of character.

Pope John Paul II shortened Drinan’s career, in 1980, by forcing Drinan to choose his elected office an the priesthood. Drinan chose his religious vocation. Barney Frank then won Drinan’s seat.

What made Drinan, Buckley’s words, “the greatest threat to orderly thought”? (Buckley also described Drinan as “addled by idealism,” reports Schroth, pp. 146-147.) It seems it was Drinan’s progressivism, not his liberalism. If Drinan had been a garden variety mid-century liberal, practically speaking, he would’ve never introduced the 1973 impeachment resolution.

Drinan’s progressivism came from his Catholicism. He described himself as a “moral architect.”[2] And his inspiration came from Catholic doctrine and Jesuit teachings. Drinan was educated at Boston College (a Catholic Jesuit institution), and entered the Jesuits after earned his bachelor’s degree. He attended Weston Seminary (in Cambridge), where Daniel Berrigan was a classmate for a period (apparently is a rather conservative seminary). Drinan felt that Jesuit priests had “always been avant-garde.”

Drinan’s assertion about Jesuits is, of course, historically untrue. There’s a difference between being cutting edge and avant-garde. Jesuit “liberality” is a historically contingent phenomenon. But it is true, in the context of the late twentieth century, that American Jesuits could produce a Drinan.

Could a progressive priest be elected to Congress today? Would Pope Francis prevent a Jesuit from running for office? What intellectual leaps are necessary for a priest to run for office today?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. However, I do read widely on both politics and Catholicism, and my sense is that there are no Drinans on the horizon. But perhaps change is in the air, and we’ll see a return of politically active progressive priests in the next 4-8 years? If that happens, I feel sure that a future Catholic conservative will, yet again, characterize the candidate as new threat to the established intellectual order of things. – TL


[1] All of the basic historical facts cited in this post come from these two sources: Mark Feeney, “Congressman-priest Drinan dies: Mass. Jesuit, 86, served five terms in House,” Boston Globe, January 29, 2007; Raymond Schroth, Bob Drinan: The Controversial Life of the First Catholic Priest Elected to Congress (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). The Boston Globe article was also entered into the Congressional Record–House, Vol. 153, Part 2 (1/29/2007): 2516-2517.

[2] While an admirable character, Drinan’s behavior was later called into question by Emily Yoffe. In 2012, Yoffe reported that Drinan attempted to sexually assault her during a reelection campaign in the 1970s. Her family supported Drinan at the time. It is unclear whether this was a singular incident or a pattern of larger behavior problems. Schroth’s book doesn’t cover this, as it was published prior to Yoffe’s accusation.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Although you would never guess it from reading my historical work, I was raised in a very devoutly Roman Catholic family (one of my uncles was a priest and my childhood was fairly church-entered). I attended public schools but went to a Catholic college (Providence, run by the Dominicans [at which I attended a visiting lecture by Daniel Berrigan!]). So I’ve given a lot of thought to Catholicism’s political influence. Here’s my non-academic take on the issues you raise.

    Catholicism in America seems to parallel the larger social-political culture. During the 1960s and 1970s there was a surge in progressive sentiment and behavior regarding civil rights, anti-poverty, sympathy for liberation theology, antiwar, etc.; for instance, a Catholic charities TV spot used the slogan “IF YOU WANT PEACE, WORK FOR JUSTICE.” In part this was an optimistic overreaction to the reforms of Vatican II—many Catholics expected women priests, married priests, acceptance of contraception, etc., but it was also a reflection of the times. After about 1980 the conservative/traditionalist reaction ascended. While the internal mechanics of this can justly be ascribed to Pope John-Paul II, the external environment also became conducive to it. Many on the left simply left the church or diminished their participation or separated their religion from their secular lives. Based on this pattern, possibly the Catholic Church—including political priests and nuns—will reengage in liberal/progressive/leftist/social-gospel activity when the larger environment swings in that direction and the Pope blesses or encourages or accommodates himself to it, or at the very least does not interfere with it.

    • Your narrative fits my sense of things, Drew. I’ve been waiting to see what larger effects 2008 will have on the Church—young, older, white, black, Latinx, etc. In sum, will the rise of the One Percent overshadow or overturn the JPII reaction to VCII? In other words, how powerful are the “Occupy Catholics”? – TL

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