Tuesday, January 30, 2007

To the memory of Professor Robert Drinan, S.J.

This column first appeared in the Georgetown Law Weekly on January 30, 2007.

Normally, this column is dedicated to complaints or bragadoccio about my lack of work ethic, the proper way to trick a GULC pop machine into accepting money from a MetroCard, cheese, etc., etc. Right now, I'd like to depart from the low-brow gallows humor to write a few words about Robert Drinan.

I first met Professor Drinan my 1L year, at a reception for the Jesuits from main campus hosted by the law center faculty. Someone foolishly informed me that there would be free food (thanks for the heads-up, Sister!), so I signed up to attend as a student representative. I was seated at a table with Professor Schrag, Professor Drinan, and several visiting scholars and priests whose names have permenantly escaped me. Fr. Drinan had the unpleasant task of being seated next to me, and had the unfortunate luck to do so on a night where the wait staff was especially diligent in refilling my glass of Jamesons-on-the-rocks. We spoke at length throughout the evening, about my time in law school, my background, my career goals, etc. We also spoke about what he was planning to do in the future, and that is what stuck me the most. Every obituary about him that you've read or will read will emphasize his time on Capitol Hill as a congressman, every blurb will mention his dual role as priest and legislator in the 1970's. To hell with those obits. Fr. Drinan was passionate about the state of the world, today. At an age and time of his life where most of us with as many accomplishments as him would have been content to relax, Fr. Drinan continued to put himself out, politically and morally. The attempt by Congressional Republicans to remove the filibuster last year was met with angry scorn by Fr. Drinan, and he opened the Georgetown rally against it with speech that was less polished and yet more honest than most of the speeches of the day, heavy and wet with rhetoric.

He spoke out, repeatedly in print and in person, against human rights abuses and what he felt was the willingness by many, Democrat and Republican alike, to sanction torture, the suspension of habeus corpus, and other abuses for political expediency. I should add a caveat here: I took his human rights class primarily because I heard there was a lenient grade curve. That idea failed, as I managed to pull a B- in a class where the questions on the final were distributed ahead of time. Unlike the other classes I've taken where my incompetance has shone through, his actually taught me a few things. First, violating a person's physical sanctity is demeaning to those who do it, individual and government alike. Second, good and evil are real concepts, but the world does not paint them for us in black in and white; even priests see grey, and the greatest see the most grey.

There are those who would demean his intellectual stature by pointing out that his classes have not been the most... linear in their progression. This is not a fluff piece; I will not disagree with the criticism that his lectures were not terribly organized. To those who had him for professional responsibility or human rights who felt that (actual quote) "his classes were a waste of time," I wish you could have had a chance to speak to him in person. He was as observant as ever, and still able to be riled. I did not take professional responsibility with him, but I learned about ethics from him, informally yet concretely. One of the questions I've often asked myself is in the form of a thought experiment: "What side would I have taken in the Spanish Civil War?" As a Catholic (if an especially faulty one), I sometimes fear that I would have sided with the Fascists, due to Franco's professed piety and defense of the Church. After speaking from Robert Drinan, S.J., I have no doubt in my mind that he would have opposed them.

His two recent books, Can God & Ceasar coexist? and The Mobilization of Shame were about the state of the world, today. The former (and more recent) book was about the interaction between religion and government, a subject of which his viewpoint will be simplified or assumed ad nauseum, but was very nuanced and complex. The latter book was about the international human rights movement, his most passionate cause. To all the ink spilled on the Catholic viewpoint regarding the headline-grabbing topics of birth control, abortion, sex, and homosexuality, Fr. Drinan reminded us that being a Catholic means caring about human dignity in general, opposing even politically-expedient torure, fighting for the freedom of conscience for people of ALL religions, and the importance of dialogue.

Fr. Drinan, it must be said, was persona non grata to many conservative Catholics. He was an unabashed liberal, was against the Vietnam War, was the first congressman to call for Nixon's resignation, and opposed governmental bans on abortion. The website of the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization, linked to a story that mentioned none of his human rights work, and none of his international accolades; to them, he was merely the "partisan" Jesuit who "defied Rome." Thank God that sometimes defiance is obedience.

I was privileged to be present at Fr. Drinan's last mass as celebrant here at the Law Center. I was privileged to be a student of his. I am privileged to have him as an example to follow. I hope I have the courage to be defiant.

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Blogger Lyco said...

This was a lovely post P. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it. Touching.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

My favorite memory of him was when we were at the health fair downstairs shooting the breeze about refugees while waiting in line for the free osteoporosis test, and his bone density was better than mine, and he totally gloated about it. Also, I used to go to this dissident little "eucharistic community" church which he was a part of and he always wanted to preside, but they wouldn't let him because he went too fast!!! i thought that was so funny. he was always on his way somewhere, never stopping even in age and infirmity, had way more energy and vitality than my sorry ass. i just pray another soul like his is being born into the church as we speak.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Paleobiology said...

Thanks for your comments, guys. I'm really happy I got to have him as a professor.

9:33 PM  

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