In all of his life's endeavors, from the church pulpit to the halls of Congress to the classroom, Father Robert Drinan was guided by a firm and unwavering moral compass. He lived out in public life the whole cloth of Catholic teachings.
In religion and politics alike, he followed his sense that we’re all put on this earth for something greater than ourselves. Wherever he went, he was led there by a concern for the weak, the helpless, the downtrodden. In religion and politics alike, that was his calling.
And as he walked between these worlds, on a path unique in our nation’s history, he was always true to himself.
Father Drinan was a gentle, resilient, and tenacious advocate for social justice and fundamental decency. In the most divisive days of Vietnam, when things were coming apart, this incredible man, this most unlikely of candidates, wasn’t afraid to take a stand for what was right.
As a politician, Father Drinan is best remembered for his spirited opposition to the Vietnam War. That’s what brought him to Congress in the first place and it’s how our paths first crossed. We met in the 1970 Peoples’ Caucus. Later, I was honored to be a part of his campaign. His slogan was “Father Knows Best.” I began studying law at Boston College—where Father Drinan had once been the youngest law school dean in the country—while he was in Congress, making law and making history.
Father Drinan’s testimony against the war was remarkably powerful. He saw, early on, the corruption that corroded the sustainability of our allies in the South Vietnamese government. He toured jails in Saigon and met a South Vietnamese politician there who had been jailed for the offense of placing second in an election. In the religious language of just war doctrine and the plain language of common decency, he urged the Church to condemn the war as immoral. Father Drinan saw the government of South Vietnam as an artificial and corrupt entity unwilling and unable to become self-sufficient as long as it could rely on an American security blanket instead. He saw the war in Vietnam as an American war in a land of poor people largely indifferent to ideology and longing for normalcy.
Father Drinan was horrified to see history repeat itself in Iraq, and he spoke out forcefully against a war he believed to be not only ill-conceived but completely immoral. In the best tradition of Saint Augustine, the father of just war theory, he felt that wars of choice are generally unjust wars, that war should always be a last resort. He believed that war must always have a just cause, that those waging war need the right authority to do so, that a military response must be proportionate to the provocation and have a reasonable chance of achieving its goal, and that war must discriminate between civilians and combatants.
For me, the just war criteria with respect to Iraq are very clear: sometimes a president has to use force to fight an enemy bent on using weapons of mass destruction to slaughter innocents. But no president should ever go to war because he or she wants to—you go to war only because you have to. The words “last resort” have to mean something. In Iraq, Father Drinan was right: those words were rendered hollow. It was wrong to prosecute the war without careful diplomacy that assembled a real coalition. Wrong to prosecute a war without a plan to win the peace and avoid the chaos of looting in Baghdad and streets full of raw sewage. Wrong to prosecute a war without considering the violence it would unleash and what it would do to the lives of innocent people who would be in danger.
People of faith obviously don’t have to agree with how we keep America safe, how we prevail over terrorists, or how we end our disastrous adventure in Iraq. But for Father Drinan, his faith and his politics pointed in the same direction: first against an unjust war in Vietnam, and then against the current tragedy in Iraq.