Father Drinan, Vietnam War Critic, Dies at 86 The first Catholic priest to be elected to Congress has died. Father Robert Drinan was a Vietnam War critic who served for 10 years in the House, until Pope John Paul II ordered him to chose between Congress and the priesthood. Drinan was 86.
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Father Drinan, Vietnam War Critic, Dies at 86

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Father Drinan, Vietnam War Critic, Dies at 86

Father Drinan, Vietnam War Critic, Dies at 86

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The first Roman Catholic priest to be elected to Congress, Father Robert Drinan, died yesterday. He was 86. Father Drinan was a Jesuit. He served for 10 years in the House of Representatives, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. He was first elected in 1970, riding a wave of opposition to the Vietnam War, and unseating a 14-term incumbent.

Years later, Father Drinan talked about that election on FRESH AIR from WHYY.

Father ROBERT DRINAN (Former Democratic Congressman, Massachusetts): It was an historic moment. Such an accomplishment had never happened in the history of American politics. It was over the war and was because people, especially young people, were aggravated and angry over the war in Vietnam.

BLOCK: Father Robert Drinan in 1988. He was the first to introduce a resolution to impeach President Nixon in July of 1973, not over Watergate, but over the secret bombing of Cambodia. Clark Ziegler worked for Congressman Drinan for six years.

Mr. CLARK ZIEGLER (Former Chief of Staff): I think he felt in principle that the president had not been honest about what was happening in the conduct of the war. And he felt those were impeachable offenses.

BLOCK: And he would be there on the floor of the House or in the committee meetings with his clerical collar, of course.

Mr. ZIEGLER: Yup. That's right. His conic was the only clothing he owned.

BLOCK: Did he have any sort of immunity from his fellow congressmen, people who may have been very much opposed to him politically but held back because he was a priest and he was wearing that collar on the floor of the House?

Mr. ZIEGLER: I think so. You know, I always thought, Tip O'Neal was speaker during his last few years in Congress. And I always thought that a deference to the priesthood gave him a little protection within his own party whenever he would say or do something provocative. I think the speaker had a certain respect for priests that protected Bob from sharp criticisms, sometimes.

BLOCK: There were some of his political views that went against the teachings of the Catholic Church, issues including abortion. Did that anger Catholic voters back home in Massachusetts? Did he hear from them?

Mr. ZIEGLER: It was a real issue in Massachusetts. We had a district that ranged from the liberal enclaves at Newton, Brookline, to old mill cities like Fitchberg and Leominster and Gardner. And I think he basically overcame those issues. I don't think he necessarily changed people's minds. I think he simply convinced folks who had concerns about him as a priest in office that he was a good guy working in their best interest.

BLOCK: His career on Congress came to an end in 1981 after Pope John Paul II ordered him not to seek reelection or to leave the priesthood. Did he talk to you about that decision and the ultimatum that came down from the Vatican?

Mr. ZIEGLER: He was very, very private. There was a period a month or two before announcement where I think he was in communication with the Vatican and kept it very much to himself. And some folks thought that he would just give up the priesthood and continue in politics. But I think those of us who worked for him knew that he would never do that.

BLOCK: How did you know that?

Mr. ZIEGLER: I think it was just such a central part of his being. The Catholic Church had given him an extraordinary education. I think his commitment to the church ran very, very deep. And I just think it just, it defined who he was.

BLOCK: You stayed in touch with Father Drinan over the years, is that right?

Mr. ZIEGLER: Yup. The whole group of us who worked together have stayed in touch with him and with each other, yeah.

BLOCK: And what would you talk about?

Mr. ZIEGLER: You know, we would tease him about what was like to work for him. And we' talk - he was very interested in our families and what we were doing in our careers. And he was really like family to all of us.

BLOCK: Tell me what that teasing was about?

Mr. ZIEGLER: Well, I think - there are number of things, but probably his driving was one of those popular topics. We used to make interns feel honored by getting to ride with the congressman to events. It was really because none of the rest of us felt safe with him. So if there was ever any question about the existence of God, the fact that he drove in that manner for so many years and survived it was proof positive for all of us.

BLOCK: That's Clark Ziegler, former chief of staff for Father Robert Drinan when he served in Congress. Father Drinan died yesterday in Washington D.C. at age 86.

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