Historical Highlights

Father Robert Frederick Drinan of Massachusetts, the First Catholic Priest to Serve as a Voting Member

January 28, 2007
Father Robert Frederick Drinan of Massachusetts, the First Catholic Priest to Serve as a Voting Member Image courtesy of U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office A Jesuit priest, Father Robert Drinan of Massachusetts was the first Catholic priest elected as a voting Member in the House of Representatives. In the 1800s, two Catholic priests served as non-voting Delegates, Gabriel Richards of the Michigan Territory and José Manuel Gallegos of New Mexico Territory.
On this date, Father Robert Frederick Drinan, the first Catholic priest to serve as a voting Member in Congress, died. Despite his limited political experience, Drinan entered the 1970 Democratic primary for the Third Congressional District of Massachusetts. When asked to expound on his reasons for jumping into the political fray, Drinan responded, “Why not? Jesuit priests always have been avant-garde. Right?” Drinan’s entry into the race against the 14-term incumbent Philip Philbin provoked criticism from some Catholics who opposed the notion of priests holding political office. Running on an antiwar platform, Drinan orchestrated an effective grassroots campaign to pull off a notable and widely reported upset. During his 10 years in the House, Drinan used his political position to advocate social justice and world peace. He condemned the Vietnam War and the draft and also spoke out against world hunger and the escalating arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. On July 31, 1973, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, Drinan introduced the first formal resolution for impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. “Can we be silent about this flagrant violation of the Constitution?” Drinan asked regarding the President’s decision to secretly bomb Cambodia. In 1980, Pope John Paul II issued a directive barring priests from holding public office, effectively ending Drinan’s political career. “I am proud and honored to be a priest and a Jesuit. As a person of faith, I must believe that there is work for me to do which somehow will be more important than the work I am required to leave,” Drinan remarked. After leaving Congress, Drinan, who characterized his role in the House as a “moral architect,” worked as a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

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