Demythologizing Father Drinan

Before the gossamer threads of mythology being woven around the memory of the late Father Robert Drinan, S.J., harden into what some might take for facts, a visit to the historical record is imperative.

(1) In a memorial essay in the Washington Post, Colman McCarthy asserted that Drinan’s presence in the House of Representatives “had been sanctioned by…the U.S. episcopate, the cardinal of Boston, [and] his own Jesuit superiors…” That is false. An exhaustive study by historian James Hitchcock, “The Strange Political Career of Father Drinan,” was published in 1996 in Catholic World Report. Using documents from the archives of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, Hitchcock demonstrated that the Father General of the Society, Pedro Arrupe, expressed serious concerns about Drinan’s political career numerous times. On several other occasions, Arrupe tried to communicate, through the New England Province leadership, his desire that Drinan leave electoral political life. Arrupe eventually withdrew his objections, but as Hitchcock writes, this “occurred [in 1976] only after Drinan had several times run for Congress in defiance of the General’s express command.”

In 1972, Cardinal John Krol, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, stated that Drinan’s presence in Congress was contrary to the policy and wishes of the U.S. bishops. That same year, Bishop Bernard Flanagan of Worcester informed Father Arrupe that both he and Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston disapproved of Drinan serving in Congress. Arrupe reported this to Drinan in a letter, reiterating his command that Drinan cease and desist. Drinan did not reply. A reasonable reading of Hitchcock’s article suggests that Drinan defied or ignored his Jesuit superiors in Rome on a dozen occasions; he seems to have done the same with the relevant U.S. bishops at least four times.

(2) The Post’s McCarthy, like others, suggested that Pope John Paul II ordered Drinan to leave Congress because of pressure from “rankled American conservative Catholics.” That is also false. John Paul’s proscription on priests in elective politics, which was universal in scope, involved the theology of the priesthood. How, the pope asked, could a priest live out his sacramental ordination as an embodiment of the Church’s unity if he engaged in partisan politics? This was a problem in Latin America, where priests were engaged in sometimes-lethal partisanship; it was also a problem in the (somewhat) more genteel halls of Congress. Hitchcock’s article also offers a depressing reminder that Drinan’s New England Jesuit supporters insisted to Father Arrupe that there was no layman qualified to take Drinan’s seat in Congress – a breathtaking example of clericalism, and another falsehood to boot.

(3) Questions about the secular canonization of Robert Drinan as a forceful champion of human rights are also in order. The abortion license is the gravest (and certainly most lethal) violation of human rights in America today. Father Drinan was a consistent pro-abortion vote in Congress; in 1980, a National Abortion Rights Action League fundraising letter argued that Drinan’s re-election was essential. After becoming president of Americans for Democratic Action [ADA] in his post-congressional life, Drinan dispatched an ADA fundraising letter urging the election of pro-abortion members of Congress on moral (sic) grounds. In 1996, Drinan penned a New York Times op-ed attacking the partial-birth abortion ban, misrepresenting the facts about the medical “necessity” of this gruesome procedure, and thanking President Clinton for vetoing the bill.

How any of this comports with a devotion to “human rights” is unclear. On the great human rights and civil rights issue of American domestic politics these past three decades, Father Drinan was on the wrong side: consistently, persistently, and with no public evidence of regret. In the 1980s, the New England province Jesuit leadership claimed that Drinan’s was a uniquely moral voice in American politics. That was untrue then; recent, similar claims about Father Drinan’s legacy are also untrue.

There is no pleasure to be had in writing these things. The Drinan case is, however, an important cautionary tale about the corruptions of judgment that ensue when truths are fudged in service to political power, and when that power is thought to be of greater consequence than the truth.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.