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CORNELL Feb-6-2007 (820 words) With photo. xxxn

Retired priest recalls small 'club' of priests in Congress

By Tony Staley
Catholic News Service

GREEN BAY, Wis. (CNS) -- The Jan. 28 death of the most prominent Catholic priest to have served in Congress, Jesuit Father Robert F. Drinan, leaves but one other in the small group of political alumni, Norbertine Father Robert Cornell.

Father Cornell, now 87, represented Wisconsin's 8th District from 1975 to 1979, becoming the only Democrat to serve more than one term in that seat. He lost his 1978 bid for re-election.

Father Drinan represented Massachusetts' 3rd District from 1971 to 1981. He withdrew from the race for a sixth term after his Jesuit superiors asked him to step down, in keeping with Pope John Paul II's insistence that priests should not hold elected public office. Father Cornell, who was seeking to regain his seat in the 1980 election, also withdrew from the race at that time.

A third Catholic priest, Father Gabriel Richard, was a nonvoting delegate from the Michigan Territory from 1823 to 1825 and is credited with convincing Congress to fund the road from Detroit to Chicago, now known as Michigan Avenue.

In a Feb. 1 phone interview with The Compass, newspaper of the Green Bay Diocese, Father Cornell recalled Father Drinan as "a great advocate of human rights and social justice."

"I think he'll always be remembered for his statements in regard to issues of that nature," said the priest, who lives at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere.

When he was first elected to Congress, Father Cornell said, he looked to Father Drinan for guidance on how he should dress.

"I asked older and newer members about whether I should wear clerical garb and usually they responded, 'Wear whatever you feel comfortable wearing. One of the things you need here is identification and clerical garb gives you identification,'" Father Cornell recalled. "I went ahead and wore clerical garb because Bob Drinan did."

Father Drinan's decision to live with the other Jesuits at the faculty house at Georgetown University also impressed Father Cornell. He contrasted that with another Jesuit, then-Father John McLaughlin, who was part of President Nixon's White House speechwriting team and lived in the posh Watergate complex. Today McLaughlin, who is no longer a priest, hosts a television political commentary program.

Father Cornell said Father Drinan tried to influence his vote only once "when I voted against a bill the Israel lobby wanted. I could understand his position because he came from a suburban Boston district that was largely Jewish."

"But other than that, we never really discussed legislation because, when it came to issues such as civil rights and things of that nature, we generally agreed," except on abortion, Father Cornell said.

"I always voted consistently for the strongest form of the Hyde Amendment to forbid federal funds for abortion no matter what was involved," Father Cornell said. "One of the arguments on the floor was 'If someone was raped the abortion was justified' and I couldn't see that. It was a human being right from the very beginning, regardless of how the baby was conceived."

While Father Drinan "was sincerely opposed to abortion," Father Cornell said, "he kind of took the legalistic view that if the wealthy could have abortions, the poor should be able to have them too."

Both priests' political careers ended in 1980 during election campaigns.

Father Cornell, who had lost in the 1978 general election, was trying to win the seat back when Bishop Aloysius Wycislo, then head of the Green Bay Diocese, told him he had to withdraw because of a papal decree.

Father Cornell pulled out of the race May 6, 1980, one day after Father Drinan withdrew from his race.

Both priests returned to the classroom -- Father Drinan to the Georgetown University Law Center and Father Cornell to history and political science classes at St. Norbert College in De Pere.

Father Cornell retired six years ago for health reasons, when he also had to give up assisting at parishes on weekends. Because of heart and breathing problems, he lives at the abbey where nursing care is available.

"I always felt there wasn't much difference between teaching -- I taught history and political science for 61 years -- and serving as a legislator," Father Cornell said. "Obviously there were people who disagreed with me."

From his room at the abbey, he maintains his interest in politics. He also continues to speak out on the issues in a monthly letter to the editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette daily newspaper.

"Unfortunately, I find that quite a few people who communicate with me afterward don't have a sense of humor," Father Cornell said. "I do not have strong feelings against people of the other party, but they think I do."

He lamented a lack of civility in both the nation and Congress and said he hoped Democrats will work with Republicans in the House and Senate.


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