WASHINGTON, March 24(RNS)--House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., appointed aCatholic priest from Chicago as the new House chaplain Thursday, simultaneously making House history and attempting to end amonths-long controversy on Capitol Hill. The Rev. Daniel Coughlin, vicar for priests of the Chicagoarchdiocese, was sworn in on the House floor shortly after Hastertannounced his decision. "Daniel Coughlin is a Catholic," Hastert said on the House floor."That does not make him more nor less qualified for the job. But I amproud of his historic appointment. And I hope his appointment will helpus heal." Coughlin, 65, succeeds the Rev. James D. Ford, a Lutheran whoretired after serving in the post since 1979. Coughlin is the firstCatholic House chaplain. Coughlin has served on numerous committees dealing with prayer,spirituality and liturgical renewal and contributed to a documentproduced by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called "TheSpiritual Renewal of the American Priesthood." The Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister whowas the previous nominee for the position, wrote a letter to HastertWednesday "regrettably" withdrawing his name from the process. "In these weeks following my appointment, anti-religious charges ofthe selection process caused dissension among the members and woundsbetween Catholics and other people of faith across our nation," Wrightwrote. "I humbly ask that members put aside any misuse of religion forpolitical advantage." Hastert, in lengthy remarks on the floor, voiced his anger at thecharges by some that Wright's selection as a nominee over Catholicpriest Timothy O'Brien reflected anti-Catholic bias. He said he waitedfour months hoping that Wright could be given an affirmative vote by theHouse. "Sadly, it has become clear to me that the minority will neversupport Charles Wright to be the House chaplain," Hastert said. "Insteadof hearing the positive voice of a godly and caring man, the only voiceswe hear are whispered hints in dark places that his selection is theresult of anti-Catholic bias." House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said on the House floor that hehad not leveled charges of bias. "I have never said, and never believed, that there was bias of anykind in the making of this selection," he said. "We will do everythingin our power to welcome this new chaplain and to make his service here apositive force for every member of this body." Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., co-chairman of the bipartisan chaplainselection committee that forwarded three names to the House leadership,reiterated to House members that he and co-chairman Earl Pomeroy,D-N.D., had presented three "unranked" names for House leaders toconsider. The names were O'Brien, Wright and the Rev. Robert Dvorak, aConnecticut-based leader of the Evangelical Covenant Church. The listwas forwarded to Hastert, Gephardt and Majority Leader Dick Armey,R-Texas. "Earl and I both said we personally thought that Father O'Brien wasthe best but...the committee clearly intended that the decision bemade by the three leaders without any bias," he said. The committee's report showed a "final tally" of six semi-finalistswith O'Brien receiving the most votes--14--and Wright getting thethird-highest number--9.5.
Friday, observers from a variety of circles commended Hastert for defusing the House chaplain controversy.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which had issuedmore than a dozen statements questioning why Wright was chosen overO'Brien, was among those welcoming the decision.
"We raised many questions about the treatment of Father TimothyO'Brien in the selection process and were dismayed by the way theRepublicans handled this matter," said Catholic League President WilliamDonohue. "But we have no interest in fighting this fight any longer andwe commend House Speaker Dennis Hastert for bringing this chapter to anend."
Prison Fellowship Chairman Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide who hasbeen active in building relations between evangelical Protestants andCatholics, also issued a statement congratulating Hastert.
"Considering the intense and emotional rhetoric from detractors, thespeaker's decision reflects well on the House and its leaders, and helpsto defuse attempts from many quarters to divide the nation on the basisof religion," Colson wrote.
Al Menendez, associate director of Americans for Religious Liberty,told Religion News Service his organization is "delighted" that theHouse has broken a long tradition of solely having Protestants in thepost, but still questions the need for a chaplain to serve members ofCongress.
"The whole process needs to be examined at some time in our nationalhistory," said Menendez, whose organization supports the separation ofchurch and state. "ARL still believes that there's no constitutionalrequirement for there to be a paid House or Senate chaplaincy, but thereis a constitutional requirement that the position should be chosenwithout reference to religious bias."
Hastert defended the position in his statement on the House floor,saying the chaplain's prayers offered each day that Congress is insession are "a peaceful refuge" from partisan battles. "I think to losethe Office of the Chaplain would be a grave mistake," Hastert said.
Coughlin begins work Monday and will be up for re-election at the beginning of the next session of Congress in January. John Feehery, Hastert's spokesman, said he expects Coughlin--who learned of Hastert's plans to appoint him on the same day he became chaplain--to remain in the post "until he doesn't wantit anymore."