In America today, there's a little of what we might call "principled anti-Catholicism," a little of what we might call "unprincipled anti-Catholicism," and a whole lot of what we can only call "politics." This trifocal lens is the most useful aperture for looking at the rejection of Father Tim O'Brien, a respected Catholic priest and academic, for the job of chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives.

When the Missouri Synod branch of American Lutheranism recently rejected the 1999 "Joint Declaration on Justification," signed by Catholic and Lutheran officials in Germany in a landmark gesture of ecumenism, you had an example of principled anti-Catholicism--serious theological argument about the meaning of key religious terms. The theologians of the Missouri Synod disagreed with their Catholic opposite numbers and some of their own brother Lutherans about the meaning of the doctrine of justification by faith.

When the ultra-evangelical "World" magazine, edited by Marvin Olasky, used the same occasion to describe Catholicism as a "witch's spell" whose "perpetrators will pay" for their doctrinal errors with eternal torment, you had an example of unprincipled anti-Catholicism--the old-fashioned American bigotry that runs all the way back to the 1688 "New England Primer," which taught generations of schoolchildren to read with such uplifting texts as "Abhor that arrant Whore of Rome, /And all her blasphemies."

And when, this fall, Father O'Brien was passed up for the House chaplain's position, you had an example of politics--not, of course, that you'd know it from the mudslinging that's gone on ever since. The effort to replace the House's retiring Lutheran pastor, James Ford, who has held the position for 20 years, has turned into a major brouhaha, with Democratic members of Congress and liberal newspapers gleefully retailing charges of bigotry on the part of the Republican conservatives who rejected O'Brien in favor of the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister.

The story began back in June, when a House committee of nine Democrats and nine Republicans met to winnow down the 40 applications for the post. With relatively little partisan rancor, they selected three top contenders: Father O'Brien, Rev. Wright, and the Rev. Robert Dvorak, another Protestant. Father O'Brien was the committee's first choice.

Then things started to get muddy. In December the three House leaders-Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Richard Armey, both Republicans, and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, a Democrat-met to choose among the committee's three nominees. After some apparently amicable discussion, the two Republicans outvoted the Democrat to give the nod to Rev. Wright.

At which point there entered, stage right, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a 350,000-member organization dedicating to combating anti-Catholicism to the tune of maximum publicity and headed by Bill Donohue, an outsize Irish Catholic character straight out of an Edwin O'Connor novel. In a blistering series of faxes, Donohue pointed out that 29 percent of Congress is Catholic, that there has never been a Catholic chaplain in the House, that Father O'Brien was the favorite of the nominating committee, and that the questions asked of him--together with the lame defenses offered for his rejection--proved that Protestant prejudice alone dictated the selection of Rev. Wright. And Democrats not otherwise well-known for their defense of Catholic positions have taken up Donohue's cudgel with great joy.

In response, the Republicans' congressional staffs waged a brief and astonishingly incompetent whispering campaign against Father O'Brien, accusing the priest, who heads the Les Aspin Center for Government at Marquette University in Milwaukee, of being theologically liberal, pastorally inexperienced, and soft on abortion--charges so easily demolished that they seemed to give substance to the accusation of anti-Catholicism that first Donohue and then the Democrats raised.

What actually dictated the decision, however, wasn't bigotry, but politics-the politics of Washington, which is based on who knows whom and who does what. Rev. Wright is an old Washington hand whose day job is to organize the largest collection of political insiders, power operators, and hungry clerics in the whole of Christendom: Washington's annual National Prayer Breakfast. And he seems to have understood the simple political point that Father O'Brien never grasped: that the nominating committee was only the first hurdle. A spokesman for Dennis Hastert insists that the Republicans picked Rev. Wright because they found him more empathetic than Father O'Brien. Well, of course they did--he was one of them.

To the question of why the Catholic League created the controversy to begin with, a cynic might answer that an attack on Republicans helps ensure that the League (which denounces far more liberals than conservatives) lives up to its claim to be nonpartisan.

But the simpler answer is that Bill Donohue is a Roman candle of a man, and the sparks of his enthusiastic outrage rain on friend and foe alike. After the first few faxes, it became clear that he had taken the Catholic League so far out on a limb that he couldn't turn back.

At this point, there's only one solution that lets everyone save face. And though it has taken them nearly two months to arrive it--two marvelous months to be a Democrat on Capitol Hill shoring up Catholic votes--an unconfirmed but never-denied report currently circulating around Washington suggests that the Republicans and the Catholic League have finally arrived at an accord: The new chaplain of the House will be . . . Pastor James Ford, putting off his retirement to return for a 21st year. At this rate, he may have to stay on for another 20.

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