WASHINGTON, March 24(RNS)--House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., appointed a
Catholic priest from Chicago as the new House chaplain Thursday, simultaneously making House history and attempting to end a
months-long controversy on Capitol Hill.
The Rev. Daniel Coughlin, vicar for priests of the Chicago
archdiocese, was sworn in on the House floor shortly after Hastert
announced 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 am
proud of his historic appointment. And I hope his appointment will help
Coughlin, 65, succeeds the Rev. James D. Ford, a Lutheran who
retired after serving in the post since 1979. Coughlin is the first
Catholic House chaplain.
Coughlin has served on numerous committees dealing with prayer,
spirituality and liturgical renewal and contributed to a document
produced by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called "The
Spiritual Renewal of the American Priesthood."
The Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister who
was the previous nominee for the position, wrote a letter to Hastert
Wednesday "regrettably" withdrawing his name from the process.
"In these weeks following my appointment, anti-religious charges of
the selection process caused dissension among the members and wounds
between Catholics and other people of faith across our nation," Wright
wrote. "I humbly ask that members put aside any misuse of religion for
Hastert, in lengthy remarks on the floor, voiced his anger at the
charges by some that Wright's selection as a nominee over Catholic
priest Timothy O'Brien reflected anti-Catholic bias. He said he waited
four months hoping that Wright could be given an affirmative vote by the
"Sadly, it has become clear to me that the minority will never
support Charles Wright to be the House chaplain," Hastert said. "Instead
of hearing the positive voice of a godly and caring man, the only voices
we hear are whispered hints in dark places that his selection is the
result of anti-Catholic bias."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said on the House floor that he
had not leveled charges of bias.
"I have never said, and never believed, that there was bias of any
kind in the making of this selection," he said. "We will do everything
in our power to welcome this new chaplain and to make his service here a
positive force for every member of this body."
Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., co-chairman of the bipartisan chaplain
selection 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 to
The names were O'Brien, Wright and the Rev. Robert Dvorak, a
Connecticut-based leader of the Evangelical Covenant Church. The list
was forwarded to Hastert, Gephardt and Majority Leader Dick Armey,
"Earl and I both said we personally thought that Father O'Brien was
the best but...the committee clearly intended that the decision be
made by the three leaders without any bias," he said.
The committee's report showed a "final tally" of six semi-finalists
with O'Brien receiving the most votes--14--and Wright getting the
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 issued
more than a dozen statements questioning why Wright was chosen over
O'Brien, was among those welcoming the decision.
"We raised many questions about the treatment of Father Timothy
O'Brien in the selection process and were dismayed by the way the
Republicans handled this matter," said Catholic League President William
Donohue. "But we have no interest in fighting this fight any longer and
we commend House Speaker Dennis Hastert for bringing this chapter to an
Prison Fellowship Chairman Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide who has
been active in building relations between evangelical Protestants and
Catholics, also issued a statement congratulating Hastert.
"Considering the intense and emotional rhetoric from detractors, the
speaker's decision reflects well on the House and its leaders, and helps
to defuse attempts from many quarters to divide the nation on the basis
of religion," Colson wrote.
Al Menendez, associate director of Americans for Religious Liberty,
told Religion News Service his organization is "delighted" that the
House has broken a long tradition of solely having Protestants in the
post, but still questions the need for a chaplain to serve members of
"The whole process needs to be examined at some time in our national
history," said Menendez, whose organization supports the separation of
church and state. "ARL still believes that there's no constitutional
requirement for there to be a paid House or Senate chaplaincy, but there
is a constitutional requirement that the position should be chosen
without 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 in
session are "a peaceful refuge" from partisan battles. "I think to lose
the 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 want