2016-07-27
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 us heal." 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
political advantage." 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 House. "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 consider. 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, R-Texas. "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 third-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 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 end."

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 Congress.

"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 it anymore."

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