|Fr. Daniel Coughlin|
Chaplain, US House
Let’s all take a walk down Memory Lane to late 1999 when then newly-elected Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, (an “Evangelical Christian”) appointed a bi-partisan committee of Members of the House to nominate a new chaplain. Technically, the appointment of a Chaplain to the House is a prerogative of the Speaker, but as the Chaplain is available to all members of the Chamber for Spiritual Guidance, Hastert believed that a search committee would be a good idea. There were over 50 applicants for the job; heading the list of three finalists submitted to Speaker Hastert was Father Timothy O’Brien, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, nominated for the post by Representative Gerald Kleczka (Wisconsin, Democrat). Never before in its 210 year history had the House had a Catholic Chaplain. It almost didn’t then.
O’Brien holds a doctorate and is a professor of Political Science at Marquette University. His undergraduate degree is in Pastoral Ministry; his specialized studies include Counseling and Addictive Personality; he has been Consultant to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Department of Social Ministry since 1984; he served as Chaplain at Walter Reed Medical Center; he has worked in youth ministries most of his life; and for three decades he has counseled soldiers—male and female, single and married—as a Colonel in the Army Reserve. In other words, O’Brien was a man of remarkable qualification for the job. Speaker Hastert, supported by Texas Representative and House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, (Presbyterian) passed over Father O’Brien and Episcopalian Reverend Robert Dvorak to choose Presbyterian Charles Nathan Wright. Immediately there were cries of “foul” and “anti-Catholicism” as it was revealed that while the committee had overwhelming recommended O’Brien as first choice, there were House members who had pass questionable remarks. Representative Steve Largent (Republican Okla.; “Born Again Christian”) passed the derogatory remark about O’Brien’s clerical collar: “Tell me about that thing you’re wearing.” Others publically wondered how a man who was himself unmarried could be resourceful to married counselees. One went so far as to question whether an unmarried clergyman could be of sound moral character. There were unfounded rumors of financial improprieties. The whole thing became quite unsavory. Hastert and his Evangelical supporters, being very blunt that they wanted a Protestant chaplain, dug in their heels and insisted on Wright. House Whip, Tom DeLay (Republican, TX, and a Baptist) asserted that O’Brien would never serve as Chaplain. But mainline Republicans, especially from beyond he Bible Belt, began to feel pressure from their constituents. When even conservative Catholics began to complain about Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush opening his campaign at notoriously anti-Catholic Bob Jones University, the credibility of the Republican Party in regard to respect for its Catholic members made Hastert find the quickest way to undo to the damage.
In the end Reverend Wright withdrew his acceptance of the post. This time Hastert skipped all the niceties of a search committee and contacted Chicago Archbishop Francis George for a suggestion of a priest that could fit the bill. The Archbishop suggested Father Daniel Coughlin of Chicago. Congress was out of session when Hastert made the appointment but elected Coughlin as House Chaplain on January 2, 2001 when the 107th congress convened. Father Coughlin did remarkable work as a chaplain until his retirement in 2001. As a testimony to the success of his ministry, his successor is another Catholic priest, the Jesuit Father Patrick Conroy.
Now of course Mr. Hastert finds himself in troubles of his own. Surprisingly many of his “Evangelical” colleagues, including Mr. DeLay and other former members of the House have written letters praising his contribution to American Political Life and recommending leniency in his sentencing. This is an American cultural problem: the sin is not in the act it is in the getting caught. While the issues are essentially different, the same flaw of public righteousness concealing private sin underlies the Michael Voris situation. Again, many of the neo-trads are rallying to him, calling him “brave,” and “an example for us all.” Can you imagine how the American public would have reacted to Hastert's abuse of young men in the days when he wielded such power from the Speaker’s Chair? This was the time of Karl Rove and his cynical exploitation of religious conservatives. They hypocrisy of so many of those same voices has gradually come to light and done tremendous damage to any and all religious credibility. The same is true of Michael Voris. I will give him credit for having “abandoned his sinful ways” but in his embracing a gospel of contempt and disdain for those in whose company he once found himself, he has only reinforced a negative view of Catholicism.
I am sorry that Mr. Hastert and Mr. Voris had ever been trapped in their particular questionable lifestyles but I wish that they had learned understanding rather than judgment from their experiences. A healthy recovery from sin reminds us to stand with the publican and pray “Have mercy on me for I am a sinner,” rather than with the Pharisee reminding God of our alleged righteousness. Maybe the rest of us, whether or not we have mud caked on our hands, can learn not to throw stones but to ask God for the gift of a listening heart. (cf 1 Kings 3:9)