Speaker Hastert Is No Anti-Catholic Bigot

The last acceptable bigotry in the United States is to defame Bible Christians—just tag them “religious right,” heap scorn on them, and you will not lose public respect. By comparison, the charge of anti-Semitism and, increasingly, anti-Catholicism is the atomic bomb of American public life. Launched against someone and made to stick, it can ruin a career and badly damage an entire institution. That is why those who make such charges need to be certain they have proof.

Recently, just in time for a year of heavy electioneering, the heavy charge of anti-Catholicism was leveled against the House leadership, ultimately House Speaker Dennis Hastert. For what deed? Presented with a slate of three finalists for the position of House chaplain—by a bipartisan selection committee he himself, in a generous break with tradition, had summoned into being—he did not pick the one Catholic priest among the three. It is also alleged that the process by which the selection committee worked was tainted by remarks from some members during the arduous interview.

Knowing how much anti-Catholicism still lurks in public places (in universities and newsrooms, not only the Congress), I at first believed there might be something to these charges—at the very least some clash of cultural styles, as questions deemed commonsensical or even necessary by some were perceived as peculiar or offensive by others. For instance, my own daughter, in a book we recently coauthored, asked me some questions that might have been construed as anti-Catholic coming from a stranger, such as how a celibate priest could possibly do marriage counseling. Most of us are not altogether well-schooled in our own religion, let alone in those of others, and we often have embarrassing questions for each other. In any case, Catholics are inured to dinner-party anti-Catholicism; “Dark Ages,” after all, is a cultural synonym for “Catholic Ages,” and both “enlightened” unbelievers and Protestants take their names by way of contrast with Catholics.

Still, what really happened on the way to finding a new chaplain for the House? And if, as calm study indicates, nothing much happened in the House process, how did such a false storm brew up about it?

Selecting one person to be a counselor to 450 diverse House members, their families, and their staffs, often at moments of high distress, grief, or tension, and with a need for total discretion and confidentiality, is no easy decision. Many very talented persons might not, in the end, be quite right for the peculiar demands of that office.

Between the American founding and about 1900, there were 47 chaplains—a new one for virtually every new Congress. In the 20th century, there were only five, and the present incumbent has held the job for 20 years. All have been Protestants, usually Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist, Unitarian, or, in the most recent case, Lutheran (the first ever). Normally, the Speaker makes the choice of chaplain on his own, securing the concurrence of both the majority leader and the minority leader. The required vote of the House has until now always been bipartisan and without debate.

This time, Speaker Hastert thought it would show a generous and bipartisan spirit if he created a selection committee of 18, equally divided between majority and minority parties, including two co-heads, one of each party, to cast a wide net in canvassing for candidates. The Republican cochairman was a Catholic, Tom Bliley of Virginia, and the Democrat was a Protestant, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota. The charge to this committee was to bring the Speaker an unranked slate of three first-rate candidates, from whom Hastert would make his own choice, with the concurrence of the minority leader and the majority leader.

At their first meeting, the committee members tossed out suggestions as to what they wanted in a chaplain, and a staff member wrote them all down (Attachment 7 in the official paper of the committee). Later, these suggestions were critically refined and written down on scoring sheets for actual use (Attachment 9). Thus, the one suggestion in which some critics saw “a Protestant mind-set” (a requirement that the chaplain have “a good family life”—obviously not open to a celibate priest) was spotted as such by the committee and eliminated from the final list.

In the event, 38 candidates applied, filled out the required papers, and submitted résumés. Three were Catholic. Each member of the selection committee read through the paperwork and marked “yes” or “no” beside each name; a “yes” by any seven members would trigger an interview. The result was a list of 17, and all three Catholics survived this cut.

The Crucial Details

Because of later controversies—the accusers now say the selection committee declared its own preferences in ranked order, contrary to the Speaker’s final choice—it is important to have the key details on the record.

After the first round of 17 interviews, to reduce the intense labor of the interview process, each member was asked to list his or her top six names, ranking each of them—six points for first, five for second, and so on. Thus, if one candidate were to be the first choice of all 18 members, he would receive 108 points. These points were then tallied and the top six selected for a second round of interviews.

In view of the later controversy, it is worth noting that every one of the 17 received at least six points, and all but five received scores in the double digits, so it is evident that the first round of balloting was very scattered. The highest vote-getter—Rev. Tanner, a Lutheran supported by all nine Democrats—received 48 points. Fr. O’Brien had 45 votes; Rev. Wright (the Speaker’s eventual choice), 43; Rev. Rich, 35; and Rev. Dvorak, 32. One Catholic priest was in the final six and, along with Rev. Rich, appeared on more ballots—ten—than anyone else.

The members explicitly did not want to go into the second round of interviewing prejudiced by a preliminary weighting. So they instructed staff not to report the weightings on the list of the six semifinalists.

After all six semifinalists were interviewed for a second time, each member was given a ballot with all six names in alphabetical order and asked to check off three of them. In that way, each “mention” would be counted equally. The three most frequently mentioned names would constitute the unweighted slate the Speaker had charged them to bring to him.

Until now, the Democrats had been closely united on their choice, Rev. Tanner, but one broke ranks at this point so that Tanner did not make this final cut. The Republicans were quite spread out. One candidate—Fr. Tim O’Brien, from the Les Aspin Congressional Center in Washington, a local campus for Marquette University—was mentioned on 14 of the 17 members’ ballots, and so had the most bipartisan backing. Dr. Wright, the Speaker’s eventual choice, had 9.5 votes of 17, Rev. Dvorak, 10.5. The members had deliberately not weighted their first, second, and third preferences, so the strength of the commitments to any of the final six was not clear. The committee never took a vote to provide their ranking, weighted or otherwise, on these three. That was expressly no part of the charge given the committee. Hastert believed it the responsibility of the Speaker to make the choice. He believed he had done better than any Speaker before him in opening up the selection process.

The co-chairs of the selection committee, Congressmen Bliley (R-Va.) and Pomeroy (D-N.Dak.), and all the members were quite happy with their process; they thought they had come up with three excellent candidates, any one of whom could do a good job. Meeting with Speaker Hastert, Congressman Pomeroy remembers telling him the way the committee informally ranked the top three. Hastert didn’t want to hear it (just as earlier when the committee did not want to be prejudiced by a ranking system before its own interviewing) and claims he didn’t. In any case, he charged the committee only to present a slate of three good candidates. It was his prerogative and responsibility to make the final choice for the good of the House, with the concurrence of Majority Leader Dick Armey and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, and present it for the voice vote of the House. This is the way it had always been done. The only new thing was the enlarged, bipartisan selection system, with which everybody at this point seemed well-pleased. Hastert thought he had three great candidates and couldn’t lose, whichever one he finally chose.

Hastert’s criterion throughout was the pastoral, counseling function (which the retiring chaplain stressed in his advisory memo to the search committee); he was looking for warmth, approachability, experience in the sort of setting the new chaplain would face in the House. He felt all the other requirements had already been met through the long winnowing of the selection process.

In the light of later allegations about some “odd” (possibly anti-Catholic) questions in the interviewing process, it bears repeating that all three Catholic priests made it in the cuts from 38 to 17, and one made it to the six semifinalists and then to the final slate of three. There must have been something fair about the process. Some questions asked of some of the Protestant chaplains were also provocative and perhaps perceived as offensive: Would you use the post to evangelize? What is your favorite scriptural text?

In my view, some adversarial questions are appropriate to ask someone being considered for a position that is highly sensitive, in which the candidate’s reaction to perceived slights and wryly phrased puzzlements is germane. Journalists certainly ask adversarial questions of presidential candidates. Professors ask them of doctoral candidates. Knowing how one handles oneself in moments when sympathy is withdrawn is not irrelevant in choosing the House chaplain. The main point is that in these contexts, Fr. O’Brien, like the other two finalists, was thought to have handled himself in superior fashion.

O’Brien’s Final Interview

Clearly, the process to that point was eminently fair. Otherwise, how did Fr. O’Brien do so well? So the allegations of anti-Catholicism come down to what happened in the final interview, in which Fr. O’Brien spoke with Hastert, Gephardt, and Armey, in the presence of aides.

From his later comments to the press, it appears that Fr. O’Brien felt this interview was cold, in some part unfriendly. Both Gephardt and Hastert also commented immediately afterward on how cold it had been. Hastert, at least, did not think the coldness came from the House side. Hastert left the interview thinking that O’Brien was a strong candidate, just the same.

To his credit, Fr. O’Brien, except for an early and understandable lapse, has maintained a dignified silence about what must have been a great personal disappointment. In the first days after the decision became public, three reporters called Fr. O’Brien, and he admitted some of his fears about anti-Catholic tendencies in the interviewing process. He was taken to be impugning the process of the selection committee. But that very process made him one of three finalists out of 38 candidates. Then O’Brien stopped talking to the press altogether. Others impugned Speaker Hastert for his ultimate choice and, perhaps, for the final interview. Even Congressman Bliley, who had scrupulously avoided ranking the top three but did report to the Speaker his personal preference for O’Brien, thought Hastert was also leaning to O’Brien and confessed “surprise” at the final decision.

There is no doubt that Fr. O’Brien is a very good man, that he very much wanted the job, perhaps had even been told by advisers that he had it in his grasp. Until his brief comments to the press after he was passed over, many also believed that he could have done a great job as the first Catholic priest in that post in more than 200 years. In his press remarks, anger that had not hitherto been visible burst through.

The appointment of the first Catholic priest in history to be House chaplain by a Republican (and Protestant) Speaker would have been a great political coup in an election year. Previous Catholic Speakers (McCormack, O’Neill, and Foley) in a row had missed the opportunity. If the Speaker had approached his task politically, appointing a Catholic was the obvious political choice. Hastert insists even now that the post of chaplain is too important to too many individual members at times of need for any but one question: At such times, which candidate would make the best counselor?

To put themselves in Hastert’s place, the curious, who do not have time to study the full official record of the workings of the selection committee, should at least read the three personal résumés submitted by each of the three finalists. Then they might ask themselves which of the three, on paper at least, looks better prepared for the counseling tasks uppermost in Hastert’s mind. Having performed this task, and asked several others to do so, I can report that all three candidates on paper are capable of being good counselors. Still, not having met any of the three finalists in person, but only from reading these three résumés, neither I nor those I asked can fault the Speaker’s choice as unwise. He made the choice we would have made, pending the results of a face-to-face interview. Try this test yourself.

Finally, I do not doubt that some (and sometimes strong) anti-Catholic sentiment exists among some members of the House and in many other Washington institutions. I have seen it in Democrats; I have seen it in Republicans. I do not doubt that Fr. O’Brien experienced it. But until the very last round, the selection process had brought him to the top of the heap. From that point on, no one owed him the job. Another man did better than he in the final interview. So? In my reading of the evidence, the accusations of anti-Catholicism fail.

Mistakes on the Hill

How, then, did the entire brouhaha develop? In his younger priestly days in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Fr. O’Brien used to work for the Catholic League for Civil and Political Rights in Milwaukee, a kind of Catholic anti-defamation league now in New York City, under the leadership of a feisty, brave, self-described “street fighter” named Bill Donohue. Donohue has been a magnificent presence, raising membership from about 35,000 to 350,000, and taking on giants left and right—although until now mostly on the Left, since that’s where most of the media anti-Catholicism is. Mark Shields ran a column on O’Brien in the Washington Post, and Donoue began talking to the House leadership and Fr. O’Brien. The story O’Brien recounted to Donohue had the ring of truth to any Catholic who heard it, based on their own experience. By contrast, replies from the offices of Hastert and Armey had contradictions and evasions and raised Donohue’s suspicions further. His office began faxing the story far and wide. Since then, the story has been given legs by some shoddy staff work in the offices of Armey and Hastert and by a gloriously grateful team of Catholic pro-choice Democrats, delighted with the chance to appear to be defending the Church against ugly Republicans.

The faulty staff work has three parts. The elemental facts of the process were put out slowly, with no sense that this is an issue so incendiary it could wind up losing the Republicans a million or two votes next November. Second, a misguided and unjust effort was launched by someone close to the Republican staff to injure the reputation of Fr. O’Brien—he was soft on abortion, went the whispers; he was a lefty; he had no background in counseling—and all of this was both demonstrably untrue and speedily and publicly rebutted. Even if there was no anti-Catholicism in the process, as many Democrats concede there was not, this press campaign deserves severe rebuke for its flagrant injustice to a good man. Nothing inflamed Donohue more. Third, no sense of strategic planning went into Hastert’s decision, no clear vision of the political consequences involved at just this moment of history.

Vin Weber and Newt Gingrich, for instance, long had a plan to put a Catholic chaplain in place when the opportunity presented itself. The reason is that Catholics, who tend to vote more regularly than Protestants, now number some 30 million voters, about 30 percent of the presidential vote. Nearly twelve million of the Catholic voters are “swing” voters, oscillating between the Democrats and the Republicans. Most voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, for instance, stayed for Bush in 1988, and then fled to Clinton and Perot in 1992. (Swing votes, be it noted, count twice—they are “subtracted” from the one column and “added” to the other; a kind of rapid compound interest.)

Not a Payoff

Honestly, though, is it right to treat the chaplaincy of the House as a symbolic matter, some sort of political reward? No, but reconciliation is important. Ever since the church burnings associated with the Know-Nothings of the 1840s, anti-Catholicism has been a lightly buried memory among Catholics. Some evangelicals really do think the pope is “the whore of Babylon” mentioned in Scripture, and some Catholics resent them for smugly thinking so. Bringing healing to these wounds is important. Inflaming them for political reasons is disgraceful.

Hastert was slow to anger, too slow. For three full months, the partisan attacks by Democrats grew in intensity. They were magnified by the hypocritical press, unable to find anti-Catholicism in the vandalizing this past month of the Catholic cathedral in Montreal by feminists but suddenly discovering it in the charter of Bob Jones University in South Carolina—not when the Democratic governor spoke on campus but when Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush did. Catholic Democrats in Congress who loudly compromise their Catholic faith regarding abortion and tremble to displease anti-Catholic constituencies of the Left triumphantly called Republicans anti-Catholic. Pro-choice (even pro-partial-birth abortion) Democrats on the selection committee had the nerve to call Republican Steve L’Argent anti-Catholic for asking Fr. O’Brien an awkward question about his Roman collar. A devout man, L’Argent knew that the current Lutheran chaplain wears a collar at all times. L’Argent’s spokesman told me the congressman asked this question in ignorance, having seen Fr. O’Brien without his Roman collar with students but in Roman collar for his interviews. These were gross attempts to take much later partisan advantage out of what all had agreed at the time was a mutually happy working experience.

On March 23, Hastert had finally had enough and in angry, blunt words recounted the history of his, as he thought, generous initiative and the later false charges of bigotry. The resignation letter of the admirable Charles Wright in hand, Hastert announced the appointment of a priest from Chicago suggested to him by Cardinal George. The announcement stunned the Democrats. Congressman Pomeroy rose to explain weakly why the Democrats had refused to meet with Wright; it came out sounding as if they thought the choice were theirs to make, and Hastert should have been a rubber stamp. Congressman Bliley arose to set the record straight; both Pomeroy and he had formally reported an unranked slate of three to the Speaker, and each had mentioned to him their own personal preference (O’Brien in both cases), but they did not say that O’Brien was the consensus candidate. In fact, the committee had expressly decided not to go forward with a single recommendation but to present three names for the Speaker’s choice. Minority Leader Gephardt rose to welcome the new chaplain and to say that he personally had never made any charge of anti-Catholic bias against the Speaker. But, of course, he also never defended the Speaker publicly or rebuked his colleagues for their incendiary language.

The behavior of the Democrats had shown that the idea of a bipartisan search committee is easily turned into partisan warfare and a game of extortion: Give us what we want or else. Hastert had drawn the conclusion and gone back to the traditional method: the unilateral prerogative of the Speaker. His choice of Fr. Daniel Coughlin was enthusiastically received.

The whole episode has forced some deeper questions upon me. I’m very glad both sides of the House applauded loud and long when Hastert said it is important to the House to save the chaplaincy as an institution. When serious and troubling matters of spirit arise, the members (and their families and staffs) need someone they can go to with confidentiality and a special sense of their particular environment, without calling attention to themselves. The chaplain is there for them every day. The first act of the First Continental Congress on September 7, 1774, was a motion for prayer, since word arrived as they gathered that the British were shelling Boston and dreadful war seemed about to break on them. Ever since, the Congress has met in consciousness of the Lawgiver, Creator, Providence, and Judge whose names they wrote into the Declaration of Independence of 1776. This is a bit more than Civil Religion, I think, although perhaps less than Judaism and Christianity. All four names of God deserve reflection, but especially important is the awareness of falling under Judgment.

On the whole, I am pleased to see a Catholic chaplain at work, and I hope one day to see a rabbi. On the whole, though, the tone of the office—its tradition, its founding—is Protestant, and Protestants take naturally to “nondenominational prayers” in a way I would not like to see Catholic priests become accustomed to. But of course they have long since mastered this American art, since in every community of the land they are asked, in turn, to lead public invocations at civic functions.

The chaplain’s office places the work of Congress within the horizon of a transcendent Judge, a God, moreover, who cares about particular nations in concrete circumstances and whose work is often manifested (as many early prayers and declarations of the Congress pointed out) through concrete details. No doubt in this case, too, seemingly a caldron of false charges for taking partisan advantage, even at the risk of inflaming religious hostilities, Providence was also working through insignificant details and for its own purposes.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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