Politics colored glasses

Maybe it's the nature of the beast that when you write a profile of the House chaplain, you have to give the run-down between who appointed who after who got mad at who. But it would be nice to see fewer stories that come out of Washington filtered through an almost completely political lens. Here we have an interesting profile of chaplain Daniel Coughlin by the Washington Post.

In the beginning, there was partisanship.

When Daniel Coughlin was chosen to be the first-ever Catholic House chaplain in March 2000, Democrats made clear that he wasn't their pick. A top Democratic spokeswoman called the decision to appoint him--made unilaterally by then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)--"a graceless, tactless, partisan maneuver."

Ten years later, Coughlin is still in the job, and there is ample evidence that the rancor that accompanied his selection has disappeared: Last week, lawmakers from both parties streamed onto the House floor to honor his decade of service.

As the Post explains, Hastert was planning to appoint another Protestant to the position, but ended up choosing Coughlin after some Democrats suggested there was an anti-Catholic bias among Republicans.

Indeed, listening is Coughlin's most important task, as lawmakers, aides and other members of the congressional flock regularly visit the chaplain in his comfortable, wood-paneled office in the basement of the Capitol.

Although Coughlin is the first Catholic to hold the post after 58 consecutive Protestants, his door is open to all faiths. (According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 55 percent of House members are Protestants, while 30 percent are Catholic and 8 percent are Jewish. The chamber includes nine Mormons and two Muslims.)

I'd be curious how House members viewed this switch. Perhaps no one saw a difference if chaplains are seen more as a counselor than someone who gives directives from the pulpit. Still, I'd be curious what House members of other religious traditions had to say.

The story also could have been a little more specific about his religious duties. Here's what we know:

In addition to spiritual guidance, lawmakers seek out Coughlin to discuss their families, their health and even their career decisions.

Beyond counseling, Coughlin's office helps organize regular Bible study groups, as well as Torah study and a Muslim prayer service.

C-SPAN viewers probably know Coughlin best for his delivery, spelled by the occasional guest chaplain, of a prayer to open each day's House session. Coughlin often tailors his words to the season and the events of the day, whether they're hopeful or somber.

What's unclear in the story is whether Coughlin acts as a priest to the Catholic members of the House. Does he administer the sacraments? Hear confessions?

Since being nonpartisan in Washington is seen as a virtue, it's good to see reporter Ben Pershing drawing out some tension between what's going on politically and Coughlin's beliefs.

Coughlin's prayers are studiously nonpartisan, though observers may occasionally read more into his words than intended. When he delivered a recent ode to the beginning of spring, Coughlin said some Democrats thought he was referring to health-care reform. "They heard it with a slight twist that I was not really addressing," he said.

Being nonpartisan meant not weighing in even when the Catholic Church became a central player in the health-care debate and the divisive subject of abortion funding. Though his personal views are clear -- "I accept wholeheartedly the teachings of the church" -- Coughlin said he was able to counsel members on all sides of the debate, particularly those who were struggling with how to vote on reform.

The reporter adds a little bit about his background in Chicago.

Coughlin has also been mostly quiet on another controversial topic -- the clergy abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church in the United States and around the world.

As vicar for priests in Chicago, Coughlin sometimes counseled members of the clergy who had been accused of sexual impropriety. He did the same during an earlier stint as director of the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House, a facility near Chicago that has served as a rehabilitation facility for troubled priests.

I wonder what the reporter means by "mostly quiet." What did he say, if anything? It would also be nice to get some more background information, like how Coughlin became a priest in the first place.

Politically focused or not, it's a good to see the priest in the House basement profiled.

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