COMMENTARY: Is there a bigot in the House?

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Illinois Rep. Richard Shimkus is reputed to have asked Father Timothy O'Brien, candidate to be chaplain of the House of Representatives, how, since he was not married and did not have family, the House could be certain of his moral character.

Apparently Shimkus had forgotten that his former colleagues Reps. Bob Livingston of Louisiana and Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and his present colleague, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, were married and had families and nevertheless proved themselves to be of somewhat dubious moral character.

In fact all three Republicans were adulterers.

Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma demanded to know what kind of clothes O'Brien would wear as chaplain. Apparently, Largent thought that, as a leader of the National Prayer Breakfast movement, he had the authority to demand that a priest not appear on the House floor in a Roman collar.

Despite these two apparent bigots, the bipartisan House committee organized to recommend a new chaplain put O'Brien at the top of its list. He was the overwhelming favorite, and he would have been the first Catholic chaplain of the House.

But it was not to be. Some members _ who they were has not been revealed publicly, but it is not improbable that Largent and Shimkus were among them _ went to the House Republican leadership and protested the committee's recommendation.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas overturned the committee's decision and chose the third man on its list and _ surprise! _ it turned out to be a man also linked to the National Prayer Breakfast movement.

It would seem that anti-Catholicism, the ugly little secret of American culture, is alive and well in the House of Representatives.

The insanely partisan Republicans who run the House these days did not want a Catholic chaplain because he was celibate and wore a Roman collar. They have revealed themselves as ignorant anti-Catholic bigots, a fact that should not surprise anyone who knows anything about them.

At least men like Largent and Shimkus are ignorant bigots. Hastert and Armey are probably craven rather than stupid. There was resistance among their more ignorant fundamentalist colleagues to O'Brien. No point in offending them.

Offend Catholics? Hey, when you have the votes (even if it's only five more votes) in the House, you can do anything you want _ impeach the president, insult Catholic priests, offend the Catholic population. You're going to ride back into power in the election next year on George W. Bush's coat tails anyway.

Catholics thought that the anti-Catholicism of the fundamentalist South and rural America had disappeared in 1960 when John Kennedy was elected president. They had forgotten that Kennedy won by only 110,000 votes and that the South voted against him. Four decades later nothing much has changed.

The Republicans who run the House are haters. They hate immigrants, they hate the Chinese, they hate unions, they hate all foreigners, and now, it turns out, enough of them hate Catholics that a Catholic priest is barred from the chaplaincy.

They will get away with it too. There will be no outraged editorials in the national newspapers. Could you imagine the storm that would be raised if the rejected cleric was an African-American minister or a rabbi?

Racism and anti-Semitism are unfashionable bigotries. However, anti-Catholicism is not and never has been.

And here's another ugly little secret. Redneck anti-Catholicism is matched by elitist anti-Catholicism. The result is the same. Bigotry is bigotry, even if you don't think you're a bigot.

Moreover there will be no serious Catholic protest. The so-called Catholic League, having made"Dogma"the most successful of director Kevin Smith's films by their full page ads against it, are not likely to launch a campaign to sweep the redneck fundamentalists from congressional power.

The League wants a stranglehold on the media, not a fight against a Congress with whose conservative policies it is in basic agreement. The Catholic hierarchy will not issue a scathing denunciation.

Who cares about blatant and bigoted injustice to a Catholic priest? It seems no one.