Last June an 18-member House committee made up equally of Democrats and Republicans began working on the largely thankless task of choosing a new House chaplain to replace the Rev. James D. Ford, a Lutheran minister appointed in 1979 by the late House speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill to the post, in which he has earned bipartisan affection and admiration.

This committee, co-chaired by Republican Tom Bliley of Virginia and Democrat Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota--with no C-SPAN cameras watching, no press coverage and with absolutely no soft-money contributions to be gained--spent hundreds of hours, first determining what was needed in a chaplain and then deciding who would be the best choice.

Forty applications were read and evaluated. Seventeen members of the clergy were individually interviewed by the committee. Six semifinalists were then chosen and re-interviewed. As directed, the committee named three finalists to be presented to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.

In the entire history of the House, no chaplain had ever been named who was not a Protestant minister. This time, after a process that was uniformly praised for both fairness and openness by the participants, the overwhelming first choice was Father Tim O'Brien, a Catholic priest from Marquette University in Milwaukee. According to those who were privy to the results of the secret balloting, O'Brien won majorities from both the Democrats and the Republicans on the committee.

The reviews of O'Brien were more than positive. Rep. Anna Eshoo, the passionate California Democrat, after saluting Republican Bliley "for his complete fairness throughout" called the Wisconsin priest "truly extraordinary." Rep. Henry Waxman, the liberal House leader from Los Angeles, judged O'Brien to be "by far the best." To Earl Pomeroy, O'Brien was "a fabulously well-qualified candidate." In the words of Chairman Bliley, "It was Earl's and my recommendation to the House leadership to appoint Father O'Brien."

In fact, the nine committee Democrats, in a private meeting with Gephardt before he was to take part in the final decision with the two Republican House leaders, unanimously recommended O'Brien.

On the day the House adjourned, Gephardt--to the anger and disappointment of some committee Democrats--agreed to let the matter be immediately decided by a vote taken among three people: himself, Hastert and Armey. It went 2 to 1 against O'Brien, with only Gephardt voting for him. Named chaplain instead, by the same vote, was the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister.

The rejection of O'Brien has angered many people in the House, from both parties. Some Catholic Republicans say they detected an anti-Catholic, underground veto of O'Brien within and without the House GOP caucus. With the candor that has been the hallmark of his congressional career, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), observed of the rejection of O'Brien: "I hate to think it is anti-Catholic bigotry, but I do not know what other conclusion to draw." Hyde asks, "Why have a committee and then ignore the committee's hard work?"

While Hyde and the Democrats emphasized that they were not accusing the well-liked Hastert of bigotry, many expressed the belief that the speaker had bowed to the demands of some in the Republican Party with a long-established hostility toward the Catholic Church.

A spokesman for the speaker denied that anti-Catholicism in any way entered into the final decision. An Armey spokeswoman was slightly less categorical, acknowledging that the congressman had heard from members both in support of and opposition to O'Brien.

"Dick Armey's experiences with his staff and his family make it clear he has no anti-Catholic bias," she said. Defenders of Armey point out that his own son recently converted to Catholicism and that Armey had attended the ceremony.

The gentlemanly Bliley admits to being "surprised" by his party's two leaders ignoring the committee vote, but gracefully adds, "I don't want to attribute motives to anybody."

What is clear is that a bipartisan committee working conscientiously under bipartisan leadership reached near-unanimity in selecting the first Catholic House chaplain and the decision was then vetoed for reasons that are, to say the least, difficult to understand.

Eshoo speaks for a lot of fellow Catholics, on both sides of the aisle: "I am very resentful of what they did. . . . These are people who feel they have a corner on morality. They do not."

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.