Symbolism means a lot in Washington D.C., but so do partisan ideological struggles. Or just partisan prejudices. There has, of course, only been one Catholic President and his presidency ended in November 1963 in Dallas. Why hasn’t there been a Catholic president since then? Newseek’s Kevin Lamarque, back at the beginning of the last presidential campaign in 2015, wrote this:

Part of the reason for the dearth of Catholic nominees may be that the two parties have tended to nominate from the South, which has been growing, and few from the northeast, which is the most Catholic region and has lost population. Lyndon Johnson, Carter, both Bushes and Bill Clinton all hail from southern states. There hasn’t been a president from the northeast since Richard Nixon, and he was a Californian when he was elected to the House, Senate and vice presidency and he only resided in New York for a few years when he was elected president in 1968. If you’re getting most of your nominees from the South, odds are they won’t be Catholic.

Other reasons have been proffered. Abortion is a tricky position for Catholic Democrats. There were moves to excommunicate Kerry for his pro-choice views. Some have cited how the evangelical style of Protestantism, with its public professions of faith, has become widely expected in American politics and more Protestant candidates come out of that tradition.

So, we indeed do now have a president from the Northeast, and not the South, but whose support comes mainly from flyover country – including much of the South and Southwest. And he’s Presbytarian. Jeb Bush was a few months away from dropping out when Lamarque wrote his piece and only Marco Rubio would hang on until the spring of 2016. American culture and politics have changed a great deal since JFK was president, but it still sometimes seems a bit of a tricky proposition to be a Catholic politician in America.

Or House Chaplain.

It’s clear that more than a few GOP House members were unhappy with Patrick Conroy’s performance as Chaplain. But exactly why isn’t being signaled directly, but suggested in comments. North Carolina’s Mark Walker had to resign from a search committee because he suggested the next Chaplain should be married and have adult children. If Pope Francis has his way, that may be coming but one suspects it will be some time, and perhaps never. So understandably Walker was seen to be saying that the next Chaplain should not be Catholic, much to the outrage of Catholic Representatives from both sides of the aisle.

Is it that basic? Is it impatience on the part of evangelical House members (GOP one presumes) at having 2 House Chaplains in a row who are Catholic?

Or did Conroy rock the boat and take from Ceasar what Ceasar feels is rightfully his when his prayer in early November last year, at the time of the GOP tax bill, contained the following words:

As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, may all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle.

May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

Patrick Conroy is the 2nd Catholic House Chaplain, but the first Jesuit one. His appointment by Boehner was controversial, with suggestions he had failed to pursue with sufficient vigor accusations of abuse on the part of a priest in Seattle back in the 80’s. But the real controversy – if in fact his tax prayer is what turned the House GOP against him – might in fact lie within the Catholic church if you will.

Paul Ryan is of course Catholic, but very much a fiscal conservative and a cultural conservative. He doesn’t look askance at Conroy’s vows of celibacy the way Mark Walker does. Rather, Ryan seems to have been angered by Conroy’s left-of-center economic views which some might say are hardly surprising coming from a Jesuit priest.

For those of us who are not Catholic, we can only guess if this is the real reason. But did it have to go so public and whose fault is it? Did Conroy unnecessarily politicize the position of Chaplain whose mission it is to provide counseling and support? Not tax policy.

Sorry. Too late. The House Chaplain is now a painfully symbolic role beyond whatever unifying symbolism it used to have. It will increasingly be about religious identity, whether Controy would have wished for that or not. Conroy’s resignation letter has been rescinded and he will finish out the year at least, and perhaps stay longer. And the next House Chaplain will face nearly as much scrutiny as a nominated Cabinet Secretary.

As Ceasar might have said, once you cross the Rubicon, ain’t no turning back.

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