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John Boehner’s Catholic controversies

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House Speaker John Boehner.
House Speaker John Boehner, up until recently, was known for crying in public and the oddly orange hue of his skin. 

A series of unfortunate events last week, however, turned him into a public figure who couldn’t please Catholics no matter what he did.

This is a story about two Irish Catholic priests, the ongoing fallout from the Catholic Church sex scandals, the looming 2012 presidential race, and how religion plays a complicated role when it comes to hot-button topics such as abortion, but also poverty, immigration and social justice.

This all began when Republican Boehner was invited to give the commencement address at Catholic University in Washington D.C.  There is often a kerfuffle when invitations such as these are extended. 

Who can forget the outrage when President Obama -- who supports a woman’s right to choose on the
issue of abortion -- was asked to address Notre Dame’s graduating class a couple of years back?
Other Democrats have faced similar protests, whether the issue is speaking at a Catholic college or receiving communion during a heated campaign.

For this reason, Boehner (who was himself raised Catholic) seemed like a safe choice for Catholic University. 

After all, though Catholics have traditionally been Democrats throughout American history, a shift has taken place in recent decades.  Especially among avid churchgoers, the lean towards the Republican Party has become prominent.

Perhaps that’s why over 70 priests, nuns and faculty members from Catholic colleges decided to examine Boehner’s record on issues that are not abortion, and yet are still important to church teachings.

"Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it," their letter reads.

The letter particularly cited proposed cuts in the Boehner-supported budget to Medicare, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program and food stamps. 

According to the letter, the budget "guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society."

Boehner ended up giving the commencement address (and, of course, weeping), without referring to the dust-up. 

Interestingly, this conflict didn’t get nearly the attention that other church-politician conflicts normally get.  Why?

I suspect the mainstream media prefers it when Catholics keep things simple and stick to abortion, rather than thornier social issues such as the death penalty, poverty, labor rights and even immigration.

But in case Boehner thought he had earned a well-deserved rest from Catholic controversy, he was wrong.
Boehner also recently nominated an Irish American priest, Father Patrick J. Conroy, to hold the position of chaplain for the House of Representatives.  The position opened up when another Irish American, Father Daniel Coughlin -- the first ever Catholic priest to hold the chaplain position --announced his retirement last month.

On the surface, this seems like an acknowledgement of Catholic political clout. 

However, things got ugly last week when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, rescinded earlier support she’d lent to Conroy’s nomination.  Pelosi’s office said “new information” had come to light regarding Conroy. 

Though accused of no wrongdoing himself, Conroy works for the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, commonly referred to as the Northwest Jesuits.  This order agreed to pay $166 million to victims of sexual abuse earlier this year.

According to Pelosi, Boehner's office did not mention that settlement during the vetting process.
Conroy is expected to land the coveted chaplain’s post.  But not before proving what a lightning rod Catholicism can be in this day and age.

And just wait until presidential contender Newt Gingrich -- thrice married -- gets on the campaign trail and goes on and on about his newfound Catholic faith.

Maybe it’s good that Catholics can cause trouble for both Republicans and Democrats.  For too long, politicians have sought to exploit their connection to religious values, without thinking through all of the implications of this connection.

Or, perhaps, things will just keep going on the same messy, messy course.

(Contact Sidewalks at tomdeignan@earthlink.net or facebook.com/tomdeignan)

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