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For the years between and , the job of chaplain was the province of Protestants—52 of them, including 16 Methodists, 15 Presbyterians, 7 Baptists, and 4 Episcopalians. When a Catholic came close in , the then-speaker of the House—Dennis Hastert, a Methodist—balked.

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A search committee had recommended that he name a Catholic priest to the prestigious post. But he overruled the recommendation and nominated a Presbyterian. The resulting uproar came at the worst time for Republicans, with their nominee for president, George W. Bush, on the defensive after an appearance at the virulently anti-Catholic Bob Jones University.

It was Bob Jones Jr.

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Daniel Coughlin, to the job. Coughlin held it until when Speaker John Boehner named the current chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy will be watching when the pope makes history on Thursday.

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But at least one of the predictions of the bigots has come true, a fact noted by President Jimmy Carter when John Paul II made the first-ever papal visit to the White House in Kennedy when he ran for president. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic. George E.

Breakfast is light

News and updates from the editors of National Journal magazine. While each bishop oversees his particular diocese, only the pope, as supreme pontiff and bishop of Rome, exercises moral, doctrinal and jurisdictional authority over all the faithful. But it's also a place of a pastoral relationship.

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We are taught this is a place you look to for leadership," said Dawn Nothwehr , chair of historical and doctrinal studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Six years after the clergy sex abuse crisis erupted, the American church is still reeling from the aftershocks.

Five dioceses have declared bankruptcy, priestly and religious vocations remain low, and a recent Pew Forum report revealed that one-third of so-called "cradle Catholics" no longer identify as Catholics. Immigration has helped offset the attrition, creating its own set of issues as the church adapts to the changing face of the faithful.

Benedict, however, will likely focus on the faith's fundamentals, as he has done throughout the three years of his papacy, highlighting America's vibrant religious tradition and urging Catholics to retain their identity in the public square.

Benedict's trip — plus six days of nonstop media attention — could provide a needed shot in the arm. The pope's position as arguably the most visible religious leader in the world affords him a prime pulpit from which to champion peace and justice. Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II , is widely credited with helping to bring about the end of communism, and his unprecedented globetrotting brought the church's social justice mission to millions around the world. Since his election three years ago, Benedict has spoken out on the "continual slaughter" in Iraq; the "catastrophic" situation in Darfur; the imperative of protecting the environment; and the "scandal" of poverty.

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It's no coincidence his first encyclical was on love, without which, he argues, there can be no peace. While the pope obviously speaks in Christian terms, not everyone who listens to his message need be Christian. If he can be heard at that level as well, it would be a very opportune moment for him. In , the pope's lecture in Regensburg, Germany, caused a major kerfuffle among Muslims when he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said that Islam's Prophet Muhammad brought "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

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Whether he wanted it or not, the speech — and the ensuing controversy — have made the pope Christendom's pointman in what is shaping up to be the defining issue of the 21st century: Western-Muslim relations. The tensions, haven't dampened Benedict's voice, or actions.