A controversy is brewing in Congress: Why did House Speaker Paul Ryan force the House chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy, to resign? Could it be because — as Conroy suggested to the New York Times — the priest slipped a veiled criticism of GOP tax cuts into a prayer?
Conroy, a Catholic priest and a Jesuit, has been the House’s chaplain for seven years. As chaplain, he leads daily prayers in the House and offers pastoral support and counseling to lawmakers of all faiths.
On April 15, he announced that he would resign, effective May 24. His resignation letter, which a congressional source shared widely with the media, made it clear that his resignation was involuntary and at Ryan’s direct request.
Conroy later confirmed this to the New York Times, saying, “I was asked to resign, that is clear,” but said the reason was “unclear” and that “Catholic members on both sides are furious.” A spokesperson for Ryan, AshLee Strong, declined to publicly state a reason for Conroy’s dismissal.
Members of Congress and Conroy himself have suggested one possible explanation: Conroy offered a prayer in November that seemed to be critical of the Republican tax bill signed into law in December, which Ryan championed.
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) indicated to the New York Times that he believed Ryan had been unhappy with a prayer Conroy had given last November, which expressed hope that lawmakers “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” and that they “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Conroy said that after the prayer, Ryan told him, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,” according to the New York Times.
An aide to Ryan denied to the Times that the prayer was the cause of Conroy’s dismissal. But the dismissal has caused a controversy on Capitol Hill that splits along both religious and partisan lines.
Members of Congress are upset and want answers
Conroy’s dismissal has prompted consternation in the House. A bipartisan team led by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) is circulating a letter demanding more information about Conroy’s resignation.
Jones expressed anger and distress about Conroy’s firing to the Times. “If this is true about the prayer, and we have freedom of religion in America,” he said, “how about freedom of religion on the floor of the House?”
On Friday, Crowley asked for an investigation into the reasons for Conroy’s firing on the House floor. House Republicans almost unanimously shut it down, moving to table the motion in a 215-174 vote.
I asked for an investigation into why Speaker Ryan fired the House Chaplain and whether it was for a prayer urging Congress to consider all Americans — including the poor — in our work.— Rep. Joe Crowley (@repjoecrowley) April 27, 2018
House Republicans just said no. pic.twitter.com/Fm2tIAW8ER
Some on Capitol Hill see Conroy as a player in a bigger partisan battle over religious identity. While both Conroy and Ryan are Catholic, they belong to different ideological camps. Conroy, like Pope Francis, is a member of the Jesuit religious order, which is traditionally associated with a great concern for social justice and more progressive politics; Ryan is a conservative Catholic.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is also Catholic, disagreed with the decision, according to the Washington Post. A Democratic congressional source told the Hill that Conroy was pushed out “because Republicans thought he was aligned with Democrats.”
But others see the outlines of a sectarian religious fight. The Hill reported that some evangelical Republican conservatives had disagreed with Conroy’s decision to allow a Muslim chaplain to deliver the House’s regular opening prayer in 2017. And one of the House Republicans leading the search for the next House chaplain, Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, controversially suggested a candidate “that has adult children” — effectively ruling out most Catholic priests, who are expected to remain celibate. (Walker later clarified that he meant “a priest or pastor over parishioners with families who have situations.”)
The debate over Conroy’s firing reflects a wider issue in the current political climate: the polarization of religion on sectarian lines. A few years ago, it might have been unthinkable that a Catholic priest, speaking perfectly in line with Catholic social teaching on economic justice, might have been deemed “political” for a relatively anodyne comment about income inequality.
But the overwhelming Republican support for Ryan’s decision — or, at least, for forestalling an investigation into its cause — suggests that the intersection of faith and politics is increasingly narrow. A Catholic priest can be deemed insufficiently conservative for threatening GOP party politics, even as Walker’s suggestion hints that House Republican leadership would prefer a specifically evangelical representative.
The job of House chaplain is supposed to be nonpartisan. But if prayers for economic equality are seen as a likely explanation for a firing, it seems no position in Congress can be truly apolitical.