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House chaplain ousted by Paul Ryan to keep his job

Father Patrick Conroy has blamed anti-Catholic sentiment for his dismissal.

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Speaker Paul Ryan’s office has announced that Father Pat Conroy, the House chaplain Ryan ousted last week over his perceived Democratic sympathies, is to keep his job.

The move comes hours after Conroy rescinded his resignation, telling Congress he intended to serve in his post until the end of the year.

”I have accepted Father Conroy’s letter and decided that he will remain in his position as Chaplain of the House,” said Ryan in a statement.

Ryan’s move to push Conroy out created a firestorm among lawmakers on Capitol Hill. By Friday of last week, more than 100 House members had signed onto a letter to the speaker’s office demanding an explanation for Ryan’s decision.

In his letter, Father Pat Conroy accused the Ryan staff member who fired him, Jonathan Burks, of telling him “maybe it’s time we had a chaplain who wasn’t Catholic.” Ryan himself is Catholic, although he has fostered close ties with his evangelical allies in the GOP.

The abrupt firing of Conroy, a Catholic priest and a Jesuit, prompted a political firestorm last month. Conroy told the New York Times he believed he had been fired because of perceived liberal sympathies, most notably a prayer he gave last November in which he appeared to obliquely criticize Ryan’s tax cut plans. In that prayer, he asked lawmakers to “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.”

After the prayer, Conroy said, Ryan told him: “Padre, you got to stay out of politics.”

Ryan has insisted the firing was not politically motivated, and had to do with Conroy’s job performance and relationship with lawmakers.

In the aftermath of Conroy’s firing, Congress was divided. A bipartisan team led by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) and Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) circulated a petition asking for a public explanation of the reasons behind Conroy’s firing. Ultimately, an attempt by Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) on the House floor to launch a formal investigation into the circumstances behind the dismissal was shut down.

Conroy’s report that anti-Catholic bias may have played a role in his firing is borne out by some of his dismissal’s aftermath. One of the House Republicans leading the search for the next chaplain, Mark Walker, indicated that he was hoping for a candidate with “adult children,” a designation that would exclude the vast majority of Catholic priests, who are supposed to be celibate. (He later walked back his comments under fire.)

If true, the circumstances of Conroy’s ouster point to a bigger division within Congress: one that sees conservative Catholics like Ryan so eager to ally with GOP evangelicals that they’re willing to shepherd in evangelicals’ preferred candidate in the House role. It also indicates that the American political divide between conservative and progressive Catholics may be widening, a fracture we’ve already seen intensify globally under the papacy of Pope Francis.

Conroy’s seeming victory today, though, suggests that a more open conflict may be forestalled. At least, for now.