Political News

Ryan Reinstates House Chaplain After Priest Decided to Fight Dismissal

Posted May 3, 2018 6:58 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul Ryan reinstated the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy as the chaplain of the House of Representatives on Thursday, after the chaplain sent him a letter rescinding his forced dismissal and daring the speaker to fire him.

“I have accepted Father Conroy’s letter and decided that he will remain in his position as chaplain of the House,” the speaker said in a statement. He added, “It is my job as speaker to do what is best for this body, and I know that this body is not well served by a protracted fight over such an important post.”

Conroy, a Catholic priest who has been the chaplain since 2011, intimated in a letter to Ryan on Thursday that the speaker did not have the authority to fire him, noting that the chaplain, who is selected by the speaker, is elected by the members of the House. He suggested his Catholic faith had contributed to his dismissal.

And in an interview, Conroy said he had hired a lawyer to press his case.

“This is so contentious, and I think it is so historic,” Conroy said, adding, “it’s not over.”

After the speaker reversed course, the chaplain accepted some responsibility in the debacle.

“We both acknowledged that we need to talk about how I can improve my performance so the chaplaincy operates for as many members as possible,” he said. “I don’t know any pastor or any chaplain anywhere that doesn’t have some detractors. That is the human condition. My problem is I was never told that that was the case.”

Conroy said he and Ryan will sit down together Tuesday when the House is back in session.

At least one Catholic Republican welcomed the news: “This should never have happened. He’s a good man, he’s a good chaplain and if they want to make a change this is not the way to do it,” said a surprised Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who had been critical of the speaker’s decision. “He deserved better and now he’s gotten better.”

King said he understood why the chaplain complained. “It’s a cloud over the Jesuit order, it’s a cloud over him if he goes out with this.”

If Ryan hoped the matter of Conroy’s firing would fade over the spring recess, the speaker was delivered an unexpected slap and caved quickly. The dismissal of the chaplain had raised concerns with some Catholic Republican House members, and handed Democrats a political gift, last month. But the issue quieted after Congress left Washington last week.

Conroy’s letter was certain to stoke up the anger.

“I have never been disciplined, nor reprimanded, nor have I ever heard a complaint about my ministry during my time as House Chaplain,” Conroy wrote.

Complaining that Ryan never spoke to him in person, he also raised his Catholicism. When Ryan’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, informed him that the speaker was asking for his letter of resignation, he wrote, “I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause,’ and Burks mentioned dismissively something like, “Maybe it’s time that we had a chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.”

Ryan, who is also Roman Catholic, responded quickly.

“My original decision was made in what I believed to be the best interest of this institution,” he said. “To be clear, that decision was based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves.”

But he did not want the fight that the chaplain was demanding.

And politics was sure to follow.

“From the first day he entered the chamber, Father Conroy has done a superb job tending to his flock with wisdom and kindness,” Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., said in a quickly released statement after the chaplain’s letter came to light. “The feeble excuses offered by Speaker Ryan are merely a pretext to cover for the whims of extremists in his caucus. Father Conroy is standing tall and I stand with him.”

Ryan moved quietly in April to remove the chaplain, who submitted his resignation when he was asked to, and said his last day would be May 24. The abrupt dismissal caused an immediate uproar in the House, as Catholic lawmakers of both parties demanded explanation from Ryan. In a closed-door meeting with Republicans, the speaker said he had received complaints about Conroy’s pastoral care, according to several lawmakers who attended.

But in an interview with The New York Times, Conroy said he thought that a prayer he delivered in November when Congress was debating a tax overhaul may have been a factor in the speaker’s decision. In his letter to Ryan, the chaplain said Burks, the chief of staff, had also mentioned the prayer, as well as an interview Conroy had given to The National Journal.

In the prayer, the chaplain urged lawmakers to “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” Shortly after, he said in the interview with The Times, he was admonished by Ryan, who views the tax overhaul as his signature achievement.

“Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,” he recalled the speaker saying.

After his reinstatement, the chaplain chuckled over the controversy: “The upside of the whole story is people are actually reading my prayers,” he said. But the dismissal itself hints at politics. Conroy is a Jesuit, an order of priests viewed by some as more liberal. The hubbub around Conroy is all the more contentious in Catholic circles because Ryan is a Catholic conservative.

Ryan’s move also exposed long-simmering tensions between Catholics and evangelicals in the House. After Conroy was forced out, Rep. Mark Walker, R-S.C., a Southern Baptist minister, suggested that the next chaplain should be a family man — a remark that caused upset among Catholic because it implied that Catholic priests, who take a vow of celibacy, would not be eligible.

Walker later removed himself from a committee looking for a replacement for Conroy.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America magazine, said it was “only just” that Conroy rescinded his resignation.

“Father Conroy’s firing was unjust, apparently motivated by no little anti-Catholicism, as his new letter indicates,” Martin said. “Speaker Ryan should have known that Jesuits have never been pushovers, especially when justice is at stake.”

In his letter to Ryan, Conroy took issue with Ryan’s apparent assertion that there were complaints about his pastoral care.

“This is not the reason that Mr. Burks gave me when asking for my ‘resignation,'” he wrote. “In fact, no such criticism has ever been leveled at me during my tenure as House chaplain. At the very least, if it were, I could have attempted to correct such ‘faults.’ In retracting my resignation I wish to do just that.”