WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) got rid of the chamber’s Jesuit chaplain — and some on the Hill are speculating it may be linked to a prayer Father Pat Conroy delivered or an imam he invited.
Conroy was ordained in 1983 and was nominated to be House chaplain in May 2011 by then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in consultation with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The previous House chaplain, Father Daniel Coughlin, served from March 2000 to April 2011, retiring in his mid-70s.
Before the two Catholic priests, every House chaplain dating back to 1789 has belonged to a Protestant denomination. No chaplain up until now has been fired.
The Hill obtained Conroy’s surprise resignation letter dated April 15; the chaplain’s last day is May 24. “As you have requested, I hereby offer my resignation as the 60th Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives,” the letter began. The newspaper said four sources, two from each party, confirmed that Ryan’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, told Conroy that Ryan said he had to resign.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told Politico that Conroy was fired. “I talked to the chaplain directly,” he said. “Paul Ryan sent his chief of staff down to the chaplain’s office and said, ‘The speaker wants your resignation or obviously, you’ll be dismissed.’”
Pelosi was reportedly furious about the firing in a morning meeting with fellow Dems; Pelosi and Ryan’s offices had differing accounts on whether she protested the firing before it occurred. Lawmakers from both parties are reportedly circulating a letter to Ryan demanding to learn more about the dismissal.
One Democratic lawmaker, speaking on background to The Hill, cited as a potential reason the prayer Conroy offered on Nov. 6, though a GOP aide said it wasn’t the reason.
“Bless the members of this assembly as they set upon the work of these hours, of these days. Help them to make wise decisions in a good manner and to carry their responsibilities steadily, with high hopes for a better future for our great nation,” the chaplain said.
“As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, may all members 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,” the priest continued. “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Another source said evangelical conservatives were upset that a Muslim, Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, delivered a prayer on the House floor in October, sponsored by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). That’s not new, though — among the diverse history of guest chaplains, a Muslim first prayed before the Senate in 1992, and eight Muslims have been guest chaplains in the House since 2001. In 2007 Rajan Zed was invited to give the first Hindu prayer before the Senate, prompting protests from some evangelicals.
Politico obtained an email Conroy sent to a friend in which the priest confirmed, “I had no intentions of leaving.”
“I doubt that anything will change Ryan’s mind, but I think it important that Members know the truth,” he wrote.
Connolly told Politico it’s his understanding that the tax-bill prayer — along with Ryan “pandering to anti-Catholic sentiment” among Republicans — resulted in Conroy’s firing.
“There has been no explanation other than vague things like ‘not all of my members feel that they got spiritual guidance from him’ on the Republican side,” Connolly said.
Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said the speaker “is a proud, deeply Catholic person and this charge is not only false but outrageous.”
Ryan has appointed Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Mark Walker (R-N.C.), both Baptists, and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), an ordained Baptist minister who identifies as nondenominational, to begin searching for the next chaplain. Walker told reporters that the next chaplain should have a family, effectively ruling out celibate Catholic priests.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and leader of Nuns on the Bus, said in a statement that she was “outraged” to learn Conroy had been forced to resign. “From my work with Father Conroy, it was clear that his ministry is bipartisan, and he holds the needs of all — including both Republicans and Democrats — in his heart.”
“I have serious questions about the reasons why Speaker Ryan demanded Father Conroy’s resignation — and strong objections to the inference that it was because he invited a Muslim cleric to deliver an opening prayer or his words for the common good on the morning of the tax vote,” she said. “Partisan gamesmanship has no place in the appointment of a faith leader to minister to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.”
UPDATE 10 p.m. EST: Conroy spoke to the New York Times and confirmed he was asked to resign verbally, not in writing, by Ryan’s staff. The reason, he said, is still “unclear.”
“I do not want to politicize this. I have thoughts about it, but I am not contributing to that,” the chaplain said.
“There are Catholics who are Republicans and there are Catholics who are Democrats. I don’t know if there is a religious divide; there certainly is a political one.”
Conroy confirmed that Ryan’s office told him about a week after delivering the tax-debate prayer that they weren’t happy with it. “It suggests to me that there are members who have talked to him about being upset with that prayer,” he said, noting it was the first time he’d ever gotten pushback on a prayer from the speaker’s office.