Ryan Claims Fired Catholic Chaplain Was Neglecting 'Pastoral Needs'; GOP Congressmen Dispute This

Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, leads both teams in prayer before the congressional baseball game June 15, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told GOP lawmakers in a closed caucus meeting this morning that House chaplain Father Patrick Conroy was forced to resign not because of political considerations but because of complaints from some House Republicans that the Jesuit priest wasn’t meeting their “pastoral needs.”

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who was in the meeting and told reporters that he didn’t find Ryan’s explanation satisfactory, noted that “I saw people walk up to him all the time, sit down with him. So I never heard any of these complaints before.”

“It is such an unprecedented action to be to only be taken for very, very serious issues,” King said. “And the speaker said it was just because certain people said he was not giving good counsel. I never heard that from anyone.”

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.

One lawmaker contended that Conroy didn’t reach out enough to members after last summer’s GOP baseball practice shooting, but GOP team manager Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) disputed that.

On the House floor Friday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) offered a privileged resolution that would have established a special committee to probe Conroy’s ouster. But Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) moved to table the resolution, and that passed along a largely party-line vote.

GOP Reps. Tom Reed of New York and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania voted with Dems on the measure. Reed told Crux that he was “unaware of any legitimate grounds for the termination of the Chaplain of the House.”

Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Walt Jones (R-N.C.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.). and about 150 other lawmakers sent a letter to Ryan stressing that the House chaplain “is vested with a special mission, including the free exercise of religion, the integrity of which must be safeguarded.”

“To that end and in the expectation of a shared commitment to transparency and due process, we are seeking additional information regarding your decision to request the resignation of Reverend Patrick J. Conroy, the 60th Chaplain of the House of Representatives. The sensitive nature of this situation requires a description of the process followed to arrive at the decision and a justification for that decision,” they wrote. “We believe that, absent such details, questions will inevitably arise about the politicization of the process for hiring and dismissing a House chaplain. Not revealing such details could also risk resurrecting prior questions of religious bias. Absent transparency, we are also concerned about the implicit damage done to the reputation of the House chaplain personally. Continued silence on this matter could allow unfair and utterly unfounded inferences to be made about his character and the evenhandedness of the House on dealing in matters of faith.”

About a third of the House is Catholic, while a quarter of senators are.

Jones told Crux that he was hoping the letter reflects that “Catholics and Protestants alike will rally for the chaplain.” If Ryan’s assertion of pastoral neglect was true, the North Carolina Republican said, “why didn’t Paul Ryan email all 435 members asking for their assessment of his spiritual leadership?”

“This is one of the most unfair things I’ve ever seen, and it’s a sad commentary on America. You see all of this and you have to think, what in the heck is this country about?” Jones said. “This is as bad as anything I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress.”

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.” He confirmed that Ryan told him about a week after delivering a prayer during the tax-reform debate that he wasn’t happy with it. “It suggests to me that there are members who have talked to him about being upset with that prayer,” Conroy said, noting it was the first time he’d ever gotten pushback on a prayer from the speaker’s office.

“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 said Nov. 6. “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.”

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.

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said “this would not be a big issue if there were no history of anti-Catholicism among some Protestant congressmen — but there is.”

“There is no role for anti-Catholicism in politics,” he said. “This means that no priest should ever be disqualified for the House chaplain position because he is celibate.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a Methodist minister asked to also add input to the search for a new chaplain, said conservative evangelicals wanting the Catholic chaplain gone was not “some kind of an unreasonable way of diagnosing what has happened.”

“This is ugly,” Cleaver said. “There’s only division coming out of this. Not anything positive.”

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said he believed that Conroy being a Jesuit “was an issue” with some GOP lawmakers.