WASHINGTON — A Republican congressman is fighting to bring back the House chaplain forced to resign by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last week, arguing that the GOP leader’s treatment of Father Pat Conroy was “intentionally underhanded.”
Rep. Walt Jones (R-N.C.) is part of a bipartisan group that intends to try to get the Jesuit priest reinstated, or at least have a say in the matter, after Congress returns from a one-week break next week.
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. About a third of the House is Catholic, while a quarter of senators are. No chaplain up until now has been fired.
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.
Ryan told GOP lawmakers in a closed-door meeting that members had complained the priest wasn’t meeting their “pastoral needs” — a charge disputed by some Republicans — and that was the reason he was asked to resign.
Ryan 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 stepped down from the search committee in the ensuing controversy after he told reporters that the next chaplain should have a family, effectively ruling out celibate Catholic priests.
In a Wednesday letter to Ryan, Jones defended Conroy as “a man of faith, integrity, and great counsel to those of us who serve in the House.”
“Not only was I dismayed that Father Conroy was apparently asked to resign without explanation, I was troubled by the manner in which it was done,” he wrote. “All members were not asked for their opinions on the chaplain’s performance. Instead, it appears a decision to push him out was made behind closed doors based upon the input of only a few.”
Under the Rules and Manual of the House, resignation of a chaplain is subject to acceptance by the House. Jones noted that Conroy’s forced resignation letter was read by the House Reading Clerk after last votes on a Monday night, April 16, when few members were in the chambers or had any idea that the resignation letter was coming. “After Father Conroy’s short, six-sentence letter was read, the Speaker Pro Tempore took less than three seconds to utter six words – ‘without objection, the resignation is accepted’ – and immediately gaveled the matter to a close,” the congressman said.
“It appears the decision was made to minimize the input of members, and executed surreptitiously to overcome what was likely to be their overwhelming objection,” he added. “It appears intentionally underhanded, and that is deeply disappointing!”
In the letter, Jones underlined and boldfaced “intentionally underhanded.”
“Mr. Speaker, you have an opportunity to revisit this matter, and I respectfully urge you to take it. You can utilize the temporary authority granted by the Legislative Reorganization Act to re-elect Father Conroy to serve the remaining eight months of his term. You could also move a privileged resolution to the floor and allow the House to vote to do the same,” Jones said. “Either way, it should be done.”
Jones along with 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 last week stressing that the House chaplain “is vested with a special mission, including the free exercise of religion, the integrity of which must be safeguarded.”
The lawmakers demanded more details on Conroy’s firing, noting that “not revealing such details could also risk resurrecting prior questions of religious bias.”