Faith

Ryan Flips on Firing of Chaplain After Allegation of Anti-Catholic Statement from Chief of Staff

House Chaplain Father Pat Conroy, along with Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), attends a swearing-in ceremony for new Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on Sept. 14, 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON —  House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) changed his mind on ousting the House chaplain shortly after Father Pat Conroy sent Ryan a letter today rescinding his forced resignation, thereby daring the GOP leader to fire the Jesuit.

That letter alleged anti-Catholic sentiments expressed from Ryan’s chief of staff to the priest in explaining the reason for the ouster.

Congress is out this week, but a bipartisan group was planning maneuvers next week to hold Ryan’s feet to the fire on the surprise ouster of Conroy.

Conroy, though, sent a letter to Ryan today declaring, “upon advice of counsel,” the “immediate retraction” of the resignation tendered April 15, effective May 24, at the request of Ryan.

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.

“I have honorably served in that role” since election, the priest noted in the letter, and “have never been disciplined, nor reprimanded, nor have I ever heard a complaint about my ministry during my time as House Chaplain. It is my desire to continue to serve as House Chaplain in this 115th United States Congress to the end of my current two-year term, and beyond, unless my services are officially terminated (however that is properly done) or I am not re-elected to the position by the membership of the House.”

“While you never spoke with me in person, nor did you send me any correspondence, on Friday, April 13th, 2018, your Chief of Staff, Jonathan Burks, came to me and informed me that you were asking for my letter of resignation. I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause,’ and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like ‘maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.’ He also mentioned my November prayer and an interview with the National Journal Daily.”

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.

“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 in a prayer opening the session on Nov. 6, as the tax reform bill was being considered.

“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.”

Burks said in a statement today, “I strongly disagree with Father Conroy’s recollection of our conversation. I am disappointed by the misunderstanding, but wish him the best as he continues to serve the House.”

In his letter today, Conroy told Ryan that the visit from the Speaker’s chief of staff left the priest assuming that he had “little choice but to resign.”

The priest took issue with Ryan’s later explanation to the GOP caucus that Conroy’s “pastoral services” were lacking; Conroy said Burks never brought that up in asking for the resignation. “In fact, no such criticism has ever been leveled against me during my tenure as House Chaplain,” he wrote. “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.”

Conroy told Ryan that he could go ahead and fire him, but it would be without the requested offer of resignation.

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

“My original decision was made in what I believed to be the best interest of this institution. To be clear, that decision was based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves,” Ryan said. “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. I intend to sit down with Father Conroy early next week so that we can move forward for the good of the whole House.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who with Rep. Walt Jones (R-N.C.) and other lawmakers was leading the fight to get answers on Conroy’s firing, called the anti-resignation letter a “bombshell.”

“I applaud Speaker Ryan’s decision to accept Fr Pat Conroy’s rescission to resign as Chaplain of the House,” Connolly tweeted. “Now we can begin the healing process after this ugly, unwarranted incident.”