House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly asked the House chaplain to resign two weeks ago because he was becoming “too political,” the chaplain claimed on Thursday.
House members from both parties on Friday morning sent Ryan a letter, first obtained by Roll Call, condemning the decision.
According to reports by both Politico and The New York Times, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy was forced out after Republican members of Congress allegedly became upset with the contents of some of his prayers — and particularly one he delivered in November, ahead of the passage of the GOP tax overhaul.
“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,” Conroy said during that prayer. “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.”
Although Conray says he was never given an official reason for his forced resignation, he told the Times the November prayer was likely the impetus.
“[A week after that prayer], a staffer [for Speaker Ryan] came down and said, ‘We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political,'” Conray said on Thursday. “It suggests to me that there are members who have talked to him about being upset with that prayer.”
Both Ryan and Conroy are Catholic, although Conroy is Jesuit — a more liberal and scholarly wing of Catholicism that tends to place more emphasis on Catholic social justice teachings — while Ryan is a Catholic conservative.
Conroy’s last day is May 24. He has served in the position since 2011.
— POLITICO (@politico) April 27, 2018
According to Democrats who spoke with Politico this week, Republican leaders may also have been upset with other recent moves from Conroy. They cited Conroy’s decision to invite a Muslim cleric to deliver a prayer on the House floor in October, as well as a Q&A interview he gave to the National Journal in January, during which he urged religious tolerance and spoke about the public rush to judgment following high profile instances of sexual misconduct.
“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,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told Politico on Thursday.
Connolly also bemoaned the process through which Conroy was reportedly asked to give his resignation. “He 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.'”
Although Conroy has been hesitant to speak publicly about the ouster, in a private email to a friend, obtained by Politico, the chaplain stated that he had never intended to resign, and that “members of both parties” were upset about his departure.
“I doubt that anything will change Ryan’s mind, but I think it important that Members know the truth,” he wrote.
Conroy also stated that, shortly after his November prayer on tax reform, the House speaker himself confronted the chaplain, suggesting topics over which he might pray instead. “[He told me] ‘Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,'” Conroy recalled. “That is what I have tried to do for seven years. It doesn’t sound political to me.”
Ryan’s office has since offered a conflicting narrative on the matter, simultaneously denying the claims while also insisting that Ryan indeed forced Conroy to resign and pointing out that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) could have stopped the ouster, but chose not to act.
“The speaker is a proud, deeply Catholic person and this charge is not only false but outrageous,” spokeswoman AshLee Strong said. “The speaker told Leader Pelosi that he would not move forward with the decision if she objected and she chose not to.”
Although a Pelosi aide confirmed the minority leader had been informed ahead of time, they said Pelosi had actually defended Conroy, telling Ryan the chaplain still had the confidence of many members of Congress.
That confirmation later prompted Strong to walk back her earlier assertion that Pelosi had done nothing to stop the ouster, telling Politico in a separate statement, “The speaker consulted with the minority leader, but the decision was his. He remains grateful for Father Conroy’s service.”
Ryan himself addressed the House Republican Conference Friday morning. “He said he had people coming that were saying they had a concern about that their pastoral needs weren’t being met,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) said, speaking with Roll Call.
Added, Rep. Mia Love (R-UT), “He assured us that [the November prayer] had nothing to do with it.”
— The Hill (@thehill) April 27, 2018
In a letter sent to Ryan on Friday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers demanded answers from Ryan about Conroy’s dismissal.
“The sensitive nature of this situation requires a description of the process followed to arrive at the decision and a justification for that decision,” Connolly, as well as Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Walter Jones (R-NC), and Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH), wrote. “…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.”
On Friday, Republican Rep. Mark Walker (NC) drew further criticism, after he made comments suggesting the next House chaplain should be non-denominational and have an established family life.
“I’m looking for somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, Republicans and Democrats who are going through, back home the wife, the family…that has some counseling experience. Because what’s needed in the body here is people who can sit down with different members, male, female, Democrat, Republican, and just talk about what it is kind of to be up here,” he told reporters, according to The Hill.
WALKER told GOP lawmakers today his family quote was "taken out of context" and that what he meant was the next chaplain should have experience w/ families.
Moments later, Walker told reporters the quote yesterday was accurate but "inartful." https://t.co/BPCRvhGvjp
— Scott Wong (@scottwongDC) April 27, 2018
Walker, a Southern Baptist minister, is currently leading the effort to find a new chaplain, along with fellow Republican Reps. Tim Walberg (R-MI) and Doug Collins (R-GA). His comments were seen as anti-Catholic, due to the vow of celibacy that Catholic priests take after becoming ordained.
Speaking to reporters later on Friday morning, Walker claimed his comments had been “taken out of context” and that he meant the next chaplain should have experience working with families. However, moments later, according to The Hill’s Scott Wong, the congressman walked back that statement as well, saying his comments as originally reported were “accurate but ‘inartful.'”