House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) reversed course Thursday and agreed to keep the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy on as House chaplain after an extraordinary showdown that included the priest alleging anti-Catholic bias by Ryan’s chief of staff.
Conroy, who was forced to step down by Ryan last month, sent the speaker a letter rescinding his resignation and vowing to remain until the end of the year. Within hours Ryan had backed down, ending the possibility of what the speaker feared would be a “protracted fight” over what is supposed to be a unifying and spiritual position in the partisan chamber.
Ryan defended his original decision and continued to question whether Conroy was delivering sufficient “pastoral services” to the entire House. “I intend to sit down with Father Conroy early next week so that we can move forward for the good of the whole House,” he said.
The decision capped a highly unusual dispute between the Catholic speaker, who announced last month that he would retire, and a Jesuit priest who has spent seven years serving as the spiritual adviser to 435 lawmakers and thousands of congressional staffers.
Just a week ago, Conroy’s ouster had threatened to spark a political and theological firestorm. Most lawmakers thought Conroy’s original resignation, announced in mid-April, was voluntary, but Ryan faced a bipartisan backlash, particularly among the more than 140 Catholics in the House, when word spread that he had forced the priest into retirement.
Congress is away on a one-week break, and some GOP advisers hoped the issue would die down amid the flurry of other news. But then Conroy issued a two-page letter early Thursday accusing Ryan’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, of anti-Catholic bias.
Conroy spelled out in the most detail yet his April 13 confrontation with Burks that set the stage for his resignation days later.
The priest asked why he was being forced out. “Maybe it’s time that we had a chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic,” Burks said, according to Conroy’s account.
Conroy says Burks also brought up an opening prayer the priest delivered in November and an interview with National Journal in January.
During the tax-cut debate, Conroy delivered a prayer that some took as siding with Democrats. “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all,” Conroy said.
In the interview with National Journal in January, Conroy questioned whether Congress was rushing to judgment in pushing some lawmakers out of office who were accused of sexual misconduct.
In a statement from Ryan’s office Thursday, Burks took issue with Conroy’s version of events.
“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,” Burks said in the statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested she still wanted answers from Ryan about his original decision. “Speaker Ryan’s decision to accept Father Conroy’s decision to rescind his resignation and finish his term is welcome news. However, many distressing questions must still be answered about the motivations behind Father Conroy’s unwarranted and unjust dismissal,” she said in a statement.
Conroy is just the second Catholic priest to serve as chaplain, but those two priests have held the position since 2000. Conroy wrote that he initially believed Ryan had the power to fire him when he had the clash with Burks, so he submitted his first resignation letter April 15.
Conroy, who said he is under the “advice of counsel,” questioned whether Ryan has that power because his position is an office of the House, voted upon for a two-year term at the start of each Congress. The chaplain, who had intended to resign May 24, believes there was no just cause for him to be ousted from the position.
“I have never been disciplined, nor reprimanded, nor have I ever heard a complaint about my ministry during my time as House chaplain,” Conroy wrote Thursday.
In previous statements, Ryan denied that the Jesuit priest’s political views played any role in the ouster and said he had heard numerous complaints about Conroy’s lack of interaction with lawmakers. He reiterated that position in his statement Thursday.
“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.
Conroy’s term lasts through the end of this year. It will be up to the leaders of the next Congress to decide whether to keep Conroy or consider a new chaplain.
The chaplain issue flared up last week after The Washington Post reported that Conroy had been forced into resigning by Ryan, following a period where most lawmakers believed he was resigning of his own volition.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned the timing of the decision and complained that Ryan had given only vague reasons for why Conroy was pushed out.
Ryan has said numerous lawmakers complained to him about Conroy’s services but none have spoken publicly about their criticism, which created a vacuum that Conroy and his defenders filled.
They have suggested that the priest was pushed out because of an anti-Catholic bias among some of the evangelical Republicans in Congress, as well as the belief of some conservative lawmakers that Conroy fit in with some of the more liberal positions held by the Jesuit community.