The abrupt ouster and reinstatement of the U.S. House chaplain are exposing tensions among House Republicans about the role of a vocal Jesuit Catholic priest in Congress in the era of Pope Francis.
The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, who was forced out by Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) after seven years as chaplain and then allowed to remain on the job after an uproar, makes it clear that he follows Francis’s liberal teachings on the poor, immigration and climate change.
Those and other issues put him at odds with many House Republicans, including some evangelical Protestants.
Conroy and his defenders see anti-Catholic bias in his treatment. The priest thinks it was his theology that nearly cost him his job, according to his attorney, Daniel Marchese. In an interview Friday, Marchese said that he asked Conroy, whom he met when he was a Georgetown University student and Conroy was the chaplain there: “What do you really want?”
“I want my job back,” Conroy replied.
With that they began drafting the letter that would rescind his resignation and form the basis of several complaints against Ryan’s office, the most highly charged being that the speaker’s top aide, Jonathan Burks, suggested it was time to have a non-Catholic as chaplain in justifying the move to force Conroy, 67, to step down.
“The reason was, they wanted the Catholic out. And that’s called discrimination,” Marchese said in a telephone interview from his New Jersey law office.
Burks on Thursday disagreed with Conroy’s recollection of the events. Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in a statement Friday, “To suggest there is any anti-Catholic bias in the speaker’s office is not only wrong but absurd.”
In Congress and in Washington’s Catholic community, Conroy’s actions and words have been interpreted differently.
“Scrupulously nonpartisan,” John Carr, who runs an institute on Catholic thought in public life at Georgetown, said of Conroy.
Said the Rev. Raymond Kemp, a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington: “With Conroy, in a private conversation, you know exactly where you stand. I think that Conroy puts it out there. Conroy is intent. I’d say he’s aggressive, even. . . . He’s definitely for the underdog.”
Conroy has cited a prayer he delivered during last fall’s tax-cut debate as another reason for his initial dismissal.
“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 November.
Catholic activists say that it all comes down to how one views a Francis-following Jesuit in the halls of a partisan Congress.
Several House Republicans have said they hold no animus toward Conroy because of his Catholicism.
“We worship the same God and have the same savior in Jesus Christ,” Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), a Southern Baptist, said amid the uproar last week. “There was a couple of issues that I’ve gone to him on where I needed prayer. He’s our chaplain.”
But Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) initially suggested the chaplain should be someone “that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk” of lawmakers and the problems they face with children who “made some bad decisions” or a spouse who is upset about the legislative schedule.
Walker later sought to clarify his comments and said he would consider a priest for the position.
Remarks by Republicans suggesting the next chaplain should have a spouse and children struck many as anti-Catholic, because priests’ vows forbid it.
“Clearly celibacy is anathema on Capitol Hill,” Marchese said.
Ryan, who is Catholic, said that he had not dismissed Conroy because of his theology or any perceived liberal viewpoints but because of complaints from members about the chaplain’s pastoral care. In reversing his decision, Ryan said Thursday that he had acted “based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves.”
That surprised many in the Jesuit order of priests, who have long followed Conroy’s career.
During his training to be ordained, Conroy earned not only degrees in theology and philosophy but also a law degree from Saint Louis University, and in the 1980s he worked as both a lawyer and a priest for Native American communities in Washington state.
“The charge that he doesn’t know how to provide good pastoral services is absurd, because he’s been a pastor of the church many times and he’s ministered to a wide variety of people. . . . His pastoral skills are beyond reproach,” said the Rev. James Martin, a fellow Jesuit and the editor-at-large of America, a Jesuit magazine. “He had served as pastor at several parishes on Native American reservations — those are very challenging assignments.”
Conroy also spent years in chaplaincy, including three years at Seattle University and more than 10 years at Georgetown.
Kemp, who worked at Georgetown at the same time as Conroy, said he recalls being astonished that Conroy would obtain the names and photographs of incoming Catholic students from the registrar each summer. When students arrived on campus, Conroy had already memorized their names.
Even with that dedication to personal outreach, Kemp said, Conroy might still have struggled to meet the pastoral needs of the House. “He has 435 representatives. And each of those have a staff of 10 or so,” he said. “You’ve got 4,350 people. That’s a major-size parish in the United States of America.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Friday that Conroy played an important pastoral role for many members. When Connolly’s communications director, George Burke, died in 2015, he said, Conroy volunteered without having been asked to lead a memorial service, which meant a lot to grieving staffers.
Connolly described Conroy as a close follower of Francis and as a chaplain willing to tangle with lawmakers on political issues: “He is well read, and he’s quite current with current arguments within the church about, say, Pope Francis’s encyclicals and his direction for the church and some of the arguments about social justice and pro-life issues and the like. And Pat’s very well equipped to hear our points of view and be respectful of them while also offering his own take on those issues.”
Connolly said he thinks Conroy’s emphasis on Catholic teachings on issues that Francis prioritizes — including climate change and immigration — led to his dismissal.
“That makes some people, more-ideological conservatives, uncomfortable both within and outside of the church. That’s not [Ryan’s] Catholicism,” Connolly said. “. . . The real reason is some right-wing elements from the Christian right, evangelical right, apparently weren’t comfortable with an urban Catholic Jesuit priest.”
Kemp said that Conroy has been unafraid for years to make lawmakers in both parties aware when he disagrees with them, whether it’s Republicans on refugee resettlement or Democrats on abortion.
That gets interpreted as taking a side, whether the chaplain intends to or not, said Raymond Arroyo, the lead anchor on the conservative Catholic television network EWTN. “I just think he was probably talking about the issues,” Arroyo said, “and to older members in particular, this probably strikes them as partisanship. He’s teaching Catholic social doctrine.”
“I could imagine Father Conroy talking about these things and members seeing this as partisan,” Arroyo said, “where in his mind, he’s probably just reflecting what the pope says.”
Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.