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Ryan dismisses House chaplain, leaving lawmakers demanding answers

Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy offered prayer April 24 for the House of Representatives. Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) recently dismissed Conroy from the chamber. (Video: C-SPAN)

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) dismissed the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy this month as chaplain of the chamber, an unusual decision that angered some of the Jesuit priest’s allies in Congress.

Ryan made no mention of the reasons behind Conroy’s ouster in an April 16 announcement, leaving the impression among most lawmakers that the priest was leaving voluntarily. The speaker called Conroy “a great source of strength and support to our community” and said the priest is “deeply admired by members and staff.”

But the issue blew up in recent days as lawmakers began to speak to the chaplain, whose public role is to offer the opening prayer each day the House is in session — but whose private role, far more importantly, is to serve as pastoral counsel to the entire community on the House side of the Capitol.

The issue has also split Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Pelosi, according to a senior aide, disagreed with the decision and told Ryan that she had heard only good things about Conroy.

Ryan’s office disputed that Pelosi opposed the decision, suggesting that Ryan would not have taken the action if Pelosi fully objected.

“While it was the speaker’s decision, she and her office were fully read in, and did not object,” AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.

In his letter of resignation, Conroy made clear that he was leaving at Ryan’s request.

“As you have requested, I hereby offer my resignation as the 60th chaplain of the United States House of Representatives,” Conroy wrote to Ryan on April 16.

“I have seen it as a blessing and I have considered it one of the great privileges of my life,” he added.

Approached Thursday about Ryan’s decision, Conroy said he did not want to talk in the media about the matter, declining further comment.

In an interview with the New York Times, Conroy said he did not know whether politics were behind his departure. But he pointed to a prayer he had given on the House floor in November, when Congress was debating tax overhaul legislation.

“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 at the time. “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.”

About a week later, Conroy told the Times, he heard from the speaker’s office. “A staffer came down and said, We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political,” he said.

Shortly after, when he saw Ryan himself, Conroy said that the speaker told him: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

After consulting with Ryan’s staff, Conroy set May 24 as his last day in office. At Wednesday’s House GOP caucus, Ryan announced that Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) would lead a bipartisan committee to recommend a replacement for Conroy.

During Thursday evening votes, after news broke of Conroy’s dismissal, lawmakers in both parties voiced concern, particularly Catholics. “Well, I still don’t understand why he was asked to leave,” said Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), citing several possible reasons that might placate his anger at the decision. “I have gotten to know him pretty well and I didn’t understand it.”

Second Catholic priest appointed to serve as House chaplain

Sensitivities began to escalate as lawmakers talked about the type of replacement needed for Conroy. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), part of the group searching for the next chaplain, suggested 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 upset about the legislative schedule.

“Having someone who’s walked in those shoes, I think, allows you to immediately relate a little bit more than others,” Walker told reporters.

That outraged some Catholics, who felt Walker was eliminating Catholic priests from consideration because of their vows of celibacy. “Evidently that would mean that no Catholic priest ever apply again to be a chaplain of the House of Representatives, if that’s a standard,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a Catholic who had two uncles who were priests.

Later, Walker expanded on his remarks to clarify that he would consider a priest for the position.

“A priest or pastor over parishioners with families who have situations, those kind of things,” he said. “What I mean by that is to make sure they have experience in dealing with family issues.”

Conroy is just the second Catholic priest to serve as House chaplain, after the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, who was chosen for the post in 2000 after a months-long protest by Catholic lawmakers. In late 1999, a bipartisan committee had recommended a different priest for the post, but the Republican leaders at the time chose a Presbyterian minister instead. After a protracted fight, Coughlin was chosen for the post, making history as the first Catholic chaplain.

Coughlin served until 2011, when John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), then the speaker, chose Conroy to succeed him.

Boehner, Pelosi and Ryan are all Catholic.

Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) are circulating a letter to Ryan that will ask for an explanation, trying to gain signatures from both parties and from all denominations.

“Is this a content judgment? We have no answers,” said Connolly, also a Catholic. “The House deserves better than that.”

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