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Democrats, and some Republicans, denounce Ryan’s ouster of House chaplain

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on April 27 she thinks House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was wrong to ask the House chaplain to resign. (Video: Peter Stevenson, Joyce Koh, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s decision to force the resignation of the House chaplain angered lawmakers of both parties Friday, prompting calls for explanations and investigations as the ouster threatened to spark a political and theological firestorm.

Ryan (R-Wis.) told House Republicans at a closed-door meeting Friday morning that he had received complaints about the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy centering on his pastoral style and believed that replacing the Catholic priest was in the best interest of the institution, according to participants.

He said the dismissal was not motivated by Conroy’s political views or a prayer the Jesuit gave in November on the House floor when the chamber was debating a tax bill.

“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,” Conroy said last fall, in an invocation that some interpreted as a political statement.

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)

Ryan’s assurances did little to assuage the concerns of Democrats and a number of Catholic Republicans who were close to Conroy. Absent a fuller explanation, several lawmakers speculated that his dismissal reflected anti-Catholic sentiment among evangelical conservatives.

All told, Conroy’s dismissal in the middle of a two-year term has triggered a moment of unusual discord in a House already beset by nasty partisan fights — mystifying observers who found it hard to fathom why Ryan, who is Catholic, would seek Conroy’s resignation in the middle of the congressional session.

“I’m not aware of any discontent or any criticism, and to be the first House chaplain removed in the history of Congress in the middle of the term raises serious questions, and I think we deserve more of an explanation of why,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who asked Ryan in the GOP meeting Friday to detail the reasons for his decision. “Paul said it was solely because he was not giving good service to the members. Again, I never heard that before.”

During House business Friday, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) rose on the floor, backed by dozens of lawmakers, and read a resolution praising Conroy and calling for an official investigation of his dismissal.

Crowley, the Democratic Caucus chairman, said the “circumstances behind this resignation compromise the integrity and dignity of the House” and asked that a six-member bipartisan select committee be formed to “investigate the motivations and actions” of the speaker.

The Republican-led House then voted mostly along party lines to quash the request. Two Republicans, Reps. Tom Reed (N.Y.) and Patrick Meehan (Pa.), stood with Crowley as he spoke and voted with the Democrats. Three more GOP lawmakers, Reps. David Joyce (Ohio), Thomas J. Rooney (Fla.) and Scott W. Taylor (Va.), voted present.

Several of Ryan’s GOP colleagues came to his defense after the closed-door meeting, which preceded the floor session.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said Ryan told lawmakers that his decision was not political but rather “that there were concerns expressed to him, the speaker, from a large number of members that their pastoral needs were not being met by Father Conroy.”

Others were dismayed at the uproar the ouster has created. “This is an unforced error that I hope doesn’t lead to other unforced errors,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.).

Conroy submitted a letter of resignation April 16, but a public announcement made that day by Ryan’s office left the impression that the resignation was voluntary. The text of Conroy’s resignation letter, which was widely circulated for the first time Thursday, made clear that he resigned at Ryan’s request.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), a Methodist minister who has been asked to participate in the search for a new chaplain, said Ryan’s chief of staff told him that concerns about Conroy’s pastoral care were behind the ouster.

But Cleaver called that an “excuse” and suggested that frictions between Conroy and conservative evangelical House members could be to blame: “That is a fact. I don’t think that is some kind of an unreasonable way of diagnosing what has happened.”

“This is ugly,” Cleaver added. “There’s only division coming out of this. Not anything positive.”

In a statement Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted that Conroy had been elected to a two-year term by the entire body.

“His abrupt, unjust dismissal is hard to understand and impossible to support,” Pelosi said.

In a subsequent interview, Pelosi explained that she had repeatedly told Ryan, in several discussions over the past couple of months, that it was not a good idea to push Conroy out. “I said no,” she said. “They said that’s what they wanted to do.”

She said she thought Ryan would drop the issue when he announced on April 11 that he would retire at the end of this year. But five days after that, Ryan announced that Conroy would step down effective May 24.

As chaplain, Conroy’s public role is to offer the opening prayer each day the House is in session. But his private role is to serve as pastoral counsel to the entire community on the House side of the Capitol.

In an interview with the New York Times, Conroy said he did not know whether politics was behind his departure, but he pointed to the prayer he recited on the House floor on Nov. 6, when Congress was debating tax overhaul legislation.

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

Shortly afterward, Conroy said that he saw Ryan, who told him, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

Ryan made no mention of the reasons for Conroy’s ouster in the April 16 announcement, in which he called him “a great source of strength and support to our community” and said the priest is “deeply admired by members and staff.”

Conroy is just the second Catholic priest to serve as House chaplain, following 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 recommended a different Catholic priest for the post, but Republican leaders chose a Presbyterian minister instead. After a protracted fight, Coughlin was selected, making history as the first Catholic chaplain.

Coughlin served until 2011, when then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) chose Conroy to succeed him. Boehner, Pelosi and Ryan are all Catholic.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security and brought Conroy along on a congressional trip to the Middle East, said he was “a little blindsided” by the dismissal.

“He’s been a good chaplain to me,” McCaul said. “Perhaps some people thought, you know, Jesuits sometimes lean a little bit on the liberal side — I’m accepting of that. I think, perhaps, with other members, that was an issue.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) — who, like McCaul, is Catholic — said he saw two theories behind the dismissal. One is the tax prayer, he said, “which makes them look silly.”

“Then there’s a dark theory,” he added. “That there’s a crowd that doesn’t like urban, Catholic Jesuits who have a broad-minded approach to things, and they want to replace him.”

Sensitivities began to escalate as lawmakers talked about the type of replacement needed for Conroy, who is set to leave May 24.

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a leader of the House conservative bloc, on Thursday suggested someone “that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk” of lawmakers and the problems they may 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 thought 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 Crowley, a Catholic who had two uncles who were priests.

On Friday, Walker said he did not consider celibacy a disqualification for a chaplain.

The next chaplain, he said, should be someone who has “tended a flock” and “has the instincts to go to someone who is hurting, not just waiting for someone to come to them.”

Erica Werner, Sean Sullivan and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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