The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Longtime U.S. House chaplain on Jan. 6, the dangers of ‘apocalyptic thinking’ and why there’s room to be pro-choice in Catholicism

The Rev. Pat Conroy was U.S. House chaplain for 10 years and retired a few days before the insurrection

The Rev. Pat Conroy speaks during a memorial service at the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol in September 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
6 min

In his decade as chaplain of the U.S. House, the Rev. Pat Conroy tried to summon higher forces in support of those working in Congress. The smiley Jesuit did that through spiritual counseling and the regular prayers he offered in the chamber. But by Jan. 6, 2021, Conroy felt the weight of growing division in the Capitol and a political culture that he feels has erased time for reflection and transformed politicians from respected leaders into hired guns. The role of a spiritual guide in the building has become less clear, he says.

The week of the insurrection was Conroy’s first week out of the chaplain position in a decade — he left Jan. 3 — and he has had a chance to reflect on changes that led to the insurrection and to a changed America. In an interview from Washington state, where he serves now as a campus minister at Gonzaga University, he spoke about the “apocalyptic thought” that “has poured into the public discourse,” what he would have prayed in the House after the insurrection, and talks for the first time in his career about abortion law and why Catholicism respects a woman’s right to choose.

Conroy spoke in late December to Lew Nescott Jr., an independent interviewer who produces videos on religion and politics in America. Conroy added a few details this week to The Post. Lightly edited excerpts are below:

Q: You weren’t at the House on Jan. 6, you were quarantining. If you had been in the House on Jan. 7, what would you have prayed?

A: “Lord we’ve had a terrible spirit in this building, send your spirit of peace and of healing and of reconciliation in a place badly in need of it.”

Q: Some think there’s an apocalyptic, end-of-days-type feel to this era. Do you agree?

A: I’m not an apocalyptic person. … Apocalyptic thought, those notions, pouring that out into the public discourse drums up fear. There are a lot of people banking on Americans continuing to be filled with fear. Politically they’re banking on it, economically they’re banking on it, it sells newspapers, it gets viewers, they’re all negative energies, they don’t build toward a positive future.

It’s like, in that sense, if you want to talk about spirit — this dark spirit would have us live in fear. In Jesus talk, when he first appears after the resurrection: “Do not fear” — it’s the first thing he says, like five times. “Do not fear.”

If you’re afraid of the apocalypse, amend your life! … If you’re afraid of the end: Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord, so when the Lord comes, he’ll recognize the place! He’ll be like: “Good work! You prepared the way for me! By healing people, helping people, forgiving people, lifting people up!” Stop the judgment, stop the anger, stop the blame.

Perspective: Some Capitol rioters believed they answered God’s call, not just Trump’s

Q: Where were you on Jan. 6, 2021? Did any members of Congress reach out?

A: On Jan. 6 I was in quarantine, as a member of our Jesuit community had tested positive, and sitting in my room at Gonzaga high school on North Capitol. I was waiting as well for my second Pfizer shot on Jan. 11.

Nobody thought of the no-longer-chaplain during those hectic days, nor since. The life of a member of Congress is very hectic and busy — not much opportunity for reflection or seeking someone to talk to. Not very healthy … in the past 30 years I would say the time for reflection and counsel has been minimal.

Q: In the summer of 2021, Catholic House Democrats issued a statement linking their faith to certain public policies. What do you make of that?

A: How do we, within our constitutional system, how do we get to our Catholic value in this case, [when women have] the right to choose. By the way, I want to know the American who thinks the government should take away their choice in any area of their life — any area of their life. It’s an American value that each one of us can choose where our life is going. That happens to be a Catholic value, too. That we should all use our gifts and our talents and our intelligence as best we can to make the best choices we have the freedom to make.

Sometimes we don’t have the freedom to make really important choices because of fear, because of oppression, because of poverty, because of all kinds of things. Choice is a highly American value and it’s a church value. [Twelfth-century Italian priest and Catholic philosophical giant] Thomas Aquinas says if your conscience says to do something the church says is a sin, you are bound to follow your conscience. That’s Thomas Aquinas!

A horn-wearing ‘shaman.’ A cowboy evangelist. For some, the Capitol attack was a kind of Christian revolt.

A good Catholic in our system could be saying: Given women in our system have this constitutional right, our task as fellow Christians, or as Catholics, is to make it possible for her to optimize her ability to make the choice.

So a pro-choice Democrat isn’t a pro-abortion person but the debate has snatched that. So immediately any pro-choice Democrat is judged as pro-abortion.

(Conroy added to The Post that “there is no debate, in my mind, about the tragedy of abortion.” He said the system should do everything it can to help women make the choice not to abort. However, he said “she is the one to make her choice; we should not make it for her.”)

Q: Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign slogan was that the race was a “battle for the soul of America.” What do you think that means?

A: Racial justice. We have a heavily divided country on whether we have it or need it. The notion just baffles me, considering the history of who has actually been forgotten by our system from day one and it isn’t White people.

Q: From your point of view as a chaplain and a lawyer, do you see work of lawmakers as moral, religious or secular?

A: The purpose of politics is providing for the common good. Pope Francis said that to Congress: Your work is holy work if it’s for the common good.

Q: Doesn’t that sound like a religious imperative?

A: It’s a moral imperative. Whether or not we’re religious. Our work, all of our work should be for the common good. [Conroy then quotes from Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which says via taxes the Congress shall “provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”] I’d say one party, but maybe everyone, knows all about the defense part, the funding of the defense part, not the funding of the common welfare.

On this interview, Jeff Oppenheim served as senior producer and Alibe Hamacher as segment producer. The interview was recorded at the National Press Club on Dec. 27, 2021.