Ryan Reinstates House Chaplain After Priest Decided to Fight Dismissal
Father Conroy said he and Speaker Ryan will sit down together on Tuesday when the House is back in session.
At least one Catholic Republican welcomed the news: “This should never have happened. He’s a good man, he’s a good chaplain and if they want to make a change this is not the way to do it,” said a surprised Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, who had been critical of the speaker’s decision. “He deserved better and now he’s gotten better.”
Mr. King said that he understood why the chaplain complained. “It’s a cloud over the Jesuit order, it’s a cloud over him if he goes out with this.”
If Mr. Ryan hoped the matter of Father Conroy’s firing would fade over the current spring recess, the speaker was delivered an unexpected slap and caved quickly. The dismissal of the chaplain had raised concerns with some Catholic Republican House members, and handed Democrats a political gift, last month. But the issue quieted after Congress left Washington last week.
Father Conroy’s letter was certain to stoke up the anger.
“I have never been disciplined, nor reprimanded, nor have I ever heard a complaint about my ministry during my time as House Chaplain,’’ Father Conroy wrote.
Complaining that Mr. Ryan never spoke to him in person, he also raised his Catholicism. When Mr. Ryan’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, informed him that the speaker was asking for his letter of resignation, he wrote, “I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause,’ and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like, “Maybe it’s time that we had a chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.”
Mr. Ryan, who is also Roman Catholic, responded quickly.
“My original decision was made in what I believed to be the best interest of this institution,” he said. “To be clear, that decision was based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves.”
But he did not want the fight that the chaplain was demanding.
And politics was sure to follow.
“From the first day he entered the chamber, Father Conroy has done a superb job tending to his flock with wisdom and kindness,” said Representative Bill Pascrell Jr. in a quickly released statement after the chaplain’s letter came to light. “The feeble excuses offered by Speaker Ryan are merely a pretext to cover for the whims of extremists in his caucus. Father Conroy is standing tall and I stand with him.”
Mr. Ryan moved quietly in April to remove the chaplain, who submitted his resignation when he was asked to, and said his last day would be May 24. The abrupt dismissal caused an immediate uproar in the House, as Catholic lawmakers of both parties demanded explanation from Mr. Ryan. In a closed-door meeting with Republicans, the speaker said he had received complaints about Father Conroy’s pastoral care, according to several lawmakers who attended.
But in an interview with The New York Times, Father Conroy said he thought that a prayer he delivered in November when Congress was debating a tax overhaul may have been a factor in the speaker’s decision. In his letter to Mr. Ryan, the chaplain said that Mr. Burks, the chief of staff, had also mentioned the prayer, as well as an interview Father Conroy had given to The National Journal.
In the prayer, the chaplain urged lawmakers to “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” Shortly after, he said in the interview with the Times, he was admonished by Mr. Ryan, who views the tax overhaul as his signature achievement.
“Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,” he recalled the speaker saying.
After his reinstatement, the chaplain chuckled over the controversy: “The upside of the whole story is people are actually reading my prayers,” he said.
But the dismissal itself hints at politics. Father Conroy is a Jesuit, an order of priests viewed by some as more liberal. The hubbub around Father Conroy is all the more contentious in Catholic circles because Mr. Ryan is a Catholic conservative.
Mr. Ryan’s move also exposed long-simmering tensions between Catholics and evangelicals in the House. After Father Conroy was forced out, Representative Mark Walker, Republican of South Carolina and a Southern Baptist minister, suggested that the next chaplain should be a family man — a remark that caused upset among Catholic because it implied that Catholic priests, who take a vow of celibacy, would not be eligible.
Mr. Walker later removed himself from a committee looking for a replacement for Father Conroy.
Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America magazine, said it was “only just” that Father Conroy rescinded his resignation.
“Father Conroy’s firing was unjust, apparently motivated by no little anti-Catholicism, as his new letter indicates,” Father Martin said. “Speaker Ryan should have known that Jesuits have never been pushovers, especially when justice is at stake.”
In his letter to Mr. Ryan, Father Conroy took issue with Mr. Ryan’s apparent assertion that there were complaints about his pastoral care.
“This is not the reason that Mr. Burks gave me when asking for my ‘resignation,’ ” he wrote. “In fact, no such criticism has ever been leveled at me during my tenure as House chaplain. At the very least, if it were, I could have attempted to correct such ‘faults.’ In retracting my resignation I wish to do just that.”