Paul Ryan fires the House chaplain, angering Catholic Republicans

Did Ryan fire the House chaplain over GOP tax cuts? More importantly, why does the House even have a chaplain?

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published April 27, 2018 12:33PM (EDT)

Paul Ryan (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
Paul Ryan (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

Tax cuts for the wealthy: That is reportedly the reason why House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asked the House chaplain to vacate his position.  

Patrick Conroy, the House chaplain since 2011, was suddenly forced out of his job last week by Ryan, according to the religious leader’s April 15 resignation letter. Even though the dismissal message from Ryan was delivered by his chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, since news of the chaplain's firing spread across Capitol Hill this week, Ryan has faced accusations that he simply couldn’t handle criticism of his tax law by a man of the faith. One prayer particularly angered Ryan, according to Democratic lawmakers and staffers.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., told reporters that after speaking with Conroy, it was his understanding that the Jesuit priest was fired for offering a House prayer in November suggesting that the GOP tax bill should not create “winners and losers:” (emphasis added)

“God of the universe, we give You thanks for giving us another day. Bless the Members of this assembly as they set upon the work of these hours, of these days. . . . As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, 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. 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.

Father Conroy told The New York Times that Ryan, a well-known Catholic, told him after that prayer: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

Is it politically controversial for a chaplain to pray for Congress to do something that benefits all Americans, not just the very rich? AshLee Strong, a spokesperson for the speaker, declined to explain the personnel decision, noting only that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her office “were fully read in and did not object.”

Democrats, however, think that Father Conroy’s firing was political.

“Some of the more conservative evangelical Republicans didn’t like that the Father had invited a Muslim person to give the opening prayer,” an unnamed Democratic staffer told The Hill.

A Jesuit priest who actually had Muslims lead the prayers and used words like "equality" and "brother's keeper" in his prayers will now likely be replaced by an evangelical who adheres to the prosperity gospel and understands the value of GOP donors' money. Why do we have daily prayers in government buildings anyway?

“He said it was absolutely not political,” said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, describing Ryan’s closed-door remarks to the GOP caucus on Friday. But Catholic Republicans in the House remain less convinced.

“I’ve seen no evidence that he should have been removed,” Republican New York Rep. Steve King told The Washington Post. “To me it was not a satisfactory answer.”

“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.”

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., told NBC News that he also disagrees with Ryan's decision.

"It is just a sad commentary on America in the House that is supposed to be the House of the People — if we want to protect freedom of speech, a prayer here, then where are we going to protect it?" Jones asked.

Aren't we supposed to maintain separation of church and state?

The U.S. House and U.S. Senate each choose a designated religious leader, whose salaries are paid by American taxpayers, to serve as the respective chambers’ chaplains. Father Conroy was selected by former House speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, in 2011. Ryan has asked Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., to lead a bipartisan group of members in looking at potential replacements for Conroy. According to Roll Call, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., will serve as the lead member of the group for the Democrats.

Furthering angering Catholics in the House, some Republicans have suggested that Ryan not select another Catholic priest.

North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, told reporters that he’d prefer “somebody who has a little age, that has adult children.” Of course, Catholic priests are not allowed to marry.

But for all of their complaining, Catholic Republicans in the House haven’t moved to protect Father Conroy. Instead, Democrat Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D- Ohio, is exploring legislation to prevent his ouster.

Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the House, told Roll Call that she has not seen any chaplain pushed out as in her nearly three dozen years serving in Congress.  

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Father Patrick Conroy House Chaplain Paul Ryan Tax Cuts