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ryan fires chaplain

Rev. Patrick Conroy, Chaplain of the House (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Ahough Ryan himself is not talking, it’s pretty clear to everyone on Capitol Hill that mild-mannered House Chaplain Patrick Conroy was forced out by the Speaker because he had the unmitigated gall to open the Nov. 6, 2017, session with a prayer that included these words:

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 [the Members’] efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

​Rev. Conroy, a Jesuit priest steeped in Catholic social justice tradition, has made it clear that did not think his prayer was “political” in any way. In his view, he was merely stating the obvious in inviting House members to bear in mind that “institutions and structures” have real world consequences and that a major consequence in recent decades has been rapidly widening inequality. ​

Asking God to guide the nation’s legislators in not aggravating inequality as they re-write the tax code ​strikes me as a reasonable thing to include in a public prayer.

​Asking God to guide the nation’s legislators in not aggravating inequality as they re-write the tax code ​strikes me as a reasonable thing to include in a public prayer. But it clearly did not strike Speaker Ryan that way. Ryan detailed his chief of staff to tell the errant priest to pack up his things. According to Conroy, Ryan’s only direct words to the chaplain were these: “Padre, you need to stay out of politics.”

There are a couple of ironies here.

First, unless I’m mistaken, it’s Ryan’s own Republican Party that claims to be preoccupied with protecting religious speech. That’s unless such speech upsets their sense of decorum or challenges their ethics, apparently.

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Second, if Ryan were as smart as he claims, he could have taken the chaplain’s exact words to declare that “balanced benefits” was his goal as well in promoting the tax bill. Hence, no problem. We all recall that Ryan did proclaim (falsely, but never mind) that the bill as passed was a boon to the struggling middle class.

I expect that the real problem here is that legislators, including Ryan, expect their chaplain to function solely as a comforter and never as a questioner. After all, that’s what royals expect of their chaplains, from the early Middle Ages right down to the present day.

And, indeed, the cover story that GOP leaders are now spreading about Father Conroy’s termination is that he wasn’t sufficiently pastoral and didn’t provide enough comfort following the shootings at the ill-fated baseball game last year.

As anyone who’s ever been forced out of a job in ministry knows, that is always the standard line used when they want to get rid of you: he or she is not sufficiently pastoral.

peter laarman 2018

​Meanwhile the search is on for a new House chaplain. I guess they won’t be hiring an Amos anytime soon.

Peter Laarman
Religion Dispatches