House

Conservative leader: Next House chaplain should have a family

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), one of the leaders of the committee searching for a replacement for the ousted House chaplain, said the next spiritual leader of the House should be someone with a family who can better relate to and counsel lawmakers with spouses and children.

Father Patrick Conroy, who was forced out by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), is celibate by virtue of his Catholic faith.  

"I'm looking for somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, Republicans and Democrats who are going through, back home the wife, the family ... that has some counseling experience ... because what's needed in the body here is people who can sit down with different members, male, female, Democrat, Republican, and just talk about what it is kind of to be up here," Walker, a Southern Baptist minister and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told reporters Thursday.

Walker, who is also co-chair of the Prayer Caucus, didn't explicitly say another Catholic could not serve as House chaplain. But he made clear he preferred a nondenominational religious leader who had experience with family life.

"I don't think just because you are of that particular strain of faith, that prevents you from doing it. That doesn't mean [a Catholic] can't minister people," Walker continued.

"But when you walk the journey of having a kid back home that's struggling or made some bad decisions, or when you have a separation situation or your wife's not understanding the [congressional] schedule, having somebody who's walked in those shoes allows you to immediately relate a little bit more than others."

"I'm probably looking for somebody more of a nondenominational background, that has a multicultural congregation," said Walker, who is leading the search for a new chaplain with Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), a pastor, and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), an Air Force Reserve chaplain.

Some Catholic Democrats erupted upon hearing Walker's comments. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said some lawmakers had surmised that Ryan's move was designed to appease anti-Catholic sentiments in the GOP conference. Walker, Connolly said, "is now confirming our fears."

"We, on its face, would consider such a remark to be anti-Catholic - on its face. So you're eliminating anyone who's a Catholic priest - a Catholic nun - from being the chaplain of the House. The largest denomination in the country," Connolly said.

"Now, I don't know if Walker knows that's what he really said. But to any Catholic ears, that's what we heard."

Other Catholics on Capitol Hill also took offense to Walker's suggestion that someone with a family would be better equipped to serve as the spiritual counselor to the House.

"Would that preclude any Catholic priest ever serving as a minister? I would ask that rhetorically back to him," said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the Democratic Caucus chairman.

If that's what Walker is saying, "then no Catholic priest would ever serve as the spiritual reverend here to the House of Representatives," Crowley said.

Asked if there is an anti-Catholic bias permeating the House of Representatives, Crowley replied:

"Look, Paul Ryan is a Catholic. I just think it's interesting that when the former Catholic Speaker [John Boehner (R-Ohio)] was leaving, he invited the Pope to speak before the House of Representatives. When the current Catholic Speaker [Paul Ryan] is leaving, he's asking only the second Catholic spiritual leader on the House floor to leave."

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.), the only Democrat currently on the chaplain search committee, was furious after Thursday's vote series, and went immediately to try to meet with Ryan in his office. Ryan was absent, Cleaver said afterwards, but Cleaver met with Ryan's chief of staff and "the chief is trying to set something up."

 

"All I would like is to prevent us from looking like the House of Clowns," Cleaver, a United Methodist pastor, said after leaving Ryan's office. "And having yet another controversy that may boil down to fighting over religion and which side is right - this is just not healthy."

Both GOP and Democratic sources told The Hill Ryan's office told Conroy, House chaplain for the past seven years, that he must retire or that he would be fired.

It's unclear what led to Conroy's ouster. But Crowley said it's his understanding that Conroy was pushed out because he offered a prayer on the House floor that could have been perceived as being critical of the GOP tax-cut bill.

"It's reprehensible," Crowley said.

- Updated at 6:45 p.m. Melanie Zanona contributed.

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