Religious tensions flare after chaplain’s ouster


Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) removal of the House chaplain has ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill and exposed deep religious fault lines among members of Congress.

Catholics in both parties condemned Ryan’s ouster of Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest and the House’s spiritual leader since 2011, while Democrats of all religious stripes accused Ryan of injecting politics into the traditionally nonpolitical role. 

“The last thing we need in the midst of all of the chaos and dysfunctionality is an argument over religion in the halls of Congress,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a United Methodist pastor who is part of the small bipartisan panel that will recommend Conroy’s replacement.

The chaplain saga captivated the House on Thursday and into Friday, when Democrats forced a vote to create a select committee to investigate the unusual circumstances surrounding Conroy’s dismissal. The measure failed — only two Republicans backed it — but the backlash to Ryan’s decision was hardly partisan.

Impromptu remarks by Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a Southern Baptist preacher who’s also serving on the bipartisan search committee, have only stirred tensions further.

Walker, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told reporters Thursday he thought the next chaplain should have a family with “adult children” so they can better relate to and counsel lawmakers with spouses and kids.{mosads}

Democratic and some GOP lawmakers felt the comments were blatantly anti-Catholic since many Catholic priests, like Conroy, take a vow of celibacy. 

At a closed-door GOP conference meeting Friday, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a Catholic, stood up and took Walker to task for the remarks.

Walker, seen as someone with leadership ambitions, sought to clean up the comments both in the private GOP meeting and publicly with reporters. What he had meant to say, he said, was that he hopes to recommend someone who has experience “shepherding a flock” and working with families.

“That can be a bishop or a priest. That can be male or female,” Walker told reporters. “A bishop, a pastor, a minister, a priest is someone who has the instincts and can go administer to those that are hurting as opposed to someone who is always waiting [for people] to come to them.”

“I’m not drawing a direct line to Father Conroy, but to me, that is kind of the criteria you want moving forward,” Walker added.

King said he accepted Walker’s clarification, but some in Congress were not as forgiving.

“I don’t care who the next person of the cloth is who will be our next chaplain, but when you have people saying that they should have a family, that’s not fair to other religions,” said one Catholic GOP lawmaker. 

One House Democrat said Walker made the rounds Friday morning, apologizing to a handful of Catholic lawmakers for his remarks.

“He did not know what their impact would be,” the lawmaker said.

And Walker also used Friday’s votes to seek out Cleaver, who will serve alongside Walker in the search for the next chaplain.

“He said whatever he said didn’t come out exactly like he wanted it to be delivered,” Cleaver said after the pair spoke in the Speaker’s lobby just off the House floor. “We have agreed to some things that we’re going to jointly do to try to lower the temperature.”

He did not specify the nature of those things. And in a separate interview with reporters, Cleaver lambasted Walker’s “family” remarks as outright “bigotry.”

“When someone says we need somebody with a family, [how] is that not designed against Catholics. If Catholicity is something you don’t want, isn’t that bigotry?” Cleaver asked.

One barrier to the committee’s task of finding a new chaplain, Cleaver said, is the lingering uncertainty surrounding the reasons Conroy was pushed out. Ryan on Friday privately told GOP lawmakers it was because members felt Conroy had neglected their “pastoral needs,” according to several Republicans in attendance.

Conroy himself told The New York Times he was not informed of the Speaker’s rationale.

“That is unclear,” Conroy told the Times.

Cleaver warned that it would be difficult to pick Conroy’s replacement if lawmakers don’t know for sure why he was ousted.

“At some point it may be helpful for [Ryan] to come and address this committee and explain to us why Father Conroy was asked to resign,” Cleaver said, “because otherwise we don’t know what to look for.”

Ryan, who hails from a large Irish Catholic family, has asked Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) a longtime Air Force Reserve chaplain, to lead the search for Conroy’s replacement. The Speaker did not state any preference that the next chaplain be Catholic. In fact, the only criteria Ryan gave Collins was this: “Find the best person for the job.”

Asked whether the Conroy controversy had cast a cloud over the search process, Collins replied: “Transitions are always difficult. My hope is that this transition will be positive as we look toward the future.”

But many on the Hill found the timing of Conroy’s ouster peculiar, especially since the news broke just a couple weeks after Ryan announced he was retiring from Congress at the end of this term.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a devout Catholic, cracked that while in 2015 former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced his resignation from Congress a day after fulfilling his lifelong dream of hosting the Pope at the Capitol; one of Ryan’s final acts as Speaker was firing the Catholic House chaplain.

Threatening to exacerbate the partisan tensions, many Democrats are arguing that Ryan simply lacks the authority to oust the House chaplain, a figure who is selected by the Speaker but approved in a full House vote.

“He’s elected by us, and so it seems to me, unless there’s just cause — and there clearly is not just cause; there’s not any immoral thing that he’s done — then he should be able to fill out his term,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.).

“It’s very clear in our rules, how this should be handled. And the Speaker violated those rules,” echoed Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio).  “There has been no charge of wrongdoing. And if there was, then we need to know what it is.”

Ryan’s office has argued that the Speaker did not overstep his authority, since Conroy signed a letter of resignation that was presented to him by the Speaker’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks.

Cleaver, who met with Burks Thursday evening, said Ryan is leaning heavily on the resignation argument, ignoring the detail that the Speaker himself requested the chaplain step down.

The Democrats said Conroy, as a priest, should not be expected to play political hardball with the Speaker’s office.

“I think it was a forced resignation. He’s a Jesuit, he’s going to go by the rules, right? I mean, he has to resign,” Kaptur said. 

“Something under duress is always open to question.”

It’s not the first time controversy has swirled around the obscure House chaplain position. In 2000, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) chose a Presbyterian minister — one of three names recommended by a bipartisan nominating committee — to replace the outgoing chaplain. The pick drew howls from the minority Democrats, who accused the Republicans of neglecting a Catholic priest who had more support from the committee.

Hastert relented, appointing yet another Catholic priest who hadn’t been recommended at all. Daniel P. Coughlin, the first Catholic in the chaplain post, held it for more than 11 years.

“All hell broke loose about anti-Catholicism and bigotry,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) a Catholic Democrat who studied for the priesthood, recalled Thursday.

“Hastert was also a Catholic,” Connolly added, “but you can’t hide behind that.”

Melanie Zanona contributed.

Tags Boehner Dennis Hastert Doug Collins Gerry Connolly House chaplain Jim Costa John Boehner Marcy Kaptur Mark Walker Paul Ryan Pete King
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