Paul Ryan dismissed the House chaplain, and lawmakers want to know why
By Paul Kane
Apr 26, 2018 at 7:45 PM
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dismissed the Rev. Patrick Conroy this month as chaplain of the chamber, an unusual decision that angered some of the Jesuit priest's allies in Congress.
Ryan made no mention of the reasons behind Conroy's ouster in an April 16 announcement, leaving the impression among most lawmakers that the priest was leaving voluntarily. The speaker called Conroy "a great source of strength and support to our community. He is deeply admired by members and staff."
But the issue blew up in recent days as lawmakers began to speak to the chaplain, whose public role is to offer the opening prayer each day the House is in session - but whose private role, far more importantly, is to serve as pastoral counsel to the entire community on the House side of the Capitol.
The issue has also split Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Pelosi, according to a senior aide, disagreed with the decision and told Ryan that she had heard only good things about Conroy.
Ryan's office disputed that Pelosi opposed the decision, suggesting that Ryan would not have taken the action if Pelosi fully objected.
After consulting with Ryan's staff, Conroy set May 24 as his last day in office. At Wednesday's House GOP caucus, Ryan announced that Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Ga., would lead a bipartisan committee to recommend a replacement for Conroy.
During Thursday evening votes, after news broke of Conroy's dismissal, lawmakers in both parties voiced concern, particularly Catholics. "Well, I still don't understand why he was asked to leave," said Rep. Frank 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."
Sensitivities began to escalate as lawmakers talked about the type of replacement needed for Conroy. Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., part of the group searching for the next chaplain, suggested someone "that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk" of lawmakers and the problems they face with children who "made some bad decisions" or a spouse upset about the legislative schedule.
"Having someone who's walked in those shoes, I think, allows you to immediately relate a little bit more than others," Walker told reporters.
That outraged some Catholics, who felt Walker was eliminating Catholic priests from consideration because of their vows of celibacy. "Evidently that would mean that no Catholic priest ever apply again to be a chaplain of the House of Representatives, if that's a standard," said Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., a Catholic who had two uncles who were priests.
Later, Walker expanded on his remarks to clarify that he would consider a priest for the position.
"A priest or pastor over parishioners with families who have situations, those kind of things," he said. "What I mean by that is to make sure they have experience in dealing with family issues."
Conroy is just the second Catholic priest to serve as House chaplain, after the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, who was chosen for the post in 2000 after a months-long protest by Catholic lawmakers. In late 1999, a bipartisan committee had recommended a different priest for the post, but the Republican leaders at the time chose a Presbyterian minister instead. After a protracted fight, Coughlin was chosen for the post, making history as the first Catholic chaplain.
Coughlin served until 2011, when John Boehner, R-Ohio, then the speaker, chose Conroy to succeed him.
Boehner, Pelosi and Ryan are all Catholic.
Reps. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., are circulating a letter to Ryan that will ask for an explanation, trying to gain signatures from both parties and from all denominations.