The Slatest

Why Did Paul Ryan Ax the House Chaplain?

Father Patrick Conroy speaking in the Capitol in 2017.
Father Patrick Conroy speaking in the Capitol in 2017.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On April 16, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced a personnel change among the House of Representatives staff: Father Patrick Conroy, the House chaplain since 2011, who opens each daily session with a prayer and advises members on faith matters, would be stepping down in May.

“As chaplain, Father Conroy has been a great source of strength and support to our community,” Ryan’s office said in a statement. “He is deeply admired by members and staff. Father Conroy’s ministry here has made a difference, and we are all very grateful to him.”

Left out of the appreciative send-off was the fact that Ryan’s office had forced him out, as first reported by The Hill today.

The speaker’s chief of staff had approached Conroy and asked him for his resignation, or he would be fired. Conroy agreed to resign. In his first resignation letter—“Dear Paul, the Peace of Christ!” it opened—Conroy wrote that the “time of my departure is to be determined in conversation with your Chief of Staff anon.” Anon, indeed. In a second letter dated the same day, April 15, Conroy wrote that “after mutual consideration, it is determined my final day will be 24 May 2018.”

There hadn’t been much knowledge of Ryan’s decision until this morning, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi brought it up in a Thursday whip meeting. Shocked Democrats were in a “furor” over the issue. Pelosi, according to an aide, was given advance notice of the move, but made it clear to the speaker that “she disagreed with this decision.” AshLee Strong, a spokesperson for Ryan, told Slate that Pelosi was consulted on the decision, though the final decision was the speaker’s.

So what gives?

Numerous Democratic sources suggest that Conroy, a Jesuit, may have, well, emphasized those aspects of Catholicism that don’t precisely jibe with the Republican economic agenda. They all point to a Nov. 6 opening prayer delivered by Conroy, while tax reform was under debate, which Speaker Ryan didn’t care for.

“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,” the chaplain said. “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.”

It was the last time Conroy spoke of tax reform on the floor. A Republican aide claims that “there was not a specific prayer that led” to the resignation request.

Conroy doesn’t give the opening prayer every day, sometimes delegating the task to guests. That raises another claim numerous Democrats told me: That some conservative evangelicals within the Republican conference fumed when Conroy invited an imam to deliver the opening prayer last October. (An imam also delivered the opening prayer in 2014 and, in researching this post, I found that it had become an interesting source of conversation among the dregs of the Internet.)

The case of the fired Catholic economic justice warrior who’s always lettin’ Muslims speak lit a fire when news broke out on Thursday, and will continue to be a source of intriguing Capitol Hill drama. By Thursday afternoon, Democratic Reps. Carol Shea-Porter, Gerry Connolly, and Marcy Kaptur, and Republican Rep. Walter Jones—a convert to Catholicism who is currently waging a primary battle from the establishment wing of the GOP—began circulating for signatures a letter to Ryan seeking more information on the removal.

“Not revealing such details could also risk resurrecting prior questions of religious bias,” the letter reads. “Absent transparency, we are also concerned about the implicit damage done to the reputation of the House chaplain personally. Continued silence on this matter could allow unfair and utterly unfounded inferences to be made about his character and the evenhandedness of the House on dealing in matters of faith.”