When I heard the news that the Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Father Patrick Conroy, had been asked to resign by the Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, several questions occurred to me almost immediately. The first was, "In a country with separation of church and state and no establishment of religion, why do we even have a House or Senate chaplain?" But the other was, "I never heard one bad thing about Father Conroy. So, why did Mr. Ryan force him out?"
As I understand it, chaplains are supposed to be non-partisan and non-controversial. The job itself has a long history-- the first House chaplain was the Reverend William Linn, back in 1789; similarly, the Senate also chose its first chaplain in 1789, electing Right Reverend Samuel Provost to the position. The main duties of congressional chaplains are to offer the opening prayer at the beginning of each session, to greet religious leaders who may come to Washington DC, and to provide pastoral counseling to the members of congress, when needed.
House Chaplain Father Conroy, a Jesuit priest (and the first Jesuit to occupy the role of House Chaplain), had served since 2011, and by all accounts, the announcement of his departure was a surprise, as was the fact that he was leaving at the request of Speaker Ryan. Details about why remain difficult to obtain, but some sources are reporting certain conservative Republican members of the House felt he was too friendly with Democrats, although no evidence for that assertion was offered. One representative, an Evangelical Christian, also made a comment that implied he wanted a minister rather than a priest to be chaplain; he said it was important for the next chaplain to have a family (something priests are not permitted to do).
Other Republicans seem to have objected to a prayer Father Conroy offered when the tax cuts were being debated this past November: he prayed that there would not be "winners and losers," but rather, that both the rich and the poor would equally benefit from the new tax law. After he gave that prayer, he was admonished by Speaker Ryan, and accused of being too political. (After reading that, I had another question: "Aren't chaplains supposed to cite Scripture? If I remember my Bible, compassion for the poor is mentioned often in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But I guess it shouldn't be mentioned in Congress.) Unfortunately for Father Conroy, many of his defenders were Democratic members; few if any Republicans spoke up on his behalf. I don't know if that's because he wasn't a good chaplain, or if the Republican members didn't want to contradict Speaker Ryan's decision.
I admit I find this situation mystifying. When I was an instructor at Emerson College in Boston, there was an opening for a Jewish chaplain, and I ended up in that position (the previous chaplain had retired, if my memory serves, and while there was a search for a replacement, I had the opportunity to step in for one semester). Interestingly, while students did come to me for spiritual guidance that semester, not one of them was Jewish. I counseled Protestant and Catholic students, using my background in counseling and my knowledge of Scripture, but mainly being someone who was willing to listen. I hope I did okay; I certainly tried my best. Nobody complained that I was Jewish: I was available, I was glad to help, and that seemed to be enough.
And yet, here we are in today's highly polarized world, where everyone is taking sides on something that used to be totally lacking in drama. Republicans seem to want a pro-Republican chaplain (or at least one who doesn't speak up about poverty); Evangelicals want a minister (preferably from their denomination); Democrats want the current chaplain to stay on; and Father Conroy just wants an explanation about what he did that was so wrong.
Whether we ought to have a congressional chaplain at all can certainly be debated. But I do think there is value in someone who has stood for ethics and compassion, and who has gently tried to remind the members (many of whom are quite wealthy) that the poor are always with us. Father Conroy seems like a man who did his job with dignity and set a good example. I'm still not sure why doing that resulted in his being fired. It's one of many things in congress that make no sense.
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