News Analysis

United States: The politics of prayer

A sledgehammer to crush a nut? (CNS)

A clash between two Catholics in Congress

Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a practising Catholic, was execrated by Catholics across the political spectrum this week for dismissing the House chaplain, Fr Patrick Conroy SJ.

According to Fr Conroy, a staffer from the Speaker’s office approached him in November and said the Jesuit was “getting too political” with his prayers on the House floor. Shortly thereafter, Ryan himself allegedly told him: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.” The Speaker, meanwhile, denies that politics played any part in his asking Conroy to resign. He told House Republicans that he had received complaints about the former chaplain’s pastoral care.

But many have detected latent progressive sympathies in Fr Conroy’s prayers. When a deal between Democrats and Republicans on an amnesty for illegal immigrants collapsed in February, he prayed that “those who possess power here in Washington be mindful of those whom they represent who possess little or no power.” Fr Conroy evidently believes illegal immigrants are entitled to congressional representation – a right reserved for American citizens and legal residents.

Of course, Fr Conroy is far from a raving partisan. But even his supporters acknowledge his bias. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote: “He was warned. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted.” It may well have been difficult for Congressional Republicans to consult him for spiritual direction when he appeared to favour the opposition. These may be the complaints about pastoral care to which Ryan alluded.

Fr Conroy may have been a voice for the poor and disempowered, as his defenders say. But his principal duty is to serve as a minister and confidant to individual congressmen. Harsh though it sounds, the Speaker is not obliged to retain him if he believes the House chaplain fails in that duty.