House Speaker Paul Ryan attended Catholic schools as a child, so this may not be the first time he’s had his knuckles rapped by a representative of his Church. Still, his retreat in the face of an un-resignation by House Chaplain Patrick Conroy, SJ, must have been humiliating to him — not as bad as, say, if Ayn Rand had arisen from the dead to call him a “collectivist,” but close.
In case you missed the beginning of the saga, Conroy announced he was stepping down as Chaplain not long ago, and then last week it came out that he had been pushed to resign by Ryan and/or his staff. Some Democrats speculated (an impression Conroy reinforced) that a “political” prayer that might have been construed as disrespecting that great golden calf of tax cuts had gotten him cashiered. Indeed, this explanation earned Ryan a rare endorsement from New York’s Jonathan Chait. But there were mixed messages, some of them highly unfortunate, like that of U.S. Representative Mark Walker, a member of the search committee for a new chaplain, who allowed as to how the House needed someone who personally knew what it was like to deal with a complaining wife and a misbehaving kid — a job description that would exclude, of course, Catholics and probably women.
Apparently realizing that his critics were not exactly standing on high or solid ground, Conroy has now sent a strongly worded letter (on official House stationary) to Ryan rescinding his resignation, confirming that Ryan’s staff wanted him gone for previously undiscussed shortcomings in his pastoral abilities (similar to those expressed publicly by Walker), and making it clear he’d respond to specific constructive advice but nothing else. There was one particularly damaging charge he made:
While you never spoke with me in person, nor did you send me any correspondence, on Friday, April 13th, 2018, your Chief of Staff, Jonathan Burks, came to me and informed me that you were asking for my letter of resignation. I inquired as to whether or not it was “for cause,” and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like “maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.”
Conroy dropped a hint or two about lawyering up, and concluded with the kind of rigorous logic for which Jesuits are known:
Had I known of any failure in providing my ministry to the House, I would have attempted to make the appropriate adjustments, but in no case would I have agreed to submit a letter of resignation without being given that opportunity. Therefore, I wish to serve the remainder of my term as House Chaplain, unless terminated “for cause.”
Ryan immediately caved like an acolyte who had been caught breaking into the communion wine supply:
I have accepted Father Conroy’s letter and decided that he will remain in his position as Chaplain of the House.
He went on to whine a bit about his impeccable intentions, and said he’d “sit down with Father Conroy early next week so that we can move forward for the good of the whole House.” You’d almost think it was Conroy who would have to make a good confession with a firm purpose of amendment. But it’s almost certainly Paul Ryan who will be doing penance.
All in all, the Speaker may be having second thoughts about his decision to stick around until the end of this Congress.