Ousting House Chaplain Who Prayed for Those Affected by Tax Bill Will Not Silence the Cry for Justice

Commentary
FILE PHOTO: House Chaplain Patrick Conroy leads prayer before the annual Congressional Baseball Game June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

One of the most disturbing actions of Congress in recent weeks was Speaker Paul Ryan's firing of House of Representatives Jesuit Chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy, allegedly for praying about the GOP tax bill. Conroy wrote in an April 15 letter to Ryan, "As you have requested, I hereby offer my resignation as the 60th Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives."

Congress has never fired a single Chaplain since naming its first one in 1789. The official brochure of the Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives lists as a primary duty of the Chaplain, "giving praise and thanks to God for what God is doing in the world, in the nation, and in and through leaders and ordinary citizens." Praying that Congress will make a fair distribution of the nation's wealth through tax policies is clearly in line with what God is doing in America. Being ousted for praying for fair policies puts those who pressured Ryan to fire Conroy, and the Ryan himself, in direct conflict with biblical teaching rooted in Conroy's prayer.

Father Conroy prayed:

"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. 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."

In his prayer that the GOP tax bill be "fair to all," Father Conroy was standing on a core biblical truth in Genesis 1:27 that all people are created in the image of God ("imago dei"). Therefore, all of God’s children must be equally valued. Father Conroy's prayer was a reminder to the members of Congress that laws like the tax bill, that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy, harms the image of God in some of God's children. His prayer was also in line with Jesus' inaugural sermon that God sent him "to bring good news to the poor … And the release of the oppressed" (Luke 4:18). Most of all, the Father Conroy’s prayer stands directly on Matthew 25, affirming to congressional members that the way they treat economically disadvantaged children of God is the way they are treating God.

While Ryan would not explain why he forced Conroy to resign, it was believed to be related to the Jesuit Chaplain standing on biblical teaching about justice that offended many Republicans supporting the tax bill. If this is true, it is a sad reminder of what a group of Christian elders said recently in a statement "Reclaiming Jesus" that recently appeared in Politico. In it, they said, "We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake."

About a week after his prayer during the tax debate, Father Conroy said he heard from the speaker’s office.

“A staffer came down and said, we are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political,” he told The New York Times. “It suggests to me that there are members who have talked to him about being upset with that prayer.”

Later, following Father Conroy's prayer, Ryan was quoted as saying to him, "Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

Since the Chaplain said he did not voluntarily resign, and the Speaker has given no reason for demanding his resignation, this firing raises many troubling questions.

  1. How fair is it for the Speaker not to share reasons for the firing, raising speculation about the Chaplain's character? Not a single member in a wide range of press interviews raised questions about the Chaplain’s character.
  2. Did the Chaplain's prayer urging fairness in the GOP tax bill offend those supporting a pro-wealthy agenda who pressured Ryan to fire Father Conroy?
  3. Is it true that conservative evangelicals in Congress wanted Father Conroy out so they could bring in a conservative evangelical chaplain?
  4. Did the fact that Father Conroy once invited an imam as guest chaplain to give a prayer anger anti-Muslim members? This invitation was indeed consistent with the Chaplain's official duties, "to welcome and assist guest chaplains on their day of service to the House." Guest chaplains, recommended by congressional members to deliver the session's opening prayer in place of the House Chaplain, have represented many different religious groups, including Judaism and Islam.
  5. Is it true that Father Conroy being a single chaplain troubled members who suggested that the chaplain needed to be married? If this is true, such a position would surely discriminate against Catholic priests who take a vow of celibacy.

At a time of great division in our nation and especially in Congress, further alienation along religious lines is disquieting indeed. Of all of the speculations about the reasons for the firing of Father Conroy, his prayer regarding the GOP tax bill is said to be the primary one. If this is so, one wonders if an emboldened religious right in the Congress has now gained enough power to impose their religious and political agenda over the content of a chaplain's prayer. Silencing Father Conroy for praying for justice in our nation will definitely not silence the cry for justice. Voices on behalf of immigrants, people of color, low-income citizens, and others, will continue to be raised on behalf of those seeking justice in our land. However, if we have reached a point where prayers for justice in Congress are silenced, may God help our democracy.

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner is President of Skinner Leadership Institute, Co-Convener, National African American Clergy Network, and author of I Prayed, Now What?

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