O God, Bless Paul Ryan Anyhow

Terry H. Schwadron

April 28, 2018

One of my joys in tackling a daily public affairs blog is to find that story that isn’t at the top of the news, but that says something about this era with its clash of values.

The heavens provided just such an item yesterday, although by the end of day, it had become a matter of outrage. It turns out that earlier this month, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) dismissed the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, the House’s Jesuit chaplain. He gave no reason, but it was apparently the result of the chaplain’s choice of words in blessings.

Ryan thinks the words are too political.

Here’s the set-up:

In an interview with the New York Times, Reverend Conroy reluctantly saidhe did not know whether politics were behind his departure. But he pointed to a prayer he had given on the House floor in November, when Congress was debating tax overhaul legislation. “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,” Conroy said at the time. “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.”

According to The Washington Post, about a week later, 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 said. Shortly after, when he saw Ryan himself, Conroy said that the speaker told him: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

The chaplain’s public role is to offer the opening prayer each day the House is in session; the chaplain’s private role, far more importantly, is to serve as pastoral counsel to the entire community connected to the House.

Actually, Ryan told the House Republican Conference yesterdaythat he fired Conroy because members felt like their “pastoral needs” were not being met and not for a political reason, according to several Republicans inside the room.

The coverage tended towards normal Democrat-Republican interpretations of the apparent dispute, with the exception that this particular brouhaha has managed to piss off bipartisan Catholic members. Of course, Ryan and his counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, both are Catholics as well. Ryan and Pelosi disagree over whether Pelosi approved of the move, but now she thinks it was a bad move.

Conroy is the second Catholic to have served in the post, and said he would leave on May 24 because he serves at the whim of the Speaker’s Office.

In this case, the suggestion hangs in the air that Jesuits, as an order, are more politically “liberal” than the Church at large, since they express a direct desire for social justice and service to the poor. Pope Francis is a Jesuit as well. The Society of Jesus, the name for the grouping of priests founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1540, count among their ranks professors, doctors, lawyers, social workers. They focus on seeing God in all things, helping people who suffer, and putting their faith into action in missions all over the world.

At times, The Post’s Plum Linecolumn said, Ryan has declared himself an apostle of the radical individualism of Ayn Rand. In 2009 he claimed that Rand’s achievement was to explain “the morality of capitalism,” which he described as “the morality of individuals working towards their own free will, to produce, to achieve to succeed.”

In the aftermath, there apparently is a tussle about whether the next chaplain will be Catholic altogether.

Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), part of the group searching for the next chaplain, started a small congressional wildfire by suggesting that the successor be someone who “has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk” of lawmakers and the problems they face with children who “made some bad decisions” or a spouse upset about the legislative schedule. That outraged some Catholics, who felt Walker was eliminating Catholic priests from consideration because of their vows of celibacy. Walker had to walk back hi words to clarify that he would consider a priest for the position, so long as it was “a priest or pastor over parishioners with families who have situations, those kind of things,” he said. “What I mean by that is to make sure they have experience in dealing with family issues.”

It’s a silly discussion, but I guess that we expect that our congressmen to flap on about family, even when it leads to a ridiculous conclusion.

The brouhaha is all deliciously discomforting, just the kind of political squirming that makes some of us fans of the daily soap opera that is the nation’s Capitol. I’m sure the Jesuits will provide a service more rewarding than being the House chaplain, and the House will find a new pastor.

But it skips over the main event: Is it really “partisan politics” to suggest that legislation help all Americans, that all can hope for prosperity and well-being, that there is hope in the country? Is it really “politics” to ask legislators to think about more than slogans before they vote, to consider that we have a healthy dose of poor people in this country?

Instead, the Republican majority, with or without help from God, continues to argue broadly and publicly that the tax cuts voted primarily are spurring job growth and lifting individual tax burdens. Poll after poll, survey after survey and multiple studies now confirm what was predicted before the vote: Companies and the wealthy received more of the benefit, and corporations are using their huge financial bounty to primarily buy back stock, reduce debt and invest in technology equipment before increasing wages (or issuing non-permanent bonuses at a rate of maybe $20 per paycheck) or increasing hiring.

At a time when sports figures credit God for a winning spree, when the President intones that God is blessing making America great again, when God appears at times when partisanship is hailed, maybe even the Speaker can understand that things are a little out of hand in this dismissal, especially if it was for expressing empathy. Even a Republican-majority Trump administration can find room in his tiny heart for someone else to express empathy, no?


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