Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Prayer rattles Speaker Ryan, but House chaplain gets to stay in politics

The Rev. Patrick Conroy, former chaplain of the House of Representatives, delivers an interfaith message on the steps of the Capitol in Washington for the victims of the mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando on June 13, 2016. Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest from the Jesuit order, has been forced out after seven years by House Speaker Paul Ryan after complaints by some lawmakers claimed he was too political. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sign up to get Sightings in your inbox. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Yawn, if you will. A chaplain, usually seen as a quiet fixture in the house—in this case, the House, whose occupants legislate in Washington—was mentioned in headlines last week. Easily overlooked in his clerical gear, he usually stays out of the news by quietly performing his duties. But now, suddenly, citizens began to read headings such as “Firing/rehiring of House chaplain about far more than 1 person’s job” or “House chaplain retracts resignation, and Speaker Ryan lets him remain in post” or “Ryan Reinstates House Chaplain After Priest Decided to Fight Dismissal,” all of which shouted for attention.

Question: what action or blast by U.S. House Chaplain the Rev. Patrick Conroy, S.J., could have caused such a stir?

Answer: he prayed. Praying is what chaplains, especially House and Senate chaplains, do. Did he utter blasphemies or heresies? Hardly. Conroy had prayed that lawmakers would “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” Oh-oh! Speaker Paul Ryan, also a Catholic, muscled in, according to Conroy, saying: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.” Then he fired the chaplain.

Let’s play the game, and go along. Yes, padre was in politics, embodied that day in the House and being exercised continually by conscientious legislators, those who voted for them, and those who are affected by their actions. In a republic, such as ours, being “in” politics is inescapable. It is often said that when something is up for decision, as something always is, “not to take a stand is to take a stand.” Jehovah’s Witnesses may think that they are, if not above, then at least apart from, the frays of politics, but they are as busy as voters and other citizens in civil society.

What was at issue with the Speaker and, no doubt, with millions who would side with him that day, was not the chaplain’s being in politics, but rather, his seeming to take a stand that would alienate many. Was the chaplain betraying his calling? He could cite chapter and verse in the Bible, in Catholic social theology, and in the Jesuit tradition for backing. He could also try to show how pursuing the assurance that “benefits” of tax plans would be “balanced and shared” by all citizens was in place. How to assure that is, of course, a complex matter, but his prayer was not laying out a legislative program. That is something legislators on all sides have to deal with.

After a conflict like last week’s, thoughtful citizens look for a better way. Some say “abolish the chaplaincy,” and all will be balanced and shared. Or: “remove religious discourse and contention from the political scene.” Or: “remove religion.” The founders did well by not proposing a neat solution for how to deal with religion or religions, but establishing where religious institutions are subordinated to the political in political doings. Subordinated, yes, though they are “ordinated”—they have their ever-shifting places in our inescapable political order.

Somehow the padre and his fellow Catholic, Speaker Ryan, eventually came to terms such that the delicate discourses and contentions in that political order can continue to make their respective contributions to the common good, potentially even in “shared” and “balanced” ways.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


Click here to post a comment

  • Chaplains have the un-enviable contract obligation, by virtue of their oath of
    office, to provide pastoral services as other Chaplains would do, if not
    available for some reason.

    That means that a Catholic Chaplain ( as an example …) MUST, when called
    upon to do so, provide Jewish, Muslim, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian,
    Seventh Day Adventist, and many other religious services and
    activities, etc.

    The same is true for other religious confessions.

    A Muslim or Buddhist Chaplain may be called upon to give Catholic services
    or Sharia Law based counseling, or Trinity based sermons to a Baptist

    In the vernacular … these “Sky Pilots” must be “Switch Hitters”, and compromise their theology for the National Interests.

    This makes allegiance to the True God a farce …. a paid hobby …. and a deeply established and approved cultural fantasy.

    And it does quite blatantly make the point by actual, real life example.

  • It’s unfair to Ryan to state he was pandering to GOP donors who wanted their trillion dollar tax cuts, to be paid for by screwing the poor.

    Remember, Ryan was also pandering to the anti-Catholic evangelicals who don’t like any reference to the immorality of their prosperity gospel.

  • These days in Washington the most important thing you’re not supposed to say is the fact that the emperor (that would be Trump) has no clothes. If you’re around Paul Ryan, the one thing you’re not supposed to even hint at is the fact that the philosophy of Ayn Rand is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Since Ryan professes to be an adherent of two opposing ideologies, no one is supposed to remind him of that cognitive dissonance, lest he be uncomfortable. When that happens, it’s “Off with their heads!”

  • THE Gospel writers describe several events in Jesus’ ministry that brought him face-to-face with politics. For instance, shortly after Jesus’ baptism at about the age of 30, the Devil offered him the position of world ruler. Later in his ministry, a crowd wanted to make him their king. Still later, people tried to turn him into a political activist. How did Jesus react? Let us consider these events.

    World ruler. The Gospels state that the Devil offered Jesus rulership over “all the kingdoms of the world.” Think of how much good Jesus could have done for suffering mankind if he had wielded the power of a world ruler! What politically oriented individual sincerely concerned with mankind’s advancement could resist such an offer? But Jesus refused it.—Matthew 4:8-11.

    King. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were desperate for a ruler who could solve their economic and political problems. Impressed by Jesus’ abilities, the people wanted Jesus to join the political process. What was his reaction? Gospel writer John states: “Jesus, knowing they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” (John 6:10-15) Clearly, Jesus refused to become involved in politics.

    Political activist. Note what happened days before Jesus was put to death. Disciples of the Pharisees, who favored independence from the Roman Empire, joined by Herodians, members of a political party favoring Rome, approached Jesus. They wanted to force him to take a political position. They asked if the Jews should pay taxes to Rome.

    Mark recorded Jesus’ response: “‘Why do you put me to the test? Bring me a denarius to look at.’ They brought one. And he said to them: ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ They said to him: ‘Caesar’s.’ Jesus then said: ‘Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.’” (Mark 12:13-17) Commenting on the reason for Jesus’ response, the book Church and State—The Story of Two Kingdoms concludes: “He refused to act the part of a political messiah and carefully established both the boundary of Caesar and that of God.”

    Problems such as poverty, corruption, and injustice did not leave Christ unmoved. In fact, the Bible shows that he was deeply touched by the pitiful state of the people around him. (Mark 6:33, 34) Still, Jesus did not start a campaign to rid the world of injustices, although some tried hard to get him embroiled in the controversial issues of the day.

    Clearly, as these examples show, Jesus refused to get involved in political affairs.

  • Dear Senators and House Members,

    Out with these chaplains. Tis a waste of $328,000/year. His (or hers) prayers are moot as there is no god to hear them. Time to get with the 21st century reality!!