When Pope Francis spoke several years ago to the Congress of the United States, the core theme of his address was a call to consider the plight of the poor.
“How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost,” the pope declared. “At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem. It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth.”
To put a fine point on his message, the pontiff recalled an American advocate for the just distribution of wealth: the visionary militant Dorothy Day, who forged the Catholic Worker Movement. “In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints,” the pope told the assembled members of the US House and Senate, the cabinet, and the Supreme Court.
It was Dorothy Day who preached: “We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.”
That was a message Paul Ryan heard but has frequently failed to embrace—not just in the Wall Street–friendly polices he has advanced but in his practices as speaker of the House.
After it was revealed this week that Ryan had ousted House chaplain Patrick Conroy—a highly regarded Jesuit priest who had served in the position for seven years—a firestorm arose over reports that the speaker had forced the pastor out because Father Conroy had been too pointed in raising the issue of poverty.
Numerous sources on Capitol Hill suggested that the chaplain was forced to resign at least in part because of a November prayer—delivered as the House was considering a tax bill that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy—in which he urged members to “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.”
The speaker was scrambling Friday to create the impression that he forced Father Conroy out not for reasons of politics but because members felt their “pastoral needs” were not being met. But New York Congressman Peter King told reporters after Ryan met with the House Republican Conference Friday morning that he had never heard any of his colleagues complain about Conroy. “I saw people walk up to him all the time, sit down with him. So I never heard any of these complaints before,” said King, who emphasized his assessment repeatedly. “I never heard one of them. I’m not the speaker, but I never heard [them].”
Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, was a bit blunter in her review of Ryan’s explanation.
She said the speaker’s excuse “sounds very flimsy to me.”
Skepticism is appropriate in this instance. It’s not just that Ryan has a long record of making flimsy excuses. It is the record of this particular controversy that calls the speaker’s latest justifications into question.
When Ryan initially commented on the chaplain’s exit, he seemed to suggest that it was a voluntary departure taking place on the best of terms. “Father Conroy has been a great source of strength and support to our community,” read an April 16 statement from the speaker. “He is deeply admired by members and staff. Father Conroy’s ministry here has made a difference, and we are all very grateful to him.”
What was the real story? Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, reports that “Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-NC, and Joe Crowley, D-NY, both pointed to a prayer that Conroy delivered on the tax overhaul as the reason he was asked to leave. Jones said he spoke with Conroy and he confirmed that, saying the only intended meaning of the prayer was that the tax bill should help everyone.” Another DC publication, The Hill, has highlighted interviews with members of Congress and congressional aides who have offered similar takes on the issue—including the observation by a Democratic lawmaker that “the Speaker took issue with a prayer on the House floor that could have been perceived as being critical of the GOP tax-cut bill.”
That November 6 prayer, which was offered by Father Conroy as consideration of the tax bill was ramping up, made gentle reference to the wealth divide in the United States. “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,” said Father Conroy. “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.”
Father Conroy told The New York Times that, not long after he delivered the prayer, Ryan said to him, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
But the prayer in question wasn’t political. It was moral. Father Conroy was encouraging the Congress to consider the plight of the poor—just as the pope did in 2015.
That’s what is so troubling about the reports from Washington. If Ryan ousted Father Conroy because of the prayer, noted Father James Martin, the Jesuit writer and editor, “then a Catholic Speaker of the House fired a Catholic chaplain for praying for the poor.”
Indeed, as Congressman Brendan Boyle, D-PA, explained after learning of the firing: “If Paul Ryan had a problem with Fr. Pat Conroy’s prayer about tax reform and the poor then he will really have a problem with the New Testament.”