op-ed

Paul Ryan’s Fresh Hell

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Joanne Butler Contributor
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As a man from Wisconsin, where Holstein cows roam, House Speaker Paul Ryan should have known better than to put his foot in a cowpat. Now he’s scraping it off his shoes. I’m referring to Ryan’s breathtakingly stupid move to fire the House Chaplain last month – a gambit he ended on May 3rd after a barrage of anger, some of which was political and/or contained an anti-Catholic tint. As the chaplain’s office is now politicized, Ryan should consider having the military provide chaplaincy services, starting with the 2019 Congressional term.

What Ryan did was a textbook example of how not to fire someone. The chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy (Catholic, Jesuit) never received a letter from Ryan requesting his resignation or had a face-to-face discussion with Ryan about his job. Instead, Conroy had an April 13 meeting with Ryan’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, during which Burks told Conroy that the Speaker wanted his resignation.

Conroy submitted his resignation on April 15. Soon afterwards the cowpat hit the ground – and expanded.

A chaplain search committee convened. Its chairman was Congressman Mark Walker (R-NC), a former Baptist pastor. Walker told reporters the next chaplain should be a married man with a family – codespeak for ‘not Catholic’. That set off a firestorm of anger over perceived anti-Catholic bigotry, something that the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan called (in derision) an acceptable prejudice. Walker resigned from the search committee, pronto.

That should have been a blimp-sized hint to Ryan to drop the chaplain issue. Not only did he ignore it, he went on to say in public (on April 27), that he had concerns with Conroy’s “pastoral services”.

Then Conroy, in his May 3rd letter withdrawing his resignation, mentioned how Burks, the chief of staff, commented in their April 13th meeting how “maybe it was time we had a Chaplain that wasn’t Catholic”. With that, Ryan folded.

So it took two blimp-sized hints for the Speaker to get the message. The aftermath of this unholy mess is sad; an old, respected Capitol institution has succumbed to being politicized.

But if the House must have one official chaplain, there’s a politics-free solution: use a military chaplain for pastoral counseling. Military chaplains have to serve people of all faiths; it’s part of their job. A major aspect of their counseling involves family matters.

As I see it, the military chaplain would serve for a two-year House term, with chaplains provided by the various Armed Forces in rotation. Perhaps the Pentagon would recommend several candidates, the Speaker could choose one and have a House vote. If the chaplain were allowed to return to regular duties while the House has a ‘district work period’, the House could receive the chaplain’s services at no cost. (Father Conroy’s salary is $172,500 and has a benefits package.)

Father Conroy should serve out his term, but the House Chaplain’s office needs to be reformed for the 21st century. If an official chaplain is needed (a debatable issue), then it must be managed in a way that removes all politics from the office. Using military chaplains would solve this problem.

The alternative is to let the Office of the Chaplain sink further into politics. A Democrat speaker might find it irresistible to choose a House Chaplain who would be a woman minister with a same-sex spouse.

The House of Representatives and its Speaker have much more important issues to deal with, and precious little time to do it. ‘Chaplain choosing’ is a time-waster and a distraction. If maintained in its present form, it would stir up our nation over religious issues – a bad thing.

America has plenty of problems. The last thing we need is to step into another cowpat.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard, was a professional staff member (Republican) at the House Ways and Means Committee, and served in President George W. Bush’s administration. The Ghanaian poet, Kwesi Brew, has described her as ‘vibrant.’


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.