In a Reversal, Speaker Ryan Asks House Chaplain to Remain in Post

WASHINGTON—House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that the chamber’s chaplain will remain in his post and he will no longer seek his resignation, after the chaplain publicly questioned why he was being asked to step aside and reversed his earlier decision to quit.

Mr. Ryan’s decision could defuse growing tensions over the chaplain’s fate. The news of the Rev. Patrick Conroy’s resignation last month roiled the House, with many lawmakers pressing for an explanation about why he was asked to resign by Mr. Ryan.

Mr. Ryan’s shift came after Father Conroy said in a letter to Mr. Ryan that a top aide to the speaker said he should leave in part because of a prayer about the Republican tax law and because of his Catholic faith.

Father Conroy, a Jesuit priest, in his letter Thursday rescinded his resignation, essentially telling the speaker that if he wanted him to leave his post he would have to fire him. He also said that the aide, Mr. Ryan’s chief of staff Jonathan Burks, in April told him he was being replaced in favor of a non-Catholic and because of comments he had made in a prayer and to the media.

“I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause’ and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like ‘maybe it’s time we had a chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic,’ ” Father Conroy recounted in the letter. Mr. Burks “also mentioned my November prayer and an interview with the National Journal Daily,” Father Conroy added in the letter.

Mr. Burks disputed that characterization of the conversation. “I strongly disagree with Father Conroy’s recollection of our conversation. I am disappointed by the misunderstanding, but wish him the best as he continues to serve the House.”

Mr. Ryan on Thursday said he had accepted the letter “and decided that he will remain in his position as Chaplain of the House. My original decision was made in what I believed to be the best interest of this institution.”

In his statement, Mr. Ryan said his decision to ask for Father Conroy’s resignation was “based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves.” But, he added, “It is my job as speaker to do what is best for this body, and I know that this body is not well served by a protracted fight over such an important post.”

He said he planned to sit down with Father Conroy early next week “so that we can move forward for the good of the whole House.”

Father Conroy said at the time of his conversation with Mr. Burks, he believed that he had no choice but to resign. His letter invited Mr. Ryan to invoke his powers to dismiss him but says he will not ascent to a voluntary departure. “You may wish to outright ‘fire’ me, if you have the authority to do so, but should you wish to terminate my services, it will be without my offer of resignation,” Father Conroy wrote.

In the morning prayer on Nov. 6, Father Conroy had asked that lawmakers’ “efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans” as the Republican-led Congress was debating tax legislation that would ultimately be passed into law in December. The tax law is being touted as the signature domestic achievement of President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans.

In the interview with the National Journal, Father Conroy discussed several controversial issues, including workplace sexual assault and harassment on Capitol Hill as well as anti-Catholic prejudice in Congress. In the interview, he said that many politicians were not “highly skilled in every endeavor” and many members of Congress “don’t know how to say hello in the hallway.”

He also said that there were a number of members who were uncomfortable with his religious faith. “I would say there are probably still members, and maybe many of them, who are less than comfortable with my being Catholic, but I don’t think that’s traumatic for them and I don’t think that it causes a crisis,” Father Conroy told the National Journal.

Many House Democrats and some Republicans said that the removal was unjustified and appeared politically motivated. On the House floor last week, Democrats offered a resolution that would establish a special committee to investigate the actions and motivations behind the resignation of the House chaplain. It was defeated.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.), who was working to reinstate Father Conroy, called the behavior of Mr. Ryan’s staff that is described in the letter as “profoundly offensive.”

“We have had a chaplain since the Continental Congress. Go back to 1774 and there’s been exactly two Catholics in all of that 240-year period,” Mr. Connolly said. “To tens of millions of Catholics, that is just profoundly offensive and unwarranted and unjust and unfair.”

—Kristina Peterson and Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.

Write to Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com

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