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How the chaplain blew it

Reverend Conroy told the truth. Bad career move.

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)

Yes, history repeats itself.

In 1170, in England, King Henry II was angry at Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

His immortal line: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

That’s exactly what happened when Speaker of the House Paul Ryan fired Reverend Patrick J. Conroy from his position of chaplain of the House of Representatives.

The offense that got him canned?

This prayer:

God of the universe, we give You thanks for giving us another day. Bless the Members of this assembly as they set upon the work of these hours, of these days. Help them to make wise decisions in a good manner and to carry their responsibilities steadily, with high hopes for a better future for our great Nation.

As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, 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. 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.

May Your blessing, O God, be with them and with us all this day and every day.


The prayer was deemed “political” in nature.

As in Ryan’s upbraiding of the Catholic priest: “Padre, you just gotta stay out of politics.”

Which would be like saying to a hospital chaplain: “Padre, you just gotta stay out of matters of health and healing.”

When it comes to religion, “political” is just another way of saying “relevant.”

Clergy can’t win this one.

If you’re not relevant enough, you’re boring.

If you’re too relevant, you’re “political.” You’ve committed the unspeakable crime: you’ve made people think too much and too deeply.

That was what got Conroy canned. He was too relevant.

There are two sides of American public religion.

There is the priestly side — the religion of prayer breakfasts and invocations at high school graduations.

This is the religious voice that says: “Everything is just fine. I am here as God’s representative to sanctify and applaud the established order.”

There’s nothing wrong with, and much right with, that approach to American public religion.

But let’s remember that classic evocation of religious vocation — to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.

Reverend Conroy’s “sin” was that he reminded us of the second role of religion.

That is the prophetic role — speaking truth to power.

At that moment, Reverend Conroy walked in the path of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

How did Rabbi Heschel define the ideal role of religion?

Religion is critique of all satisfaction. Its end is joy, but its beginning is discontent, detesting boasts, smashing idols. It began in Ur Kasdim in the seat of a magnificent civilization. Yet Abraham said, ““No,”” breaking the idols, breaking away. And so every one of us must begin saying no to all visible, definable entities pretending to be triumphant, ultimate.

Reverend Conroy walked the path that this prayer in Mishkan Tefila, the Reform Jewish prayer book, illustrates:

Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

In Judaism, there is a creative tension between hesed (loving kindness) and din (judgement) — or, even, emet (truth).

That creative tension, says the kabbalists, exists even within God.

Reverend Conroy came up against an American perception of religious faith which is only about hesed — about loving kindness, and only loving kindness.

His offense?

He dared to offer judgement. He dared to tell the truth.

He is now unemployed. I am sad about that.

So, perhaps, is God.

But the angels are cheering God up: “Holy One of Being, it’s OK.

“He told the truth. And that is Who You are. You are the God of Truth.”