I’ve probably written too much over the years dissecting Paul Ryan’s tortured relationship with Catholic social teaching. It’s hard not to be intrigued and also perplexed by a powerful Catholic in public life who traded letters about the federal budget with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, dropped references to Aquinas, and strangely thought he could square the cruel philosophy of Ayn Rand with a communitarian Catholic tradition that puts the common good at the center of political deliberations. While religion writers have long followed Ryan’s misadventures in theological politics, the mainstream media was abuzz last week about a different kind of Catholic controversy that casts the House Speaker in an unflattering light.
After House Chaplain Fr. Patrick Conroy offered his resignation at the request of Ryan, the Jesuit priest told the media that Ryan had confronted him about a prayer he gave on the House floor as the chamber debated a tax-reform package. “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,” the priest reported Ryan telling him. Ryan denies firing the priest for political reasons. He told the House Republican Conference that Fr. Conroy was let go because a number of members felt their “pastoral needs” were not being met. It’s an unsatisfying answer that leaves more questions than answers. As for that particular prayer, here is what the priest said:
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.
The reflection was hardly a socialist screed with a dash of spirituality added for good measure. It was a basic call to remember the common good. But House Republicans were, in fact, preparing a tax package that would create a few big winners and many losers by handing out a massive tax break to the wealthiest Americans at the expense of almost everyone else. It’s not hard to understand why Conroy’s words might rankle faithful disciples of supply-side economics. Let’s not forget that Ryan once took issue with another Jesuit priest, Pope Francis. “The guy is from Argentina,” Ryan scoffed a few years ago. “They haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina. They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don't have a true free enterprise system.”
Fr. Conroy clearly didn’t deliver a partisan prayer. But was his prayer political? In the best sense of the word, yes.