Did a prayer from House chaplain and Jesuit priest Patrick Conroy prompt a demand for resignation from Speaker Paul Ryan? Or did complaints over a lack of pastoral care build up to the breaking point? The answer depends on who one asks, but Fr. Conroy insists he hasn’t been told why Ryan asked for his resignation:

The chaplain of the House said on Thursday that he was blindsided when Speaker Paul D. Ryan asked him to resign two weeks ago, a request that he complied with but was never given a reason for.

The sudden resignation of the chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, shocked members of both parties. He had served in the role since he was nominated in 2011 by Speaker John A. Boehner, a fellow Catholic. In an interview, Father Conroy was categorical: His departure was not voluntary.

“I was asked to resign, that is clear,” Father Conroy said. As for why, he added, “that is unclear.”

“I certainly wasn’t given anything in writing,” he said. “Catholic members on both sides are furious.”

That much does appear clear. Ryan will get a letter sometime today from a bipartisan group of House members, mainly Catholics, who warn that the abrupt termination of Conroy might not just unfairly damage his reputation but the House’s as well:

“The sensitive nature of this situation requires a description of the process followed to arrive at the decision and a justification for that decision,” wrote the letter’s author, Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly.

Without such information questions will come up about the “politicization of the process for hiring and dismissing a House chaplain” and “could also risk resurrecting prior questions of religious bias,” the letter said.

The letter, shared first with Roll Call, had been signed by Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina and Democrats Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire as of publication time. Other offices have until 10 a.m. Friday to sign it before it is sent to the speaker.

Ryan tried to tamp down the heat in a caucus meeting this morning. Despite rumors that Ryan had demanded the resignation over a prayer prior to the tax overhaul debate, he insisted that members had complained about a lack of access to pastoral care and spiritual direction. A Roll Call source confirms that this has been an open concern for some time:

“He said he had people coming that were saying they had a concern about that their pastoral needs weren’t being met,” Rep. Mark Amodei said.

Ryan said he decided to make a change because of the concerns and that there was no misconduct, the Nevada Republican said.

Another Republican member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Ryan said he’s gotten feedback from numerous members over the last year or so that they’d like a more active spiritual adviser who is more engaged with members and more approachable.

The member had not personally shared concerns with the speaker but said that issues with Conroy have been raised in various formats and he agrees with them.

Not all of Ryan’s caucus bought the explanation. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told CNN that the move was “unprecedented” and that Ryan needed to show a more significant cause first:

One of the members who brought up concerns was New York Republican Rep. Pete King, who said afterward that Ryan’s explanation for asking the Rev. Pat Conroy, a Jesuit priest, to resign was “unsatisfactory.” Both King and Ryan are Catholic.

“To me it was an unsatisfactory answer,” King said. “It is such an unprecedented action to be to only be taken for very, very serious issues. And the speaker said it was just because certain people said he was not complying with their request or was not giving good counsel. I never heard that from anyone. Anyone who I know who deals with him has the highest regard for him.”

However, an anonymous colleague of King’s disputes that:

A separate GOP member who attended the meeting said, Ryan “didn’t say this as bluntly but the reason for the change is that many of us like Father Conroy but we feel like he didn’t do anything. We never see him. We never hear from him. We’d like to have a more active Priest/Pastor.”

The issue might well fall into the all of the above category. EWTN host Raymond Arroyo hears from his own sources on Capitol Hill that the issue was the quality of spiritual direction rather than quantity, and specifically an alleged sharply partisan shift on the part of Fr. Conroy:

If true — and we’re far from a consensus here — that would certainly provoke some discontent. If the alleged partisanship related to tax cuts, though, I’d be surprised. Wouldn’t it more likely have to do with DACA, immigrants, refugees, and travel bans?

At any rate, Democrats began demanding answers from the House floor this morning:

They attempted to use a privileged motion to establish a select committee to investigate Conroy’s firing. It got tabled (failed) on a 215-171 vote, but a handful of Republicans voted against tabling it, which indicates at least some level of discontent among House Republicans. And Rep. Mark Walker, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, didn’t do Ryan any favors with this observation:

“I’m looking for somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, Republicans and Democrats who are going through, back home the wife, the family … that has some counseling experience … because what’s needed in the body here is people who can sit down with different members, male, female, Democrat, Republican, and just talk about what it is kind of to be up here,” Walker, a Southern Baptist minister and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told reporters Thursday.

Walker, who is also co-chair of the Prayer Caucus, didn’t explicitly say another Catholic could not serve as House chaplain. But he made clear he preferred a non-denominational religious leader who had experience with family life.

“I don’t think just because you are of that particular strain of faith, that prevents you from doing it. That doesn’t mean [a Catholic] can’t minister people,” Walker continued.

“But when you walk the journey of having a kid back home that’s struggling or made some bad decisions, or when you have a separation situation or your wife’s not understanding the [congressional] schedule, having somebody who’s walked in those shoes allows you to immediately relate a little bit more than others.”

Ryan’s a devout Catholic, so I doubt the termination itself has much to do with anti-Catholic bias. It didn’t take long, though, for Walker to prove Connolly’s warning about resurrecting religious biases correct.

Here’s the prayer that allegedly provided the catalyst for Ryan’s action, via Roll Call. It does seem to edge into a lecture in the latter half, but when exactly did this take place? December? If so, that’s a looong reaction time.

Update: Conroy tells the New York Times that the prayer took place in November, and prompted a warning at the time from Ryan:

Shortly after, when he saw Mr. Ryan himself, Father Conroy said that the speaker told him, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

“That is what I have tried to do for seven years,” Father Conroy said. “It doesn’t sound political to me.”

“If you are hospital chaplain, you are going to pray about health,” he added. “If you are a chaplain of Congress, you are going to pray about what Congress is doing.”

Actually, if you want to join the debate on the House floor, you should probably run for office. Otherwise, the point of a House chaplain is to pray for wisdom and provide guidance in an even-handed manner. Still, it doesn’t appear that a prayer in November was the catalyst for the termination this week, although it certainly might have been a contributing factor.