Ryan reverses himself after House Chaplain rescinds his resignation

Last week House Speaker Paul Ryan asked House Chaplain Patrick Conroy to resign from his position. The move instantly set up what Ed called a “whydunit.” Was Conroy asked to leave over politics or was it something else? Whatever the case, the abrupt change upset Catholics in the House and created a mini-firestorm. Today, that came to a head when Father Conroy sent a letter to Ryan rescinding his previous resignation.

In the letter, published by the NY Times, Conroy claims Ryan’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, came to him and asked for his resignation. When Conroy asked why, Burks allegedly replied, “maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t Catholic.”

At the time, Conroy says he felt he had no choice but to agree to resign. However, the letter goes on to say he has decided to rescind that resignation and adds that if Ryan wants to fire him he will have to do so without Conroy’s consent. In fact, Conroy told the NY Times he had hired lawyers to fight for his job if necessary.

But that won’t be necessary because a short time ago Ryan announced he was reversing his previous decision. Ryan says, once again, that his concern in asking for the resignation was only about “pastoral services” not politics. He writes, “It is my job as speaker to do what is best for the body, and I know that this body is not well-served by a protracted fight over such an important post. I intend to sit down with Father Conroy early next week so that we can move forward for the good of the whole House.”

Why did Ryan reverse himself? The inclusion of specific comments from Ryan’s chief of staff in Conroy’s letter, especially the line suggesting Conroy was being replaced because he was Catholic, made this an unwinnable situation for Ryan. CNN’s report on the reversal makes clear why:

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who is Catholic, has been among the most vocal critics of the request for Conroy to step down.

“The letter is a bombshell, inside that bombshell are explosive items like Ryan’s chief of staff actually said to him maybe it’s a time for a non Catholic chaplain — for Catholics that is a profoundly offensive comment,” Connolly told CNN in a phone interview. “The more this festers, the uglier it gets and the wider this infection. I think Paul Ryan should see the letter as an opportunity to heal rather than pouring salt on an open wound.”

Even if he wants to do so, Ryan can’t call the House Chaplain a liar without making this situation much worse than it already is. Pressing ahead with Conroy’s dismissal at this point would be tantamount to giving Catholics in the House a stiff kick and he could probably count on some of them, like Rep. Connolly to give him a public kick in return. So Ryan took the only option left to him: He reversed course. It’s not a good look for Ryan, but he’s already announced he’s leaving. This probably wasn’t a hill he wanted to die on in his last few months as Speaker.