Update #2: No Safe Place For Truthtellers: A Larger Frame For the House Chaplain Brouhaha

Update: Politico reports that Chaplain Patrick Conroy has rescinded his resignation and will remain House Chaplain through the end of this Congress. That’s through the end of the calendar year for those keeping score.

In her WaPo piece asking why we even have paid chaplains serving in both houses of Congress, Sarah Pulliam Bailey uncovers the not-surprising fact that it’s basically all about the persistence of superstition.

In 1787 no less a religious skeptic than randy old Benjamin Franklin proposed that the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention be opened with prayer, as prayer had in Franklin’s view helped to prosper an underdog’s cause in the recently-concluded Revolution.

As one historian told Bailey, chaplains in our U.S. context have never been involved in actual legislation, and the custom of opening Congressional sessions with invocations was maintained merely to signal that “Congress had the backing of God, or they were trying to act with the interests of God in mind.”

With the interests of God in mind: an interesting phrase in the context of what Speaker Paul Ryan and his GOP henchmen took to be Chaplain Patrick Conroy’s grave offense.

In the Nov. 6, 2017, prayer that Conroy offered while House Republicans were working hard to take from the poor to give to the rich via their wildly-unbalanced tax law, the soon-to-be-sacked Jesuit priest had the temerity to suggest that God might have an interest in stemming America’s plunge into an ever-more-savage inequality:

“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 [the Members’] efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”

As someone deeply steeped in Catholic social justice tradition, Conroy has made it clear that did not think his prayer that morning was “political” in any way. In his view, he was merely stating the obvious in inviting House members to bear in mind that “institutions and structures” have real world consequences and that a major consequence of prevailing U.S. structures in recent decades has been rapidly widening inequality.

But as Conroy now understands only too well, Paul Ryan’s furious rebuke (“Padre, you gotta stay out of politics!”) comes from a very special place that has lingered in the hearts of corrupt rulers from the beginning of time. To wit, they fear that they will be unmasked and exposed as frauds, and that fear turns to blind rage when their misdeeds are in fact unmasked.

Pundits that play the story as merely another “unforced error” on Ryan’s part miss this crucial point about the containable rage of the exposed despoilers toward someone who is, by all accounts, a mild-mannered and well-regarded figure.

In theory, Ryan could have played it cool. He could have taken the chaplain’s exact words to declare that ensuring “balanced benefits” was his goal as well in promoting the tax bill; hence, no problem. We all recall that Ryan did proclaim (falsely, but never mind) that the bill as passed was a boon to the struggling middle class.

But no, that kind of move toward a cool deflection simply could not happen in this case. Exposed despoilers are constitutionally unable to keep their cool in the face of exposure (as we see every day in the rantings and ravings of a certain chief executive).

Chaplain Conroy’s many defenders—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—have been falling back on the fond notion that “chaplains should not make us comfortable—they should challenge us” (in the words of Catholic ethicist and blogger John Carr).

I am sorry to burst their bubble, but Carr et al are engaging in wishful thinking here. Chaplains historically act as priests and consolers but never act (successfully) as prophets. The encyclopedias tell us that in the old days (e.g., in Charlemagne’s era), royal chaplains might be involved in secular policy matters, but any such involvement occurred strictly on the side of the monarch.

Going back still further to the really old days (biblical times), we see a constantly repeated clash between compliant and conniving priests serving the royal courts of Israel and Judah and fearless outsider prophets who dare to point the finger at corruption and injustice.

A classic instance is the feud between Israel court priest Amaziah and outsider prophet Amos. Devious Amaziah rats out Amos in a private communique to the king (“Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the heart of Israel; the land cannot bear all his words”) and then confronts Amos directly:

“Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary, and the temple of the kingdom. (Amos 7:12)”

An equally classic case is the protracted struggle of Jeremiah versus the lying priests and false prophets serving the corrupt last kings of Judah and loudly proclaiming peace and prosperity despite abundant evidence of impending ruin. Theologian Walter Brueggemann brilliantly casts this struggle as a contest between “public lies and poetic vision.

In pointing out that Father Conroy’s defenders are mistaken in thinking that a chaplain to the powerful can be both priest and prophet and get away with it, I am in no way faulting Conroy for giving it a shot and for remaining faithful to his vows in a very vulnerable spot. But he shouldn’t have been surprised by the reaction.

Predictably (and this pattern likewise goes back to the official “handling” of the meddlesome Hebrew prophets), the party line now coming from Speaker Ryan and the gang is that Chaplain Conroy wasn’t sufficiently pastoral: that he didn’t provide enough comfort following the shootings at the ill-fated baseball game last year, etc.

As anyone who has ever been forced out of a job in ministry knows, this is the standard line used when the congregation or other institution you are serving wants to get rid of you: when they finally do the deed, they will invariably put out the cover story that he or she was not sufficiently pastoral.

Meanwhile the search is on for a new House chaplain. I doubt they will be be hiring an Amos anytime soon.