When they tried to fire the chaplain

By James W. Dolan
Special to the Reporter

The controversial firing and rehiring of the US House chaplain Father Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest, has generated much discussion over the last few weeks. Some members and commentators have questioned whether the House needs a chaplain. The controversy was due at least in part to a prayer Fr. Conroy delivered on the floor that was mildly critical of the recent tax bill in which, he said, tax policy should be fair and balanced and not favor the rich.

Some argue that religion should stay out of politics, that it was a mistake for Fr. Conroy to comment, even in a prayer, on the merits of an issue before the House. In other words, a cleric, particularly one employed by the House, had no business injecting religion into a matter under consideration. An elected member can address the morality or fairness of a bill before the House, but the chaplain should not; he should provide pastoral care but avoid commenting on the social justice implications of public policy.

This takes partisanship to new levels. It’s apparent that the objections came from House members who favored the president’s tax bill. Had Fr. Conroy praised the bill, they would have been pleased. I support the separation of church and state, but it is absurd to interpret that boundary as one that prevents religion from defining morality and vigorously advocating for social justice.

Politics and governance are the instruments by which we establish and enforce social policy. Religion has a responsibility to influence policy. If that means offending one side or the other, so be it. Religion has a duty to identify and promote those social precepts believed to be in furtherance of God’s will. At the center of many faiths is the admonition “love they neighbor.”

This concept is at the very foundation of our democracy. The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal … endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights… among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But how? The document goes on to state “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

Government is identified as the means by which we try to achieve balance and promote social justice, which is essential in promoting those founding principles. As messy, complicated, and confusing as that process can be, achieving the common good is how we express love of neighbor. That should be self-evident. How we accomplish it in a secular world of competing interests where money and power often control outcomes is the problem. It can be done; Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are obvious examples of those who did so.

There are some who see morality as abstract, unrelated to governance, something to be confined to the pulpit. Even there, they object to morality being translated into social policy, preferring instead abstract bromides about individual responsibility rather than collective obligations.

By telling House members that tax policy should be fair and balanced, Fr. Conroy was doing his job, alerting them to the moral dimensions of their task. Debased and hyper-partisan politics is likely to be more concerned with self-interest than the common good. It sees governance as a process unrelated to narrow, abstract notions of personal morality. While most people will probably agree that they should love their neighbor, many consider it irrelevant or impractical when applied to public policy in the “real world.”

Fr. Conroy discovered he was not there for substance, but for show. Deliver a prayer and get off the podium. We’re not interested in your reflections on matters outside your jurisdiction. Do your pastoral duties, help us feel better, but don’t rock the boat by telling us morality and social justice are factors we should consider in this most worldly occupation.

Politics involves flawed human nature in collective action or inaction. It’s a noble profession except when ambition, power, money, self-interest, and political survival dominate. It’s at its best when mindful of the underlying creed at the center of our democracy.