One of the Republican lawmakers tasked with finding a replacement for House chaplain Patrick Conroy, S.J., said that he believes the next chaplain should be a married person with children since she or he can provide better pastoral care, a comment some are saying smacks of anti-Catholic bias.
Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, a Southern Baptist minister, said he wanted Father Conroy’s successor to be somebody with children, which would preclude nearly all Catholic priests and nuns.
“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,” Mr. Walker said on Thursday.
Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina said he wanted Father Conroy’s successor to be somebody with children.
While Mr. Walker said that this desire does not explicitly rule out a Catholic chaplain, he said that “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.”
John Whitney, S.J., pastor of St. Joseph Church in Seattle and a former provincial superior of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, said he has known Father Conroy since 1983. He told America that he is hesitant to call Mr. Walker’s remarks “anti-Catholic” but he said they demonstrate an “ignorance” about pastoral ministry.
“The fact that we don’t have families may mean that we have less personal experience of raising children, but it allows us to be available, to come without a lot of baggage,” he said, adding that when it comes to ministry, there are “advantages and disadvantages to not being married and not having children.”
Timone Davis, who teaches pastoral theology and black Catholic theology at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute for Pastoral Studies, told America that providing pastoral care has more to do with being able to listen and focus on a “common humanity” than with sharing a similar background.
One priest told America that Mr. Walker’s remarks demonstrate an “ignorance” about pastoral ministry.
Ms. Davis said if sharing life experience was prerequisite for effective ministry, then that would mean “a white person cannot be attentive to a Latino or an African-American as a chaplain because they don’t know what that’s like.”
“That’s totally absurd to me,” she said.
She said a minister sharing experience with someone in his or her care could even make providing effective counseling more difficult.
“Experience only opens the door to our own stuff,” she said. “If we have not addressed our own issues, that doesn’t help us be present.”
“What being present, to me, means, can I listen to you and hear what you have to say and then address the needs you have presented,” Ms. Davis said. “That doesn’t mean I have to have experience in what you’ve presented. But I do need to be able to hear you and offer suggestions that may not be related to experiences in my own life.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan requested that Father Conroy submit his resignation, but the priest told The New York Times he does not know why.
House Speaker Paul Ryan requested that Father Conroy submit his resignation, but the priest told The New York Times he does not know why. Some reports say it was because of a prayer he delivered in November that some Republicans interpreted as partisan, while others say that the priest, only the second Catholic to hold the post, was not providing effective pastoral care. On Friday, House Democrats called for an investigation into why Father Conroy was fired, but it failed in a vote along party lines.
In a statement issued Friday, Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House’s highest-ranking Democrat, called the decision to fire Father Conroy “truly sad” and “bewildering” and suggested that Mr. Ryan lacked the power to fire the chaplain, who was elected to a two-year term by the House.
“It is my hope that we will honor Father Conroy’s service by pursuing justice and making clear the true motivations of this unjust action. I have expressed my forceful disagreement with this decision to the Speaker,” Ms. Pelosi said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Ryan told America that the speaker “made the decision he believes to be in the best interest of the House.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Ryan told America that the speaker “made the decision he believes to be in the best interest of the House, and he remains grateful for Father Conroy’s many years of service.”
While Mr. Walker’s suggestion may rankle some Catholics, it comes at a time when some Catholic leaders have suggested something similar.
For example, last October, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who heads the Vatican’s family office, said that married couples may provide better marriage preparation to young people than priests.
Priests, he said, “don’t have credibility” when it comes to marriage preparation because they have not “lived in the reality of the situation, and therefore it’s very difficult for them to accompany.”
Laypeople, he said, “can best accompany married couples in moments of difficulty and moments of challenge.”
His comments echo the writings of Pope Francis, who laid out his vision for pastoral ministry to families in his 2016 apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia.”
“It could also be helpful to ask older married couples to help younger couples in the neighbourhood by visiting them and offering guidance in the early years of marriage,” the pope wrote.
Still, the issue of marriage preparation is seen as an intra-family conversation, leading some normally conservative voices to call out Mr. Walker’s comments.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a watchdog group that tracks what it sees as anti-Catholic bias in politics and culture, also weighed in on the controversy.
At the end of a blog post published on Friday, which criticized multiple Democrats and Republicans, in some cases for statements made nearly two decades ago, the organization said: “There is no role for anti-Catholicism in politics. This means that no priest should ever be disqualified for the House Chaplain position because he is celibate.”
Raymond Arroyo, the host of a talk show on the Eternal Word Television Network and Fox News contributor, tweeted that Mr. Walker’s comments have “an anti-Catholic edge.”
As for Father Conroy, Father Whitney said his Jesuit colleague possesses “terrific” pastoral skills and that his “folksy” style has won him fans from a range of people he has encountered in ministry, from high school and college students to members of Congress. He said he believes the chaplain’s firing is a “sad commentary on how divided we are as a country” and said if reports that the priest was fired because of a prayer about taxes, it shows a “dangerous” level of polarization.
“To think a Jesuit priest would be fired because of praying for equity and a sense of responsibility, it shows how polarized we have become,” he said. “Where are we safe from this polarization?”
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