In a highly unusual move, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) fired Rev. Patrick Conroy, the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives. The chaplain’s role is to say a prayer at the start of each day that the House is in session and to provide pastoral counseling “to the entire community on the House side of the Capitol.”
Ryan initially gave no reason but when the issue blew up, he said that House members felt that their pastoral needs were not being met. Many believe the real reason was that Ryan did not like a prayer Conroy gave when the House was debating the tax cut legislation:
“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 efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Afterwards, Ryan told the chaplain, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
Things only got worse when Representative Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who is a member of the group deciding on the next chaplain, described who he wanted:
“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…
“…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.”
Some Catholics were incensed by those remarks, believing they revealed a prejudice against having a priest in that position. Conroy was only the second Catholic to ever serve as House chaplain.
Responding to the anger, Walker added that he would be open to some priests:
“A priest or pastor over parishioners with families who have situations, those kind of things,” he said. “What I mean by that is to make sure they have experience in dealing with family issues.”
Controversies and scandals are so commonplace these days that many get little attention. This one, though, seemed to get addressed by just about every major newspaper and magazine. It also got plenty of air time on TV.
Since the issue first made headlines a few days ago, I’ve been skimming dozens of stories and listening to discussions on the cable shows. What I was looking for was even one person to make the point that this is not just a matter of possible religious bias, it is also blatant singlism. Walker wants the next chaplain to be someone who has a wife (and kids).
I could not find any clear articulation of that point. In New York magazine, Ed Kilgore inched toward the issue when he said, “Walker is getting perilously close to the old anti-Catholic jibe about the celibate priesthood not being entitled to ‘make the rules when they aren’t playing the game.’” And on MSNBC, NYU Professor Christina Greer said it sounded like women would not be considered, just someone who is a “heteronormative male.”
No one, in any of the publications or TV shows, pointed out that “the entire community on the House side of the Capitol” includes plenty of people who are single or don’t have kids. No one acknowledged that it would be helpful to have a chaplain who has “walked in the shoes” of people who are single or don’t have kids. They have pastoral needs, too.
I can think of one thing the single people might need a little help with – all the singlism they are faced with, day in and day out, by their own clueless colleagues who talk as if unmarried Congresspersons do not even exist. Maybe they would also like to talk about the sea of reporters and pundits who cover Congress as if it were one undifferentiated blob of people who are married with children. Perhaps they would like some empathy for the concerns that are specific to people who are single, including the 1,000+ federal laws that benefit and protect only people who are officially married. Some of those laws massively disadvantage single people financially and treat as inconsequential the important people in their lives.
The marginalization of single people in matters of religion is not specific to Congress. It also happens in everyday life, in places of worship, where single people often feel as though they are just not as valued as married people.
In the U.S., nearly half of all adults 18 and older are unmarried. Even counting people who marry, people spend more years of their adult life not married than married. It is indefensible to ignore them, in Congress or anywhere else.