Reps. Tom Reed and Brian Higgins Tuesday expressed outrage over House Speaker Paul Ryan's recent firing of the chaplain of the House of Representatives – a Jesuit priest who apparently drew the ire of non-Catholic Republicans.
"What's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. And from my perspective, based on the information I have, how Father Pat's termination has been handled is not right," said Reed, a Republican from Corning who has long had a strong relationship with Ryan.
Reed was one of two Republicans to join Democrats last week in calling for an investigation into the firing of Rev. Pat Conroy, who had served as House chaplain for seven years.
Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who also called for an investigation, offered some speculation regarding what may have happened.
"I think it's an anti-Catholic move perpetrated by people who don't understand Catholicism," said Higgins, who blamed the firing on evangelical Christians in the House who pressured Ryan – like Reed and Higgins, a Catholic – into firing Conroy.
Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican, a Catholic, also questioned Conroy's firing – although not as vehemently as Reed and Higgins did.
“There are a lot of questions left to be answered when it comes to the resignation of Father Conroy," Collins said in a statement. "I have no reason to believe that Speaker Ryan would have acted against his best judgment, although this is a unique situation and I know that many members would like more details.”
Ryan asked Conroy to resign last month, and the Wisconsin Republican offered some details of his reasoning in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Monday.
"This was not about politics or prayers, it was about pastoral services," Ryan said. "And a number of our members felt like the pastoral services were not being adequately served, or offered."
Asked about what Ryan said, Reed offered a different take on the ousted chaplain.
"I've had no concerns with his pastoral services," said Reed, adding that he and other lawmakers he knows have received spiritual support from Conroy and attended his services. "And the speaker never talked to me, and I believe to other members, with regards to the concerns he was hearing. And that to me is another sign that there's something going on here, that we want to send a message that we're standing with Father Pat, not only privately, but publicly."
Higgins said Ryan has an obligation to provide more details as to why he forced out Conroy.
"The members, both sides, seem to be very comfortable with him," said Higgins, who got to know the priest well because their lockers are side-by-side in the House gym. "He's never, ever displayed any kind of outlier type of behavior of a political or a personal nature."
In an interview with The New York Times, Conroy said he didn't know whether he was fired for political reasons. But, he noted that a prayer he gave on the House floor last fall, when lawmakers were debating a tax bill, caused a bit of a stir.
In that prayer, Conroy said: “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.”
Conroy said that a staffer from the speaker's office complained about the prayer, saying it was too political.
And shortly afterward, Ryan approached Father Conroy and said: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics," the priest told The Times.
Asked if some lawmakers may have misinterpreted Conroy's prayer as a political statement, Reed said: "Obviously as a Catholic myself, I know the teachings of Jesus, I know the teachings of the Catholic faith. And maybe some have misinterpreted it but I'll let them answer for that."
Reed felt so strongly about Conroy's dismissal that when Democrats offered a resolution calling for an investigation and Republicans put forth a motion to table that resolution, Reed not only voted with Democrats -- but also moved to the Democrats' side of the House chamber, as a symbolic act.
He said he did that to send a message: "You know what, this is wrong. This needs to be highlighted and accountability needs to occur here in regards to how Father Pat was treated."
Several other Catholic lawmakers, such as Rep. Pete King, a Long Island Republican, have questioned Conroy's removal. But large numbers of lawmakers have not come forward to support Ryan's firing of the pastor.
Asked if he knew which lawmakers pushed for Father Conroy's dismissal, Reed said: "I have no idea."
Higgins speculated that the deeply conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is close to the Trump White House and which has many evangelical Christian members, probably pushed for Father Conroy's firing.
"I think it's a few wise guys who are louder than they are thoughtful, who are probably embellishing the prayers the father said," Higgins said.
Conroy is only the second Catholic ever to serve in the position of House chaplain. Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican and a Catholic, pushed for Conroy's appointment in 2001. Conroy's predecessor, Rev. Daniel Coughlin, was the first Catholic priest to serve in the position.
And now Conroy is the first House chaplain to ever be forced out of the position.
"Forcing a chaplain out is a big deal," said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat who was close to Coughlin and brought him to Buffalo to deliver a speech. "I don't know what possessed Paul (Ryan) to do that."