Van Ens: The Catholics’ Jesuit order fights without compassion fatigue (column)
Pick a religious fight with a Jesuit priest and expect to lose.
Speaker Paul Ryan forced Father Patrick Conroy to resign his duties as chaplain in the House of Representatives. Then Ryan raised a white flag after failing to oust this Jesuit chaplain.
At first, it appeared this Christian soldier in the Jesuit army of faith had surrendered to Ryan’s demand. Father Conroy took a few days in the trenches to plot his next attack. He sent Ryan a letter saying he wouldn’t abandon his command post as chaplain.
Father Conroy is a proven veteran who attacks when he senses compassion is in short supply on political front lines. He’s a Jesuit, shorthand for a member in the “Society of Jesus.” Jesuits form the intellectual spine of Catholicism. They’ve built and maintain top-notch Roman Catholic schools, such as Georgetown University.
Jesuits fight for people wounded by injustice. These priests put feet on faith by practicing what the book of James rallies every Christian soldier to do: visit and protect “the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).
Jesuits’ defense of vulnerable people reminds Christians of the Good Samaritan’s merciful actions in Luke 10: 29-37. He bound up an assault victim’s wounds because this care-giver “had compassion.” Jesuits do more than feel sorry for citizens deprived of their rights. These priests soldier on and compassionately fight alongside people faltering under unfair political pressure.
When he tried to fire Chaplain Conroy, Ryan overlooked the Jesuits’ tenacious spirit, intellectual muscle and productive heritage. They represent the best of American Roman Catholicism. Historian Thomas O’Gorman salutes Jesuits’ compassion. American Catholicism has been “in its inception, wholly a Jesuit affair and [has] largely remained so” (History of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, ACHS, Vol 9, New York, 1895, p. 208).
Father Conroy received blessings from all Representatives after being unanimously elected the House’s 60th chaplain in May 2011. During the GOP tax-cut debate, Chaplain Conroy offered a morning prayer that recognized how our “great nation” had created “opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle.”
In the prayer, he urged that lawmakers’ “efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Ryan is said to have chastised Father Conroy after this prayer, warning him to retreat from compassion, “Padre, you just have to stay out of politics.” The chaplain reported that Ryan’s chief of staff Jonathan Burks spurned him, threatening “maybe its time we had a chaplain that wasn’t Catholic.”
Representative Mark Walker (R., N.C.) suggested the next chaplain should head a family to better meet the spiritual needs of House members with spouses and children. That comment was criticized as anti-Catholic bias against celibate priests.
Conroy stood his ground. This chaplain stays at his post in the House of Representatives. He shows compassion to the poor and attends to his pastoral duties with House members and their families.
Critics such as Ryan argue that Jesuits get political when they press for justice and take Jesus at his word to show compassion.
Conroy’s Jesuit faith shapes his political views of what’s fair and just. In contrast, Ryan’s politics shape his faith and policies in which wealthy citizens win and poor people lose.
On Memorial Day, our nation remembers military heroes who died to protect “the widow and orphan.” Alongside their ranks, let us salute “Christian soldiers” who lay down their lives and risk losing ministerial posts because they raise compassion’s banner for powerless people.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (http://www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.