Help wanted: Catholic military chaplains needed

Now, more than ever, their numbers are dwindling, and the need continues to be great.

From Stars and Stripes:

Spc. Joe Murphy’s job in Afghanistan was to hunt down the things his fellow soldiers hoped they’d never have to encounter.

As part of a route-clearance team that combed the roads connecting Bagram Airfield to outposts in the region, the 23-year-old Iowa National Guardsman gained a close-up familiarity with roadside bombs. Understanding the devices that insurgents have used to kill thousands of U.S. and allied troops in the last decade didn’t make them any less terrifying.

Heading out on dusty patrol, Murphy said, “You wonder if you might die today.”

The threat didn’t inspire Murphy to fatalism. Instead, it intensified his longing for the familiar rituals of the Catholic faith he’d practiced in weekly Masses since childhood — confession to a priest, the sacrament of communion and the quiet time spent in prayer and meditation in front of an altar holding the consecrated Eucharistic wafer.

“When you are able to go to Mass, it relaxes you,” he said. “It lifts your spirits no matter what the situation is.”

Searching for bombs day in and day out, Murphy needed the reassuring hand of his faith more than ever, but because of a worsening shortage of Catholic chaplains in Afghanistan and throughout the military, it had never been more difficult to practice it.

“The only time in Afghanistan I ever saw a priest was on large bases, and I wasn’t on large bases very often,” Murphy said. He estimated he attended Mass three times during his nine-month deployment in 2010 and 2011.

Catholics, the largest avowed faith group among U.S. servicemembers, have among the lowest availability of chaplains of any religious group in the military. The ratio of practitioners to Catholic chaplains lags far behind other major Christian denominations, as well as Judaism and Islam.

Servicemembers from smaller religious communities — even those proportionally well-represented — can have similar difficulty meeting up with their own chaplains because of low numbers dispersed through a vast network of military bases. Nowhere is the problem of access more wide-reaching than among Catholics.

Catholic chaplain numbers have dropped by 46 percent since 2001, likely the result of an overall societal decline of the priesthood. Today, just more than 200 active-duty Catholic chaplains remain, while more than 275,000 active-duty troops identify themselves as Catholic. That number is exceeded only by those who list no religious preference, according to recent Pentagon data.

Read more.


  1. When I was in Afghanistan in 2004 we had a priest celebrate Mass daily. One Priest was from our Polish allies. An excellent Priest!!! Talk about the universal church….we had Koreans, Polish, Austrailians, etc., during Sunday Mass at Bagram. I hope parish priests will consider serving in the reserves.

  2. Deacon Bill says:

    The challenge, of course, is not that many priests don’t want to serve. Priests can’t just sign up to be chaplains — they have to be released to do so by their respective bishops (if secular clergy) or religious superiors (if religious clergy). What happens is that bishops can’t afford to release some of their best priests when they have growing need for priests at home! That’s why the various chaplaincies are always well represented when the bishops gather for the major meetings in Baltimore (in November) and elsewhere (in June).

    As the number of priests continues to decline, so too do the number of healthy priests (remember, chaplains have to be eligible and meet military health and fitness standards) who can be made available by their bishops.

    God bless,
    Deacon Bill

  3. Let’s take care of this issue about a shortage of priests in the Armed Services by seeing if some of those married, former Anglican priests who have now become Catholic (continuing a thread from an earlier post) will volunteer! I often hear that there really isn’t a shortage of priests; or if there is, it’s all because of the mealy-mouthed seminaries and Catholic practices that were in action after Vatican II (go back to the good old days, put all the men in cassocks, get some solid Conservative theology in there, and the problem disappears!) I don’t see a great deal of effort on the part of the Vatican to address this shortage, though it may be because when you’re surrounded by priests, as is the case in Rome, the shortage loses its sense of urgency.

    Personally, I believe the requirement of celibacy for the Catholic priesthood plays a huge role in the shortage of priests. It’s a scandal that so many people are unable to receive the sacraments, especially men and women serving in the military, and nothing significant is being done to address this issue. I would love to know if there’s been any sort of organized study about what might happen to the number of priests if married men were allowed into the priesthood. As I’m sure everyone knows, a married priesthood existed for centuries in the Roman Church (and still does, if you count these men who’ve come in from other denominations as described in the earlier post.) Other than cultural and personal preferences, and perhaps for some economic reasons, I don’t understand why there isn’t rational and intelligent discussion of this going on at local levels, National Bishop levels, and in Rome. I’d hate to think that it’s because the Old Boys Club would be uncomfortable having wives at their parties.

  4. Henry Karlson says:

    Maybe people should take this as a sign. Why should their be chaplains for soldiers engaged in unjust wars? Shouldn’t there be an interdict if anything, when the war is unjust?

  5. Fiergenholt says:


    “Personally, I believe the requirement of celibacy for the Catholic priesthood plays a huge role in the shortage of priests.”

    Not sure I agree at all.

    At Christmas Midnight Mass, we had a “son-of-the-parish” home for the Holidays. He is a senior administrator at a major seminary in this section of the country and his seminary is already at capacity for Fall 2012. So are several other major seminaries all across the country. There may be a shortage of priests but there is NOT a shortage of priestly seminarians.

    The problem — obviously — is that it will be several years before actual ordinations start to rise and by that time we will have lost even more active priests due to deaths and “retirements” and even a few “resignations.”

    Changing the Law of Celibacy for Western/ Latin Rite priests will not really solve this either. FYI (1) Any woman married to a man who is considering ordination to EITHER the married diaconate — now in place — or the married presbyterate — whenever it happens — has the right to absolutely veto that action; (2) Being married to any clergy-person means living in a glass-house. A lot of women simply cannot deal with the very public nature of being a “Preacher’s Wife” or a “Preacher’s Kid.”

  6. Deacon Norb says:


    Be very careful where you are walking.

    Perhaps some American may have already decided that Vietnam was an “unjust war” and others — probably younger — cite the Operation Iraqi Freedom (the second Iraqi invasion by the United States) as an “unjust war” also. Neither of those two combat actions, however, was ever definitely described as an “unjust war” by any Roman Catholic Church authority who has the right to make that judgement.

    Using your own ideas about what constitutes an “unjust war” may be important for your own personal satisfaction and gloating. It does not, however, help the shortage of priests in the military. Nor would an “interdict.”

    The idea, however, of encouraging those married Anglican priests to apply for uniformed military chaplaincy positions is fascinating. The military would not mind it one bit — they are used to married chaplains.

  7. Henry Karlson says:

    Yes. We all know, there is no objective standard for a just war. Those fighting for Hitler could also have argued “who are you to tell us this isn’t just?” Seriously, when the Church has consistently argued against modern war, and pointed out the injustice to American military expeditions, we need to think the evil is indeed so great that we can denounce it.

  8. I suspect part of the problem is that being a chaplain in war zones is a young man’s game, and most Catholic priests these days are on the long side of AARP membership. They are, of course shipping younger ones in from Africa and elsewhere but its all they can do to staff parishes.

    Of course we could try to fix this from the demand side as well. Maybe if we scaled down from an Imperial planetary occupation force to a legitimate national defense military, the chaplain shortage (not to mention our multi-trillion dollar debts) would fix themselves.

  9. As a military spouse and lifelong Catholic, please allow me to add my experiences/perspective on this topic. Many of our priests and seminarians would like to serve as chaplains and feel called to do so. Obtaining their bishop’s permission is another matter entirely. Even gaining permission to become a reserve chaplain (one weekend per month plus two weeks’ active duty per year) is extremely difficult. We would have more Catholic chaplains if bishops would release priests to this important ministry.

    On the military side, I have seen Catholic chaplains forced into early retirement because they have achieved military rank that entitles them to (on the military payscale, not the bank/software giant payscale) large paychecks and accompanying retirement pay, even though these chaplains would have preferred to remain on active duty and had their bishops’ permission to do so. In this era of military budget-cutting, I can easily see this trend resurfacing, further thinning the ranks of Catholic chaplains.

    For those commenters who presume to know how the US military functions and what its objectives (just or unjust) might be, please remember a few important points. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and guardsmen may be volunteers, but they serve where our elected Commander-in-Chief (who may not understand the whole military situation until he/she is elected – we’ve all seen that happen more than once) sends them, and earn what Congress permits them to. It’s not the easiest of lives. To imply that they should somehow also be denied the Sacraments because they serve in wartime, under orders, because they swore an oath to defend the Constitution and/or signed a contract with the Armed Forces to serve is to also imply that they are “lesser” Catholics because they chose to join the military. To all the young dads and moms who joined to obtain a steady paycheck and guaranteed health benefits for their families while they serve, to all the young men and women who love their country and want to defend and protect it and therefore joined the military, to all the senior enlisted families who have given up time with family back home and uprooted their children ten times in 20 years in order to serve and to lead the enlisted folks who are the heart and soul of our military, to all the officers who’ve learned to lead the hard way and aspire to command because they know that they have the drive to lead people toward an important set of objectives and the good sense to let their senior enlisted be the managers, trainers and innovators the people of the USA have paid them to become, please know that for every Henry out there, there’s also someone like me who understands and supports you – and prays for you.

    Interdict, indeed. Have we become so judgmental of our leadership (present as well as past) that we lose sight of the individuals (and their families) who make up our Armed Forces, and think it is okay to deprive them of the Sacraments? I sincerely hope not.

    Can you imagine going through all of Lent and Holy Week with no Mass, no confessions, no way to receive the Sacrament of Anointing if you fell ill? Our military members face this situation all the time…weeks without Mass…months without the other Sacraments…and when they are in a combat zone, this loss is very acutely felt.

    One of my military chaplain friends is Baptist and he took the time to learn to pray the Rosary so he could offer it with his Catholic Marines in Iraq. Another of my Catholic chaplain friends told me more than once that his purpose as a chaplain was to be the “moral compass” for the sailors and especially for the officers whom he served. In these troubled times, we need our military chaplains more than ever before.

  10. Henry Karlson says:

    They do as told. Where have I heard that one before?

  11. Henry Karlson says:

    BTW, I say that, knowing the kind of degradation of morality put on the soldiers, what they are encouraged to do, which goes against the development of conscience. Again, when that is the case — as it is — how can we bless that? Are chaplains allowed to encourage the soldiers to disobey when the war is unjust? No? Well, then we have a moral problem. They are not allowed to really minister and teach the truth, but only to support the war effort, even if the war effort is wrong. Again, how can that be allowed? How is _that_ Catholic?

    “Aren’t there Catholic chaplains to take care of these needs for Catholic soldiers?

    Sadly, the answer to this question is often no. We need to remember that chaplains work for the military. They are officers who are sworn to the military mission. Chaplains are forbidden to be conscientious objectors. Moreover, our experience with soldiers has been that when they go to their chaplains with questions of conscientious objection, they are often dismissed and are told to follow orders.”

    Can’t serve two masters; and we see who the master really is here. That is the problem. The Catholic chaplains are not allowed to be Catholic. They are subverted.

  12. Deacon Norb says:

    I said it above but maybe what I said did not sink in. Be very careful where you are walking. There are a lot of folks who respond to this blog whose actual experiences in the military and with military chaplains is exactly the opposite of your stereotypes.

    Nancy P said it very wisely here: If you do not like the way our country is acting militarily on the international level, get active in politics and make sure your voice is heard on at the CIVILIAN level. The elected President is the Commander-in-chief, not the Catholic chaplain trying to meet the needs of the everyday soldiers/sailors/marines/airmen. (AND, married deacons do have roles in this military chaplaincy structure — it’s just that they are not in uniform. In fact, I am meeting with a deacon assigned to the chapels of the largest military base in my area next week for lunch).

    AND, i know from actual interviews with military chaplains, they are the normal “advisors of first choice” when someone wants to leave the military early because of some personal issue — and “conscientious objection” is no where near the top of the reasons claimed.

  13. Fiergenholt says:

    I got a DVD of the “Director’s Cut — WOODSTOCK” for Christmas this year and watched it from beginning to end over the days between Christmas and New Years. Now, after reading this blog-stream, I have to wonder if there some kind of time-warp in place in these comments? Is this anti-military flavor I read here a product of the Woodstock Generation’s distrust of anything and everything ?

    –Is there a legitimate “anti-war” movement within American Catholicism ? Yes.
    –Is it very large? No
    –Is it at all influential in the wider church? Not Really.
    –Why ? Perhaps because it has no credibility.

    One has no credibility in this debate (any debate) unless one is willing to sacrifice at extreme levels to make sure one’s values are appreciated.

    Protesting on a blog that American Catholicism has no legitimate right to have priests in uniformed military chaplaincies is nice and safe and anonymous — and perfectly legal under “Free Speech” — but hardly courageous or credible. AND it will have no impact at all on the American Episcopacy’s legitimate decision to keep those chaplaincies in place.

    BTW: can I suggest that those who really want to know more about this whole scene, open a communications link with Bishop William Dendinger of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Island Nebraska. You might learn something.

  14. Henry Karlson says:

    There are many people who have experiences with them on all kinds of levels of interaction. Sorry to say, but what I said is not false, it is exactly what is going on within the military in this day and age. I know many people with experiences with this kind of complacency. The “well, get involved with politics” answers doesn’t solve the problem of soldiers who are being told to obey orders – even if the orders are evil (torture is just one such example). And that you are talking about “leaving” vs the issues of unjust orders, this again shows you do not understand the moral question being addressed. Seriously, the problem is that the military trains soldiers to overcome the conscience, and chaplains are not doing their job to trains the conscience. When they are putting the military over God, as is required in the current military, then yes, I will suggest that our chaplains have been subverted and it is a good thing there are less and less of them.

  15. Henry Karlson says:

    It’s not anti-military.

  16. Henry: To what other group of “sinners” would you also deny the Sacraments and graces of the Church? And, maybe more telling, what groups would you NOT deny?

  17. naturgesetz says:

    Just war theory lays out the criteria for warfare to be just. In the first place, there are the criteria for starting a war to be justified. These are for the political authority of a country to weigh in making a decision. They are not questions military chaplains, as such, are competent to decide (whatever their personal opinion). Then there are the criteria for the conduct of a war to be just. These apply to everybody engaged in the war, and it is a well-established principle that no one is required to obey illegal orders; but it is not easy, if even possible, for front line soldiers to know with moral certitude that a particular action is unjust, e.g., “May I shoot at these people when ordered to; may a throw a grenade into that building?” It becomes even more difficult when the enemy combatants are irregulars, with no uniforms to distinguish them from non-combatants.

    Of course, conscientious objectors should not be forced to serve, but others soldiers normally presume that orders are legitimate unless it is clear that they are not.

    And the “can’t serve two masters” principle applies to all of everybody’s life. It’s wrong to equate one’s country with the master who must not be served any more than any private employer. Indeed, scripture commands obedience to political authorities.

    Besides, our wars are just, so this is all hypothetical, anyway.

  18. Jack B. Nimble says:

    I try not to comment on “ad intra” RC matters, but there is a issue which crosses denominational lines. Unless you are a con-evo fundie style Protestant (which I am not), there is a concern about subtle and not so subtle proselytizing by evangelical chaplains. I know it was a problem a few years ago at the Air Force academy, and since the fundies seem to dominate the chaplaincy corps who is to say it isn’t a problem in combat zones where they are only too glad to step in where RC and mainline Protestant chaplains are unavailable.

    Sure, some of them may be well-meaning and respectful of our Mainline Prot. and/or RC traditions, but some of them view your church as a wicked den of idolatry and superstition presided over by the (so-called) “Anti-Christ”. Frankly, given their need, central to their dogma, to “Bring to Christ” any wayward sheep, RC included, I’d be very wary of their ministrations.

  19. Deacon Norb says:

    In February 2010, I made contact with an Episcopal priest who was a retired Air Force Chaplain and had been assigned to the United States Air Force Academy during the time of that incident described by “Jack B . . .” above. When I asked him the details, he denied that the Chaplaincy Staff itself was the problem. The problem — and he was adamant about this in his e-mails — was the non-ordained USAF officers/enlisted staff who were members of such groups as the “Officers Christian Fellowship, Navigators and Fellowship of Christian Athletes” who could — at least at that time — have access to the cadet dormitories and — essentially — subverted everything that the Academy Chaplaincy Staff was required to do both by Academy Policy and by the nature of the Chaplains’ job descriptions.

    I really have no current information other than that

  20. Deacon Norb says:

    Hey “Henry,” “Dave,” and “fiergenholt”!

    Consider this. I know this lady; she is a main visionary of our area “Pax Christi” group. Here she’s putting her beliefs up for everyone to see and in a rick-laden environment!

  21. Deacon Norb -

    You are misinformed. The leadership of the church – the Pope, the curia, and the nuncio – definitively announced before and after the invasion of Iraq that it was an unjust war of aggression.,2933,80875,00.html.

    On September 13, 2002, US Catholic bishops signed a letter to President Bush stating that any “preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq” could not be justified at the time. They came to this position by evaluating whether an attack against Iraq would satisfy the criteria for a just war as defined by Catholic theology.

    If the Pope, the curia, the Nuncio, and the US Bishop’s Conference are not “Roman Catholic Church authority who has the right to make that judgement” (as you claim) then who is? Would your sensibilities require an apparition of the Holy Family on the steps of the Capitol in order to establish that an authority who has the right to make judgment has spoken?

    Nancy P – The idea of interdict bothers you because a penalty is laid out on the soldiers – “that they should somehow also be denied the Sacraments because they serve in wartime, under orders, because they swore an oath to defend the Constitution and/or signed a contract with the Armed Forces”. Nancy, that’s the point of an interdict in history. That those who are denied the sacraments will consider the loss to their souls and refuse unjust, immoral orders that fundamentally violate God’s laws. It’s been used by the popes coercively to split soldiers from commanders and subjects from kings for two thousand years. Might an interdict in time have prevented Hitler’s invasion of France or Czechoslovakia or Poland or Russia? I don’t know. But I know the attention of the whole world would have been galvanized on the moral dimension of those invasions. But there was no interdict, and it seems likely that Catholic Chaplains in the Wehrmacht said mass and heard confessions from murderous fascist invaders, and gave them comfort. They took oaths too, to obey Adolf Hitler. An oath to obey the orders of the President cannot transcend the moral duty to take no place in an unlawful war of aggression. If military prison is the consequence of disobedience of an order that is fundamentally unlawful, as our church taught the invasion of Iraq to be, then the place for all good Catholics is in a military prison.

    In my estimation, “care for the troops” was far less important to our chaplains than the medals and ribbons, their continued pay, and the promise of a rich pension, and served as rationalization to their aid and abetting of an immoral war. By counseling troops, they caused the death of men, women, and children who had every moral right to defend their home from an unjust war of aggression, as the Pope, curia, nuncio, and US Bishop’s conference had determined.

    For that reason, I shall never contribute a nickel to the Military Ordinariate. Its priests and bishops are no better than the priests and bishops who served the spiritual needs of the Wehrmacht German Fascist aggressor soldiers in World War II; they were deaf to the direction of the Holy Father and innocent human life was lost as a result. Not a penny for those who comfort murder.

  22. Fiergenholt says:

    I’ll let Deacon Norb comment on your URL links to the statements by the Vatican about the Second Iraqi War. In retrospect, as a historian, those Vatican folks were correct but it was only many months/years afterwards that we realized that the Bush administration led us into the second Iraqi conflict based upon hearsay evidence.

    I do, however, totally disagree with your response to “nancy p.” For instance, unless you have evidence otherwise, there were no Catholic Chaplains in the Wehrmacht. If you want some “deep background” on the whole issue of the Vatican and Hitler’s Germany, try the Vatican’s web-site and look up/download the English translation of “Mit Brennender Sorge.”

    Finally, you might just want to strike up a conversation with Bishop Dendinger of Grand Island NE. I mention him in my posting way back in January 3 at 5:53am.

  23. Deacon Norb says:

    Joe. . .

    Am I mistaken ? Probably BUT I would have never dreamed of looking up anything to do with a Vatican pronouncement on either FoxNews or the BBC. Both are “fringe” sources of information with fanatically loyal followers but with minimal broad impact. I do find it fascinating, however, that several local Fox Network TV channels have lost so much market share, they are actually making statements denying that they are organizationally connected with FoxNews cable channel.

    I would have checked out a URL about the “just war” judgement on Operation Iraqi Freedom tied to the Vatican had I seen one. Everything else is second-hand and unofficial.

    The point “f” made makes good sense. Most of Roman Catholicism would never have even thought about the “just war” justification for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Folks were too upset about “weapons of mass destruction” being in the hands of renegade political leadership in Iraq (much like they are currently about the same issue with Iran). That alone justified calling Operation Iraqi Freedom a “just war.”

  24. Deacon Steve says:

    Joe I think you are misunderstanding the Just War teaching. It is used to determine whether a war is just, at the individual level. It is not a teaching that comes down infallibly from the Pope and we must accept his pronouncement on the matter. It is a teaching that involves looking at a large number of factors, and as a person makes the determination one of the things to be considered is what the Magesterium is saying. If I recall correctly the one objection that Blessed John Paul II had dealt with how much had been done to prevent the conflict. He did not object to the reason behind the decsion, he only questioned whether enough had been done to justify the use of arms to resolve the issue. It turns out that he was correct, and had more time elapsed and more investigation been done, the major reason for the invasion fell apart. But let’s not forget that the fiction of WMD was also perpetrated by Saddam Hussein himself. He claimed to have them, and claimed he was willing to use them as he had in the past. The just war teaching is not a simple black and white issue, it requires a lot of careful and prayerful thought, and each person is able to make the determination on their own after considering all the factors.

  25. Fiergenholt says:

    Blessings upon Deacon Steve:

    Deacon Greg has about seven deacons who regularly comment on THE BENCH (at least until he stopped allowing comments), and you — Deacon Steve — have hit a home run here!

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