Because of my background in church-state studies, for the past third of a century or so I have been interested in the many legal puzzles linked to the work of military chaplains.
The bottom line: There is no easy way to provide doctrinally specific care to all of the sailors on a submarine (or a very small, remote base near the front lines).
It is possible for one clergy person to show tolerance and sympathy for believers in a number of different religions with clashing doctrines, but there is no way one or two chaplains can turn into doctrinal Swiss Army knives and provide the same degree of care for Catholics, Muslims, Lutherans, Mormons, Baptists, Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Wiccans, Hindus, etc., etc. At some point, people feel left out. At some point, there is a Catholic who needs to say a sacramentally valid Confession before going into combat and the only chaplain available is a female Baptist or United Methodist or Episcopalian or Disciple of Christ.
Doctrinal conservatives in various traditions often try to wish this conflict away, even though it is just as important for neopagans to have religious liberty as it is for Southern Baptists.
Doctrinal liberals in various traditions are the leading advocates for the theological Swiss Army knife approach, since their faiths almost always take a more Universalist approach to issues attached to salvation and sacraments. Thus, when a Catholic male declines to say his confession to a female chaplain in a liberal mainline church, that is the male soldier’s problem. Why can’t everybody just get alone?
As a result of my fascination with these issues, I have been paying close attention to the debate about whether Catholic priests who are under contract (as opposed to being regular military chaplains) will be allowed to volunteer (as in for free) say Mass on bases affected by the government shutdown.
Alas, cruise through the results of this logical Google News search file and it will be easy to see a familiar trend.
The Daily Caller? Check.
The Washington Times. Check.
The Christian Broadcasting Network? Check.
National Review Online? Check.
The Christian Post? Check.
Yes, indeed. It appears that this is a conservative news story, one that falls outside the approved template for the mainstream media’s coverage of government-shutdown horror stories.
Now, I think this is tragic because some of the conservative advocacy media have made it sound like the White House has threatened all Catholic priests with arrest if they show up to say Mass at bases around the world.
That’s not the story. The story is smaller and more focused than that, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important religious-liberty story worthy of balanced, accurate mainstream news coverage. You can tell that there are some flames underneath this smoke just by reading the press releases from the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. Here’s a sample, after the U.S House of Representatives voted 400-1 to allow volunteer clergy to carry on with their military-base work during the shutdown.
The other way that you can tell this is a valid mainstream story is by following the rather calm, focused stories in a perfectly logical mainstream source — the Gannett-operated Military Times. For example, there is this:
Because of the chronic shortage of active-duty Catholic chaplains, some of the services have turned to hiring priests to government civilian and contractor positions.
Chaplains of some other faiths may be affected, too, because the Army, for example, does have some federal General Schedule workers and contract workers of other faiths serving military communities as chaplains as well as other chapel workers. But the Catholic active-duty priest shortage generally has been more pronounced.
With the government shutdown, GS and contract priests who are furloughed are not allowed to work, not even to volunteer, according to John Schlageter, general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services. “During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base, and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so,” he said.
The chancellor’s office of the archdiocese has been “inundated” with calls from priests affected by the shutdown, said Taylor Henry, spokesman for the archdiocese, the endorsing agent for Roman Catholic chaplains.
Appropriately enough, the Military Times also produced a story featuring the views of the retired Army National Guard general who case the one “nay” vote in that 400-1 media event in the U.S. House.
Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., a retired major general who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is taking heat for being the only person to vote against the religion resolution, but he defended his vote.
“Of course I want chapels open, but what about our military families who have no place to send their children and are forced to buy family essentials off base?,” Enyart said in a statement. …
“The bill I voted against is a prime example of the hypocrisy we see every day in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “This bill did nothing for the troops. All it does is provide political cover for people who won’t do their jobs, and that’s the Congress.”
That’s a totally valid follow-up story and there are plenty of other angles to pursue. The approach that I’m having trouble grasping is apathy.