Got news? Concerning Catholic priests, Mass and padlocks

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.

TheBlaze.com? Check.

The Christian Broadcasting Network? Check.

Lifesite? 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.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Darren Blair

    Urban legends website Snopes.com has an article about the issue – http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/shutdown.asp – but they don’t presently have any citations (they accidentally duplicated the citations from another page, and deleted everything in order to try and fix it all).

  • CoffeeLoveWY

    DOD recalled all GS/Contractors that are essential to Morale & Welfare back to work, that includes Catholic Priests.
    I am a 17 year Military Spouse and Chapel Volunteer.

  • Howard

    “… it is just as important for neopagans to have religious liberty as it is for Southern Baptists.” That line does not seem to be necessary for main thrust of the post; it has nothing to do with journalism, but instead concerns a judgment about what is right or wrong, or important or unimportant, in American society. What’s more, it unfortunately opens up the whole debate about what terms like “religious liberty” actually mean — there are some important differences, for example, between the Catholic meaning and the meaning in secular law. The differences are analogous to the distinction in software engineering between a feature and a bug, or to the question of whether a list of a submarine’s capabilities should include such items as “it is capable of being crushed,” “it is capable of exploding,” and “it is capable of breaking in two.”

  • dougpruner

    The “Swiss Army Knife” analogy is appropriate. Limiting my comment to the various professed Christians- those self-committed to observing the commandments of Jesus- I note this: “I have a new commandment to give you, that you are to love one another; that your love for one another is to be like the love I have borne you. The mark by which all men will know you for my disciples will be the love you bear one another.” John 13:34,35, Kx.
    After saying this he went out and died for his friends, arm himself to kill his enemies. (Cf. John 18:36)
    So: what is the position of a Chaplain- a professed Christian- who encourages his fellows to kill their fellows on the other side? As happened in the two World Wars, and in many, more local conflicts.

    • Reformed Catholic

      Ever read Augustine ?

      • dougpruner

        Reformed:
        Let’s see … Matthew, Mark, Luke … Nope, no Augustine here.
        I have read Jesus, quoted by me. How would you apply that teaching?

        • Suburbanbanshee

          So you don’t accept the Old Testament, or the Book of Revelation? The Lord of Hosts (ie, armies) just has armies of angels to sit around twiddling their thumbs, singing camp songs?

          The Lord is at war all the time, with the pathetic Satan and his pathetic armies. Just because He chose not to crush people instead of get crucified by them, doesn’t mean He is always merciful and not just. It’s giving people time to live and grow, before the harvest comes in and the chaff gets burned.

          The Gospels are full of Jesus warning people of this.

          • dougpruner

            You cover so much ground I’m not sure what your complaint is.
            The OT, as you call it, is very much part of God’s word to all of us. It mentions e.g. that God once killed 185,000 soldiers who were camped around Jerusalem. That was God killing the enemies of his people, not an American or Iranian President or killing his own enemies. He gets to make those calls because he created us. Rev 4:11.
            Satan may be pathetic to you, but to Paul and other Bible writers he is a formidable enemy, not to be underestimated.

    • n_coast

      “who encourages his fellows to kill their fellows on the other side” ??? Have you ever met a military chaplain? I was only in the Army for 2 years; so maybe I just didn’t get around to those bloodthirsty chaplains.

      • dougpruner

        n_coast:
        Navy; eight years. The Anglican (Episcopal) Chaplain I talked with never ‘encouraged me to kill’. Neither did the Catholic Chaplain I met later in the Aleutians. We weren’t in combat situations.
        But their job—if you look into it—is to ‘buck up’ the troops of their own religions under all conditions. In combat, to go into killing mode rather than abstain. (And other troops, too: Catholic Chaplains are volunteering to hold Mass on bases even thought the financial side of their work has been sequestered, and some are willing to counsel those from other religions with permission from the diocese. Admirable from the public service POV, but unscriptural, as I noted.)
        I know of what I speak because I’ve bothered to do the research. Please, you do so as well before commenting further on the topic.
        In any case I ask: How would YOU have applied John 13 when, say, going into action on the Somme in ’18 or at Bastogne in ’44?

    • n_coast

      If I had been involved in battle, I would have pulled the trigger. If I didn’t, I’d be letting my squad mates down Anyone who would kill me and my friends is my enemy. John 13 does not give me pause about this, but other parts of the Bible do.

      I remember the cadre in basic training being unable to understand that the Mormon soldiers might not feel comfortable talking to a Protestant chaplain. On the other hand I’d expect any chaplain to be available to talk to any soldier who needed to unburden himself.

      I would expect the chaplains to be concerned about the persons and not about the Army.

      • dougpruner

        n_coast
        “I would have pulled the trigger”
        Absolutely correct IMO. However, how do you then answer God when he asks who gave you authority to take the life of his creation? Especially when the two of you call yourselves Christians? (As happened in the two biggest wars of history.)
        And, how could the situation I posited have been prevented?

        BTW another scripture I find useful in meditating on these things is Mt 6:24 about trying to serve two masters.
        Also, Paul calls his fellow Christians “ambassadors substituting for Christ, as though God were making entreaty through us”. Can the ambassador of a country be found attacking the citizens of that same country (God’s Kingdom government) on a battlefield? As they say, there’s a word for that, and it ain’t pretty!
        “I would expect the chaplains to be concerned about the persons and not about the Army.” Who pays their salaries?

        • n_coast

          Mea culpa?

          • dougpruner

            n_coast
            Good answers. My solution is to follow the laws of my government: God’s. (Mt 6:9,10) That includes its laws/commandments, like John 13:34,35. Which means I refuse to get into the trenches in the first place. Then no culpa for mea. ‘There’s a word for that, and it ain’t pretty: coward!’ But it can show more courage to avoid violence. Compare Mt 26:53 and Isa 53.

            Jesus also showed his disciples—called Christians, of course—how they would be paid and by whom. Mt 10:8.
            That was Paul’s way, also. He famously supported himself as a tentmaker on his travels. He also looked to the congregations to support him while he was visiting them for spiritual purposes. If possible—he recognized the relative poverty of the Philippians e.g.; on a voluntary basis, as he told the Corinthians. These standards are being used today, successfully. More and better info at jw.org.


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