Long before the recent government shutdown, practicing Catholics had it pretty rough in the U.S. Military. While around 25% of active-duty military personnel are Catholic, Catholic priests make up only about 8% of the chaplain corps. That means approximately 275,000 men and women in uniform, plus their families, are served by only 234 active-duty priests. As a result, many Catholics in the armed services visit GS and contract priests. These are priests that are available to serve on government facilities when an active-duty Catholic Chaplain is not present. Now, it seems the unthinkable is happening: not only are military chaplains no longer available for masses, sacraments, and counseling, but the GS and contract priests are not available, either. Why? Because the United States government has banned them from doing so.
You might think this sounds like severe exaggeration of what is happening in the U.S. Military, or even an incredible hypothetical scenario. Sadly though, it's 100% true. Because of the recent government shutdown, the U.S. military has furloughed as many as 50 Catholic chaplains, banning them from ministering to service men and women, or performing Sunday Mass. Worse, GS and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide have been told they will not be permitted to work – not even on a volunteer basis. In fact, at least one Chaplain has already been told that if he engaged in any ministry activity, he would be subjected to disciplinary action. “In very practical terms it means Sunday Mass won’t be offered,” said Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services. “If someone has a baptism scheduled, it won’t be celebrated.” John Schlageter, general counsel for the archdiocese, confirmed this in a written statement: “During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so” he stated.
Now, everyone is asking why such a drastic step had to be taken during a government “shutdown”. So far, there seems to be no clear answer. Unlike many other federal agencies, the U.S. Military is considered “essential services”, so U.S. Military personnel and operations remain fully intact and functioning as they were before the shutdown. There could be a reasonable argument made that some chaplains cannot serve at this time because they offer contract services, and there’s no funding available to pay them. Still, why would this prevent clergy from volunteering their services during the shutdown? At least one well known example of this has already occurred, in which a furloughed Air Force Chaplain was threatened after he offered to forgo pay. The chaplain was told he could not go on base, or enter his chapel offices at all. He was also barred from engaging in any ministry activity during the shutdown, even for military personnel who are off-duty. Archbishop Broglio said it simply doesn’t make sense to forbid priests from voluntarily ministering to the troops. “Most of us don’t look to see that we’re going to be paid before we do something... they are not being allowed to volunteer even to meet the needs of the faithful.”
Alarmingly, this action now crosses the line of the government infringing on religious liberty again. It was very apparent when the shutdown remained in effect on Sunday. A few days earlier, Schlageter had noted: “If the government shutdown continues through the weekend, there will be no Catholic priest to celebrate Mass this Sunday in the chapels at some U.S. military installations where non-active-duty priests serve as government contractors.” Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, noted “To deny Catholic men and women the opportunity of the sacraments and to deal with their prayerful vocations is really a stunning statement.”
Fortunately, some politicians have taken notice of the situation. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), a graduate of West Point and an Army veteran, said in a Friday statement. ”It is completely irresponsible for the President to turn his back on every American’s First Amendment rights by furloughing military contract clergy.” Despite the government “shutdown”, Congress itself actually had a vote over the weekend on a non-binding resolution to oppose the ban on military chaplains The motion, entitled “Expressing the sense of Congress regarding the need for the continued availability of religious services to members of the Armed Forces and their families during a lapse in appropriations“, passed by a vote of 400-1. Sadly, the lone “nay” vote came from a member of the Illinois delegation – Rep. William Enyart (D-IL) of the 12th Congressional district.
While it's impossible to know for certain why the government ordered a ban on Catholic priests serving on military bases, many people suspect that the motives were political. Rep. Pompeo believes the reason was entirely because President Obama wanted to cause “as much pain as possible” in the government during the shutdown, in order to pressure Congress to agree to a budget resolution. Pompeo noted: “However, this action crosses a constitutional line of obstructing every U.S. service member’s ability to practice his or her religion.”
It seems we may never know exactly why such draconian tactics were used against military chaplains. If there's any truth to Rep. Pompeo's hypothesis, however, it looks very bad for the executive branch – especially considering that “Catholic” Joe Biden is second in command at the White House. Playing politics is one thing – playing with religious liberties to get what you want is beyond the pale.