US Army Censors Catholic Chaplains
Update: The Army defended its actions, with FoxNews saying it was a “cautionary move to preserve “military order and discipline,”” not censorship.
In a surprisingly underreported story, the US Army reportedly censored — and then admitted the wrong of censoring — US military Catholic chaplains during their performance of their Catholic Mass. Catholic priests were apparently given letters to read to their parishes explaining the Catholic opposition to the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring insurance coverage for things that violate Catholic beliefs.
On Thursday, January 26, Archbishop Broglio emailed a pastoral letter to Catholic military chaplains with instructions that it be read from the pulpit at Sunday Masses the following weekend in all military chapels. The letter calls on Catholics to resist the policy initiative, recently affirmed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, for federally mandated health insurance covering sterilization, abortifacients and contraception, because it represents a violation of the freedom of religion recognized by the U.S. Constitution.
The US Army’s Chaplaincy office responded:
The Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains subsequently sent an email to senior chaplains advising them that the Archbishop’s letter was not coordinated with that office and asked that it not be read from the pulpit. The Chief’s office directed that the letter was to be mentioned in the Mass announcements and distributed in printed form in the back of the chapel.
Archbishop Broglio, who is the bishop for the military diocese, maintained that it violated the Constitutional protection of religious liberty to interfere with the Catholic religious service, and the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, seems to have agreed:
Following a discussion between Archbishop Broglio and the Secretary of the Army, The Honorable John McHugh, it was agreed that it was a mistake to stop the reading of the Archbishop’s letter.
Interestingly, the letter was still edited:
The line: “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law” was removed by Archbishop Broglio at the suggestion of Secretary McHugh over the concern that it could potentially be misunderstood as a call to civil disobedience.
The Army was apparently the only service for which this was an issue, though it seems some Catholic chaplains chose to read the letter anyway.
The wording of the letter varied slightly from one parish to another, but the sentence censored from the military version seems to be common among several.
The military archdiocese maintains that the letter “concerns a moral, not a political issue,” which would place it unquestionably in the purview of a faith leader speaking to his congregation.
In many respects, the incident hearkens back to the 1997 Rigdon v. Perry (available here), in which Catholic chaplains were told to encourage their parishioners to contact their congressmen to oppose President Clinton’s proposed abortion policies. The heads of the military chaplaincies ultimately told them they could not do so, because it was a solicitation for votes while in the military, was a partisan political activity, and military members were in uniform while participating in a political activity.
Military chaplains sued when they were prevented from encouraging their congregations to do so (a Catholic and a Jewish chaplain were plaintiffs in the lawsuit), and they prevailed in district court. The court found the military did not have a compelling government interest in restricting the religious free exercise and free speech rights of its military chaplains.
Michael Weinstein, who claims to run a military “religious freedom” charity, has been noticeably silent on the topic of the military controlling the content of chaplain’s sermons, though MRFF researcher Chris Rodda has previously commented on the allowable content of sermons in other venues.