US Navy Cancels Catholic Services, Other Religious Services Continue

Various news outlets covered the US Navy’s decision not to renew the contracts of civilian chaplains who were filling critical billets in the military chaplaincy:

The Navy has declined to renew contracts with Catholic priests in a supposed “cost-cutting” move, leaving bases without enough chaplains to keep services going…

The San Diego Tribune’s headline was somewhat misleading, as “other religious services continue” because most of the contract chaplains are Catholics, so the “other religious services” will continue to be served by active duty military chaplains.

Part of the Navy’s reasoning, according to Vice Admiral Yancey Lindsey, was that chaplain contracts were ended

at bases where those services are readily available in the surrounding community outside the base.

Such reasoning is dangerous toward religious liberty in the military as a whole. After all, if the Navy can essentially fire Catholic chaplains — Catholics in the US military suffer from one of the larger shortages of chaplains — because they’re served in the local community, what’s the justification for keeping the Protestant chaplains, who are likely just as represented in the local community, if not more so?

The Navy had a further awkward defense of its decision:

“The Navy’s religious ministries priority is reaching and ministering to our largest demographic — active duty Sailors and Marines in the 18-25 year-old range,” Brian O’Rourke, a Navy Region Southwest spokesman, wrote…“To meet that mission, the Navy has had to make the difficult decision to discontinue most contracted ministry services.”

That seems to say 18 to 25 year olds in the Navy are, by and large, not Catholic. But the Navy did not say they were adding contract chaplains to other denominations or religions to meet that demographic’s demand — they only said they were ending the Catholic contracts. Likewise, the Navy’s pragmatic approach contradicts the military’s larger push to recruit chaplains who represent “diverse” viewpoints that do not serve the vast majority of military troops. (For example, the US Air Force has commissioned Saleha Jabeen, who will be the first female Muslim chaplain. She represents a religion whose mainstream beliefs do not recognize female religious leaders, meaning she will be able to spiritually serve an extremely small minority of troops.)

The idea of contract chaplains is itself an admirable, if awkward, attempt to meet the religious needs of US troops. Far better, of course, would be actual military chaplains. With military chaplains under frequent public attack merely for performing their duties, however — and with the military rarely standing in defense of those chaplains — it is understandable that faith leaders would be hesitant to join the military. Thus, the military exacerbates its own shortage.

Even so, “nothing” is rarely a better option than “something,” and any action that ultimately inhibits religious freedom in the military is concerning. Rather than focusing on how they are ending religious support, the Navy needs to explain what they are doing to increase their support for the religious liberties of their troops.

2 comments

  • I once thought our military the best in the world. The Navy was my favorite because I had 3 cousins on the Arizona on Dec 7th, 1941, that I will never know, but respected. I have DVDs of the Enterprise after Dec 7th, where religious services were proudly held on a deck full of crew members, officers included. Recently I read a story that the Navy will possibly allow an atheist group called Satanic Temple to have meetings at Annapolis and now no more Catholic services on base. I wonder what has happened to good leadership with a solid common sense base? I will just keep my eyes on heaven and continue to pray our military will soon have better leadership which they deserve.

  • You are correct in your assessment that something is better than nothing and that not funding contract Catholic chaplains is a mistake, if for no other reason than its symbolic hit to religious freedom. However, the problem is more complicated than it seems at first glance.

    The Catholic chaplain shortage is the direct result of the broader Catholic priest shortage in the West. Which means Catholic bishops are forced to choose between using their limited number of priests to cover their own dioceses or sending them to the military. Plus, this limited pool of priests is further limited by the physical, medical, age, and other restrictions required to serve on active duty. In places like San Diego, there are presumably plenty of Catholic congregations from which to choose, so the move makes sense for purely fiscal and pragmatic reasons.

    Besides, the main reason military chaplains exist is to deploy with the troops. Yes, it’s much better when there are sufficient Catholic chaplains to train and deploy with said troops. But one can understand why it makes less sense to employ contract Catholic chaplains who cannot deploy, especially since those priests are not allowed to visit the troops in what the Navy calls “deck plate ministry.” With almost no exceptions, these contract chaplains are limited to saying Mass, counseling Catholic troops/families, and providing other strictly Catholic religious services within the walls of the chapel.

    In the end, it’s primarily an issue of the Catholic Church being unable or unwilling to care properly for their parishioners who choose to serve in the military. As an aside, more than half of active duty Air Force chaplains are foreign born and serve heroically in the place of American-born Catholic priests. Without these foreign-born chaplains, the shortage of military Catholic priests would be beyond devastating. Absent a flood of new Catholic chaplains born in the US and/or a similar flood of additional foreign-born priests in the ranks, this problem will never be fixed.

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