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.