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.
Military personnel enjoy, like all Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of the “Free Exercise” of their particular religious faith. But because military personnel are considered a “captive audience,” the laws of our country require the government to provide access to that faith. This is why we have a military chaplaincy. This all becomes very clear when one thinks of a military family stationed in Bahrain or Japan. They cannot walk down the street to the local synagogue, church, mosque, etc.
There is a chronic shortage of active duty Catholic chaplains. While roughly 25% of the military is Catholic, Catholic priests make up only about 8% of the chaplain corps. That means approximately 275,000 men and women in uniform, and their families, are served by only 234 active-duty priests. The temporary solution to this shortage is to provide GS (General Schedule) and contract priests. These men are employed by the government to ensure that a priest is available when an active duty Catholic Chaplain is not present. With the government shutdown, many GS and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work – not even to volunteer. During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so.
As an example, if a Catholic family has a Baptism scheduled this weekend at an Air Force with no active duty chaplain and that base is staffed by a GS or contract priest who is furloughed, unless they can locate a priest who is not a GS or contract priest, the Baptism is most likely cancelled. If you are a Catholic stationed in Japan or Korea and are served by a Contract or GS priest who is furloughed, unless you speak Korean or Japanese and can find a church nearby, then you have no choice but to go without Mass this weekend. Until the Federal Government resumes normal operations, or an exemption is granted to contract and GS priests, Catholic services are indefinitely suspended at many of those worldwide installations served by contract and GS priests.
At a time when the military is considering alternative sources of funding for sporting events at the service academies, no one seems to be looking for funding to ensure the Free Exercise rights of Catholics in uniform. Why not?
*John Schlageter is General Counsel of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
The AMS was created as an independent archdiocese by Pope John Paul II in 1985 as the only Catholic jurisdiction responsible for endorsing and granting faculties for priests to serve as chaplains in the U.S. military and VA Medical Centers.
AMS-endorsed chaplains serve at more than 220 U.S. military installations in 29 countries, making the AMS the nation's only global archdiocese. AMS-endorsed chaplains also serve at 153 VA Medical Centers throughout the U.S.
The AMS service population also includes American Catholic civilians working for the federal government in 134 countries, but currently, due to limited resources, the AMS cannot adequately serve this population.
Worldwide, an estimated 1.8 million Catholics depend on the AMS to meet their spiritual and sacramental needs.
For more information on the Archdiocese for the Military Services, visit www.milarch.org, the only official Web site for Catholics in the military and for the Cause of Father Vincent Capodanno, MM.