As Americans start to feel the effects of
the on-going stalemate in Washington, many have wondered about the decisions
directing which aspects of the government are shut down during a “government
shutdown.” Who decides and on what basis the approximate 17% of the government
that is put on hold? One would presume the importance of the service and the necessity
of funding would guide the process. But a press release from John Schlageter,
General Counsel for Archdiocese for the U.S. Military, indicates other
motivations are at work.
Schalageter reports that non-active-duty priests are barred from
engaging in any ministerial activity — even if they serve
on a volunteer basis. Not only is their work deemed “non-essential” so as to
place them on furlough, but “non-authorized” so as to ban them from ministering
Because of shortages of active-duty
chaplains, at over 220 U.S. military installations in 29 countries and 153 VA
Medical Centers throughout the U.S., American troops are served by contract
chaplains. The shortage is particularly felt among Roman Catholic service
members, who make up over 25% of the military.
These government contractors “of the
cloth” provide our service members with their only chance to worship on a
regular basis with others who share their faith, and serve them in all the
ordinary ways a pastor can, being with them through life’s most joyous and
Regardless, contract chaplains are among
the first on the chopping block.
“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,” warns Schlageter.
So Catholics could receive weekly
sacraments, many priests were more than willing to forego pay, but Schlageter
explains they have been coerced to refrain despite lack of expense. “During the
shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being
arrested if they attempt to do so.”
For priests serving our troops to worry
about criminal arrest for trespassing in the spaces they worked only days ago,
and will likely return shortly, is not only silly, but alarming. This petty
action directly threatens the constitutionally-preserved freedoms of these
priests and Catholic soldiers to exercise and express their faith.
Apparently, the Administration views the governmental shutdown as an
opportunity to score political points, exaggerating harm and blaming
Republicans. But while the closing of national parks — even those not managed by federal employees — was troubling enough, this fiasco with the contract chaplains
infringes on fundamental freedoms.
First Amendment rights are not appropriate pawns in the hands of politicians. Even if the government shuts down, the Bill of Rights do not.
This trampling on religious exercise — going beyond the principle of the matter — affects real people in profound ways. Aside from cancelled worship services, there are reports of baptisms being called off and even a priest being banned from officiating at the wedding of a couple he had counseled through the premarital process.
For those men and women who put their lives on the line to serve God and country to lose access to their pastors is unacceptable. Congress needs to remember their duty to defend and uphold the Constitution as well as the concerns of military members who enable them to do so.