Questions Raised About Role of Military Chaplains

Questions Raised About Role of Military Chaplains

While the US military continues to aggressively recruit Roman Catholic priests as chaplains, some Catholics question whether the military seeks priests as spiritual guides or as “force-multipliers.”

Within the US Armed Forces there are a large number of Catholics: of 1.2 million military personnel, nearly 400,000 are Catholic, not counting an estimated 800,000 dependents, according to Catholicmil.org, a Web site for chaplains and military personnel.

Yet, just 300 Catholic chaplains celebrate Mass and administer sacraments. Of this group, nearly a third are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to sources at the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the US Army alone says it needs 400 priests.

“It’s not a crisis,” insists Lt. Col. Father John Kinney, a recruiter for the US Air Force’s Chief of Chaplain office. “[But] the need is greater for Catholic priests.”

Kinney says five chaplains make up the recruiting team for the US Air Force, and three of them focus solely on Catholic priests. Furthermore, twice a year since 2005, his office has sent out 15,000 mailers inviting priests to “Come Be With Us” for a weekend at Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases in Colorado.

Eight to ten priests show for each weekend, and they’re treated to flights in high-flying aircraft, says Kinney. “Every one who comes goes active duty or joins the Air Reserve.”

As for the overall effort across the US military, “it seems to be working,” he says. “The winds are steering more priests towards that direction.”

Since 2005, each branch has spent an estimated $100,000 a year for advertisements in Catholic publications. These ads, however, have inspired a backlash from readers who don’t want their magazine to underwrite something they don’t believe in. Also, the publications are running these taxpayer-paid ads even as dioceses are regularly shuttering church doors due to their own lack of priests and recruiting funds.

As Peter and Paul often disagreed, the Pentagon’s appeal for priests has caused a distinct rift among Catholics. Those who support tough war policies say Catholic chaplains share the same principles as the troops: protecting freedom, standing up for the weak and fending off those who offer nothing but violence and oppression. But for those Catholics whose ideology is pacifist, the Pentagon is mainly searching for ways to keep repeatedly deployed soldiers from unraveling.

Joshua Casteel, a former US Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib turned conscientious objector, says that some in the armed forces refer to chaplains as “combat multipliers,” in a play on the more official military parlance of “force multipliers” for anything that increases a mission’s success rate.

He says chaplains, who are sworn in as commissioned officers, are sent to war zones to make them “more tolerable,” and “in a roundabout way, to make killing easier.” Catholic chaplains of today have “bowed a knee to the government,” he says, and are disregarding Jesus’s principle of “laying down the sword.”

“I did not meet a single Catholic chaplain (while in Iraq ) who expressed to me any ethical concern about the Iraq War,” says Casteel, a Catholic convert and author of ‘Letters from Abu Ghraib’ (Essay Press). “Rank always trumps their spiritual mission.”

In March of 2007, Casteel was invited by the Indiana-based Catholic Peace Fellowship to speak at the Vatican to promote the issue of conscientious objection. The small group was given tickets to sit in the front row of Mass at St. Peter’s Square. Also attending was Deacon Tom Cornell, co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

“The pope greets and speaks briefly only to those in the front row of that section,” says Cornell. Pope Benedict XVI, who has indicated that the invasion of Iraq did not meet the criteria for a “just war,” spoke briefly with Casteel and invited him to talk with other Vatican officials. “Pope Benedict seemed quite taken with Josh. He turned and pointed to Josh and said, ‘Men like him.’ His face was beaming.”

The small contingent stayed for a week of meetings, speaking with, for instance, Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Vatican officials asked specifically about the situation of US Catholic chaplains in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“[I told them that] despite the best of intentions of taking care of the spiritual needs of soldiers, ultimately chaplains front as cheerleaders,” says Casteel. “And they weren’t happy about it.”

Capt. Father Gregory Caiazzo, a recruitment officer and spokesperson for the US Navy’s Chief of Chaplain office at the Pentagon, agrees with Casteel – chaplains are there to help morale. It’s a requirement under US military operating instructions, he says.

“Chaplains are there to foster a sense of good will, camaraderie and team work,” says Caiazzo. “That’s part of the job. And he’s doing this from a spiritual-based context. Spirit builds the spirit, which keeps one balanced.”

Judy McCloskey, director of Catholicmil.org, says, “Chaplains are not present to sanctify war, but to sanctify warriors.”

Referring to chaplains as “combat multipliers,” she says, debases all US troops, considering most efforts by the military are humanitarian – peacekeeping, building and restoring. With respect to actual combat, “the presence of an unarmed Catholic chaplain reminds all of the eternity of one’s soul, and the Christocentric nature of laying down one’s life for the sake of another.”

As mental-health casualties mount amongst troops, behavioral health units are overextended. This is one off-the-record reason why the Pentagon needs more chaplains, says Casteel. One example of how the US military uses chaplains as additional “psyche corps,” he says, is the chaplain’s ability to offer a soldier “Privileged Communication.” This official function allows a soldier to have absolute confidentiality with a chaplain, similar to the Catholic church’s sacrament of confession.

Whatever a soldier tells a chaplain during Privileged Communication,”is owned by the [soldier],” says Kinney. “No one in the US military can require you to reveal that information.”

Cornell says historically the US military has exploited this pact of confidentiality because expressing fear or any psychological issue to a commanding officer could mean retribution against a soldier – in ways not sanctioned by any chain of command.

At Fort Hood, Catholic chaplains are being commended for their actions on November 5, when suspected gunman Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, 39, took thirteen lives and wounded 30. On that day, Father Ed McCabe, who had just returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, rushed to the scene and was able to anoint 11 of the dead.

“It was powerful to see this,” says Army Chaplain Col. Frank Jackson, garrison chaplain for Fort Hood, who praised all his chaplains for their work that day.

Jackson’s own connection to Hasan suggests some of the limitations chaplains have when helping troubled US troops.

Two months before the attack, Jackson was doing what some chaplains call “battlefield circulation,” also known as “ministry of presence.” He went to speak with some of the faith groups that hold services at Fort Hood’s Spiritual Fitness Center. He ended up speaking with Hasan from the Muslim group, whom he called “a very quiet, regular guy.”

“I asked him how they were doing; he said, ‘Good’,” reports Jackson, who said there were no Muslim chaplains stationed at Fort Hood before the shooting. “What we were talking about were prayer rugs for the people coming to the Muslim service, and they were delivered in reasonable time.”

Jackson said Hasan showed no signs he was having mental health issues.