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Chaplain Fintan Kilmurray greets U.S. soldiers after officiating a Sunday Mass service in Kandahar military base in southern Afghanistan, 2011Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images
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Priests in Uniform

The U.S. military has a shortage of Catholic chaplains, which affects service members and civilians alike

Maggie Phillips
June 04, 2021
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images
Chaplain Fintan Kilmurray greets U.S. soldiers after officiating a Sunday Mass service in Kandahar military base in southern Afghanistan, 2011Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images

In a national moment marked by suspicion, atomization, and hostility, the U.S. military in many ways continues to exemplify the American ideal of citizens of all colors and creeds living and working alongside each other. This productive tolerance and cooperation across lines frequently extends to the chaplain corps, where various denominations often share a common worship space on a military installation. Although the military requires specific religious denominations to endorse chaplains in order to ensure their legitimacy as clergy of a particular faith, and chaplains are expected to provide religious services and rites specific to those faiths, chaplains are also expected to provide confidential counseling to service members of all religious backgrounds, and to give moral advice to commanders. This structural ecumenism notwithstanding, a lack of chaplains in any one denomination can threaten this order when it limits service members’ access to religious services, creating the perception of a faith hierarchy.

So argues Catholic Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese of the Military Services in a recent story he authored for the spring 2021 issue of the AMS magazine Salute. In the piece, “Catholic Coverage on Military Installations,” Broglio addresses the current shortage of Catholic military chaplains.

Catholics currently make up some 20% of the U.S. military, according to Broglio’s statistics, but only 8% of military chaplains. Among his most serious projections that could result from this imbalance: A diminished Catholic clerical presence in the military could lead U.S. bishops to discourage Catholics from serving in the military altogether, since they may be unable to practice their faith, lacking not only the Mass (per the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the source and summit” of the faith), but the sacraments and practices that permeate and punctuate the day-to-day lives of observant Catholics. He also worries about other bad outcomes, including the diminishment of First Amendment privileges and the creation of “a separate but equal system for meeting the needs of Catholic members of the Armed Forces.”

The military’s priest shortage is an ongoing problem––their numbers have more than halved, down to fewer than 200 from over 400 active-duty Catholic chaplains 20 years ago. This shortage of Catholic chaplains threatens to disrupt life in the military for Catholic service members. But Broglio and others are proposing solutions that may help resolve this imbalance and lead to growing numbers of Catholic clergy serving in the armed forces—and beyond.

In his Salute piece, Broglio refers obliquely to a 2020 controversy that took place in San Diego, wherein Naval officials, citing cost-cutting concerns, contemplated not renewing the contracts of civilian Catholic priests who say Mass at naval bases in the area. Since these contract priests cover for the lack of active-duty chaplains, the decision would have effectively put an end to Catholic Masses at naval bases in San Diego.

Brian O’Rourke, media relations officer for Naval Region Southwest, says officials had factored the rights of sailors and their families to follow their faith traditions when they considered the measure. According to the Department of Defense, most San Diego military families do not live on the installations where these Masses are taking place. Indeed, with only around 9,000 government homes at 38 housing sites to accommodate the area’s 110,000-plus service members, it is unlikely the Navy could ever host every Catholic sailor or Marine and their families at their chapels on base for Mass. And given the sheer number of Catholic churches in the Diocese of San Diego—it lists over 100 on its website—O’Rourke says ceasing the priests’ contracts did not strike decision-makers as an undue obstacle to service members’ religious freedom, because service members could have attended Mass off-base. (Elsewhere in the military, other denominations already look to the civilian world for religious services. For example, the U.S. Army garrison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, refers Jewish service members and their families out to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox congregations in nearby Kansas City.)

Ultimately, the Navy decided not to suspend the contracts with civilian priests. In a statement issued on Sept. 8, 2020, O’Rourke said, “As we make decisions about resourcing our religious ministry programs and align to the Navy’s Strategic Plan for Religious Ministry, our top priority is to meet the religious needs of our active duty Sailors and their families. Contrary to previous discussions, this year we will continue contracted religious ministry programs and services similar to what we’ve had in place previously. We will also continue to assess how best to meet the needs of our Sailors and their families throughout the region.”

However, given the relative minority of military families actually living on military bases, it seems likely cost-cutting measures like the one discussed in San Diego remain a distinct possibility in the future, since justifying tax dollars for underutilized religious services that are readily available in the civilian world may prove difficult. That’s why, even without a retention and recruiting crisis instigated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Broglio fears the creation of a tiered “separate but equal” faith system, seeming to insinuate that requiring such a large religious group to seek out their own religious services equates to a sort of de facto discrimination.

Broglio also worries in Salute about an “exclusively Protesant presence” in the U.S. military, which might lead service members to defect to other denominations in the absence of a Catholic chaplain.

While the potential harms he predicts in Salute have not yet materialized, Broglio is already looking for a solution: The nation’s service academies, he believes, could present a promising first line of defense when and if they do materialize, redounding to the benefit of a fractured nation.

Broglio advocates in the piece for an expansion of the Air Force’s Religious Professional Deferment Program, which is intended to meet the needs of “high-demand, low-density faith group[s]”—currently identified only as Roman Catholics. The 13-year-old program accepts around one applicant per year. If it were adopted by other branches, West Point and the Naval Academy could also regularly produce a small number of specially trained cadets from service academies, ready to hit the ground running, sent where most needed as both commissioned officers and chaplains pledged to God and country.

There are prominent Protestant military chaplains who share Broglio’s concerns about the priest shortage.

Eighth Army Command Chaplain (Colonel) Karen Meeker is one example. “Our Army is better and stronger,” she said in her remarks at her induction to the Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame, “when God hears from the rich diversity of God’s creation.”

“We need priests!” Meeker, a family friend, told me over email from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. “We have less than 100 Roman Catholic priests on active duty [in the Army]. Thirty percent of Soldiers serving in the Army are Catholic. To adequately provide for the soldiers’ religious needs, we need about 300 priests. We are always imploring Dioceses who will send priests to care for the young men and women who leave their home parishes to serve around the world in defense of our nation’s freedom.”

Meeker wrote that filling this gap is imperative, echoing Broglio’s convictions about the vitality of the sacraments: “The time in military service is [sic] some of the most formative years of a person’s life. It is a time when a person fully matures as an adult, marries, and starts a family. For the Soldier and Family, it will include multiple moves, deployments, and possible combat. This is a crucial season to be supported by the sacraments of the Church.”

Speaking of her recent job as director of chaplain recruiting and accessions for the U.S. Army’s chief of chaplains, she described a proposal to open up the United States Military Academy at West Point for one to three chaplain branch commissions a year, similar to the RPDP, a move that she says “could significantly improve the quality of chaplain corps over time.” Currently, West Point cadets are allowed to commission into various specialized fields within the Army, but not the Chaplain Corps. Under the existing rules, those wishing to serve as chaplains need to fulfill a required service obligation in their assigned specialization before hitting pause on their military career, taking years out to attend seminary, get ordained, obtain approval from their bishop to serve in the military, and attend military chaplain training.

Currently it is still only a proposal, but she says the program has the potential to “be a tremendous boost in talent and diversity to the chaplain corps.”

She said, however, that these one to three future Army priests, rabbis, and mainline Protestant pastors would then take five to eight years on average following graduation to complete seminary work and pastoral work with a congregation. “Formation,” Meeker said, “does not happen quickly.”

The Catholic chaplain shortage can be seen as a synecdoche for military recruiting. Just as the military’s concerns about obesity and lack of overall physical fitness among potential and new recruits holds up a mirror to broader national trends and challenges, the integrity of Catholic institutions and the civic health of the nation often go hand in hand.

A lack of priests is in fact an ongoing problem for the Catholic Church in the U.S. Like many formerly robust American institutions, it faces a decline in public trust as a result of ongoing financial and sexual abuse scandals. At the same time, Catholic organizations and buildings have increasingly become the targets of vandalism and even violent attacks.

Today’s cultural climate can make a life of celibacy, sacrifice, and self-denial seem discordant and incongruous—especially on behalf of an embattled church led by flawed men. Why be a priest, why even be Catholic, why be anything, at a time when the concept of identity is so ambiguous and fraught?

It may be fitting, then, that the military might grow its own priests—even raising up priests for the rest of the country.

Today, Broglio says, the military is the single largest source of priestly vocations in the U.S.—according to an AMS brochure for potential seminarians, a recent survey showed almost 10% of new priests had previous military experience, and around 20% came from military families.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Meeker spoke in her email of the service academies as “monastic communities,” citing the United States Military Academy at West Point in particular as a robust source of priestly vocations, along with calls to the Jewish and Protestant chaplaincies.

It was medieval monasteries, after all, that preserved the intellectual traditions of antiquity for the benefit of future generations. Both Meeker and Broglio’s projections suggest that the expansion of the Religious Professional Deferment Program could benefit far more than the military’s Catholic population.

Chaplains are tasked with ministering to and supporting service members of other (or no) religious affiliation and their families—through the challenges of deployments, training cycles, and frequent moves. It is a calling that requires humility, respect, and a commitment to selfless service that a quick glance at the headlines or social media suggests American life frequently seems to lack.

Service academy cadets are steeped as young people in traditions of national service, ecumenical cooperation, and respect for diversity as part of an approach to the defense of a shared ideal of liberty and justice for all. The disciplined 21st-century warrior-monks the academies could produce under the deferment program will go on to live the values they’ve sworn to uphold.

Coming out of West Point—immersed in the motto “Duty, Honor, Country” while following a strict code of conduct which exhorts them not to “lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do,”—deferment program graduates have an opportunity to exemplify the civic and personal virtues preserved within the gray stone walls of their Mont Saint-Michel on the Hudson River: in the seminary, in their military units, and—when their service commitment is over—in civilian faith communities.

Beginning their religious studies with a healthy respect for the First Amendment, military chaplains model something more than a parochial “circle the wagons” mentality toward faith and religion in general, but an outward looking alliance with practitioners of other faiths to form an effective line of defense against all enemies—foreign and domestic.

This story is part of a year-long series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.