The U.S. military has furloughed as many as 50 Catholic chaplains due to the partial suspension of government services, banning them from celebrating weekend Mass. At least one chaplain was told that if he engaged in any ministry activity, he would be subjected to disciplinary action.
“In very practical terms it means Sunday Mass won’t be offered,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services told me. “If someone has a baptism scheduled, it won’t be celebrated.”
The Archdiocese for the Military Services tells me the military installations impacted are served by non-active-duty priests who were hired as government contractors. As a result of a shortage of active duty Catholic chaplains, the government hires contract priests.
Broglio said some military bases have forbidden the contract priests from volunteering to celebrate Mass without pay.
“They were told they cannot function because those are contracted services and since there’s no funding they can’t do it – even if they volunteer,” he said.
John Schlageter, general counsel for the archdiocese, said any furloughed priests volunteering their services could face big trouble.
“During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so,” he said in a written statement.
A well-placed source told me that a furloughed Air Force chaplain was threatened after he offered to forgo pay. The chaplain was told he could not go on base or enter his chapel offices. He was also barred from engaging in any ministry activity.
The source told me the chaplain was told that if he violated those orders he and his supervisor would be subjected to disciplinary action – with the possibility of being fired.
Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, called those developments disturbing.
“Catholic military personnel should not have their religious liberties held hostage by this funding crisis,” Crews told me. “I find it alarming that these priests cannot even volunteer to provide services without threat of arrest.”
The archbishop said a priest at Joint Base Langley-Eustis was banned from officiating at the wedding of a couple he’d been counseling.
“The wedding could be on the base, but the priest can’t do the wedding,” Broglio told me.
A priest at the Naval Amphibious Base in Little Creek, Va., was told he could not celebrate Mass on base because of the government shutdown. So he discovered a way to circumvent the ban.
“He’s having Mass in a local park off base,” the archbishop said.
The archbishop said it doesn’t make any sense to forbid priests from voluntarily ministering to the troops.
“Most of us don’t look to see that we’re going to be paid before we do something,” he said. “They are not being allowed to volunteer even to meet the needs of the faithful.”
Bill Donohue, of the Catholic League, told me he’s not surprised by the decision to furlough Catholic priests.
“In American history there has been no administration more anti-Catholic than the Obama administration,” he said. “For them to deny Catholic men and women the opportunity of the sacraments and to deal with their prayerful vocations is really a stunning statement.”
Donohue chalked it up to meanness.
“This idea of punishing Catholics in the military - denying them their priests - is consistent with the animus this administration has demonstrated,” he said.
It’s not exactly clear who is the final arbiter in the furloughs – but I suspect it’s the same folks who kicked school children out of the White House and elderly veterans out of the World War II Memorial.
“It’s difficult to know who exactly is making these decisions,” the archbishop said. “I’m being told it keeps getting kicked up to a higher level.”
I called the Pentagon but no one returned my calls.
I called the Air Force public affairs office and they told me to reach out to the local bases.
Surely there must be some way to compromise, to let Catholics practice their faith.
I find it odd that the military was able to find enough cash to let their football teams play this weekend – but they can’t scrounge up enough cash for weekend church services.
“It’s a sad contrast when we can let a football game go on but we won’t let a priest go on base and celebrate Mass,” he said.
So in President Obama’s world – college football players are essential but Catholic priests are not.
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter@ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.