In “The Chaplain’s Dilemma” (11/17), Deacon Tom Cornell articulates well the need for priests in the military, but I disagree with his (and Gordon Zahn’s) proposal that the chaplaincy be “civilianized” to be more effective.
I spent 27 years as a chaplain in the United States Navy. I served as Executive Assistant to the Navy Chief of Chaplains, as Fleet Chaplain for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and as the Pacific Command Chaplain. I also taught the courses on conscientious objection, privileged communication and confidentiality at the Navy Chaplains’ School and to officers in Newport, R.I.
Cornell’s position often relies on misguided generalizations, uninformed opinions and skewed perceptions. Just as a missionary who learns the customs and language of a people becomes effective in preaching the Gospel, so priests in the military who make the same sacrifices and endure the same risks and hardships as other service members command their respect in a way civilians never could.
Last year, a U.S. Marine General in Iraq, General Jim Mattis, claimed that his most trusted resource was his chaplain. He had ordered his Marines to demonstrate a show of force in full battle gear when faced with a local Iraqi demonstration. His unit chaplain, Father Bill Devine, suggested instead that the troops warmly greet the demonstrators and give them bottles of water. Father Devine explained that the gesture would be understood as hospitable and might even be disarming. The general thought the idea bizarre at first, but ordered his men to do what his chaplain advised. “And it worked,” the general explained. “There were smiles all around, even some embraces, and our friendly relations resumed on the spot and have remained ever since.” This is a good example of how a priest in uniform influenced the very general Cornell criticized in his article for his hard-nosed attitude. I doubt a civilian cleric would have enjoyed such influence; security wouldn’t have allowed him in the war zone.
Cornell also maintains that the government trains chaplains. In fact, chaplains come to the military fully trained by their own faith groups. The government merely provides each Chaplain Corps with a school so that experienced chaplains can teach new chaplains about the local culture to enhance their own effectiveness.
Cornell’s criticism of chaplains not being trained to support Conscientious Objector Status is unfounded. The subject is addressed specifically with every new chaplain. Military instructions support all those who are authentic and sincere in their newfound beliefs that all warfare is contrary to their conscience.
Some chaplains might compromise themselves, but no one is above temptation when an opinion may jeopardize status or security: It is a human flaw not confined to the military. There is a defining moment in each of our lives when we are called to stand up and be counted, and how we respond either can define us as a hero or make us look pathetic. I can point to many Chaplain Corps heroes who have demonstrated personal courage and credibility. Two such chaplains are, in fact, being considered for sainthood.
When the bishops were asking their people to protest pending partial-birth abortion legislation, I was directed by Navy lawyers to tell Navy priests they were not to participate; the Uniform Code of Military Justice specifies that officers cannot become involved in political activity. I reminded all our priests not to become involved in political activity when in uniform, but that once they put on their vestments they represented the church, and all the faithful had a constitutional right to hear what other Catholics were being told. My directive went unchallenged.
A Baptist friend of mine, a chaplain, tells the story of how his orders to the Naval Academy in the 1970s were about to be cancelled because he was black. Cardinal John O’Connor, then senior chaplain at the academy, threatened to pull out all his chaplains if the orders were cancelled. They never were. Similarly, as a senior chaplain, I had an evangelical chaplain being pressured to reveal the confidences of a marine who had been murdered. The rationale was that since the marine was deceased the privilege of confidentiality no longer held. I threatened to pull out all chaplains should any action be taken against the chaplain. That ended it.
In all three instances, a civilian chaplain would never have had such influence.
The spiritual writer Brother Roger of Taizé wrote: “The equilibrium of a Christian is comparable to that of a man who walks on the edge of a razor. Only God can maintain his balance.” So it is with Catholic chaplains who minister in the military—it is a very challenging place to live out the Gospel. We have to do it compellingly and with credibility. It is like walking on the edge of a razor, and God alone can maintain our balance.