I have a friend who spent 20 years as a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. military. We were undergrads together, though he was, in fact, a couple of years ahead of me. Jack is a real looker, the classic “Father What-a-Waste,” and it got him far—which is good because he isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier and brains sure weren’t going to do it for him. He didn’t do well in Philosophy, I remember, because his mind was never very good for abstractions. Math and Science—no problem and if you needed your car fixed or your VCR programmed—he was your man. But abstractions—well fortunately we need priests, and as I said in his day he was a looker (and at seventy still looks pretty good for himself), and so he got through seminary with a smile and not much philosophy or theology.
We went for dinner one evening some years back—I was living in Rome and he was part of the entourage accompanying then-president Bush (“W”) on a foreign trip. I have no idea how a Catholic chaplain got to come along with a Protestant President, but again good looks and a spotless record go as far in the military as they do in the Church. Maybe it was to impress some of the Vatican people that the Methodist President brought a priest with him; maybe it was a reward for his hard work. And maybe it was both. But we went to dinner, I remember, at a place I like near the Campo dei Fiori and I asked him what advice he would give a soldier who was conflicted because he had been given an immoral order. Jack didn’t comprehend the question. It was like I was asking him how much he thought we could get for the green cheese if we ever set up a base on the moon. “An immoral order?” he queried. He paused. He looked into thin air for about 20 second. “We don’t do that” he said. “I mean, it just doesn’t happen.” Had it been anyone else, I would have thought it was just company loyalty to deny the possibility that evil might exist in the hearts of those wonderful people who had brought you Abu Ghraib, but I could see he was really puzzled at the concept that someone, somewhere might give an immoral order. I mean this guy isn’t just ingenuous, he’s actually obtuse. He’s a true blue believer—Vatican, Pentagon, God, King and Country. If the pope said: next Sunday we’re all going to say mass in the nude, he would marched to the altar bare-assed naked. And if his commanding officer had told him to drop his drawers when he saluted the President, he would have mooned ol’ “W.” Fortunately it never came to that. And fortunately he retired from the military before Secretary of the Army John McHugh put out word through the chief-of chaplain’s office that Catholic Chaplains were not to read at Mass this past Sunday the Pastoral Letter Military Services Archbishop Timothy Broglio had written and ordered to be read at mass condemning the Obama Administration’s forcing Catholic Institutions to provide a type of employee health care that would pay for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures contrary to Catholic morals. This is a double whammy—an attack on Free Speech as well as Freedom of Religion. The government (OK, the Department of the Army, so a government department) prevented a letter from an Archbishop to the faithful under his care from being read? Like what country is this? McHugh, by the way, is Catholic—but it wouldn’t matter if he were an Episcopalian or even a Buddhist. This is a clear interference with religious freedom.
Now to be fair, this wasn’t President Obama or even “The Administration,” but this flap over religious institutions being required by law to violate their basic moral principles was initiated by the Administration and can be laid directly at the President’s door. What is the White House thinking these days? I am sure that they weren’t happy with Archbishop Broglio’s letter to our letter to our men and women in uniform. The Archbishop made it clear that there is a time for disobedience and the military doesn’t want to encourage that thinking and the government doesn’t want—for good reason—for our troops to be given the example of not only questioning but defying authority. But our men and women in uniform are here to defend—among other things—our freedom of speech and our freedom from government interference in our religious practices.
Here is what the Archbishop wrote:
“the Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” in a way that is “denying Catholics our Nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty.”
“And, as a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled to choose between violating our consciences or dropping health care coverage for our employees (and suffering the penalties for doing so),” he wrote. “We cannot—and will not—comply with this unjust law.”
And this had to be censored? Well, fortunately the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, a Methodist didn’t think so. Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Donley didn’t think so. No problem with the Marines. No problem with the Coast Guard. But I am glad Jack is out of the Army before he did something so wrong as to surrender his rights—and obligations—of free speech and free practice of religion in a system that does not understand that authority has its limits.