Catholic Military Chaplaincy: War-Mongering Or Christlike Service?
Religion & Liberty Online

Catholic Military Chaplaincy: War-Mongering Or Christlike Service?

Mark Scibilia-Carver, in a National Catholic Reporter “Viewpoint” piece, decries the nationwide call this coming weekend for Catholics to financially support the Archdiocese for the Military Services, which serves the entire U.S. military. That includes “more than 220 installations in 29 countries, patients in 153 V.A. Medical Centers, and federal employees serving outside the boundaries of the USA in 134 countries. Numerically, the AMS is responsible for more than 1.8 million men, women, and children.”

Why is Scibilia-Carver upset? He believes support of the Archdiocese for the Military Services is tantamount to evil and support of any war (and apparently the men and women who keep our country safe) is always unjust.

Despite its growing influence in the bishops’ conference, the very existence of the military archdiocese hangs by the thread of the possibility of the existence of a just war…

Before Catholics respond to the appeal for money for the military archdiocese, they should consider how well it has preached the Gospel and applied our moral tradition to U.S. wars.

What does the Archdiocese for the Military Services do that requires it be de-funded? According to their website, they do things like baptize the children of service members, offers religious education classes for all ages, provide free Bible studies for military members and their families, and offer support to returning vets and their families, among many other pastoral services. They care for veterans, offering Masses at VA hospitals, along with spiritual support. While there are certainly services unique to the military, most of what they do sounds like your average Catholic parish: sacraments, pastoral support, educational opportunities. But Scibilia-Carver says its very existence is vile:

There is now no possibility of a U.S. war being just. The only role for a chaplain in an unjust war would be to urge refusal of orders to carry weapons or kill. The bishops should have been debating how to dissolve the 28-year-old Archdiocese for the Military Services, not extraordinary ways to fund it.

While most of what the Archdiocese for the Military Services falls into the realm of the ordinary, the existence of this Archdiocese is vital to the men and women who serve in combat, protecting the U.S. and its citizens around the world. The priests who serve the military in combat literally risk their own lives to bring Christ to them in battle.

Five Catholic priests have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award. One of those men was Chaplain Charles J. Watters, who served troops in Vietnam. He is remembered for his using the front of a Jeep as an altar and for his quiet support of the men he served. He is also remembered for his sheer bravery:

Watters ran to the front to assist the wounded and administer prayers for the dying.  While at the front, he saw a wounded soldier standing in the field of fire. The soldier was in shock.  Watters rant [sic] to the man, lifted the man onto his shoulders, and carried the man to safety.

As his unit pushed forward, Watters continued his ministry at the front, caring for another wounded man.  The unit was forced to pull back. The chaplain was caught between lines while recovering two more wounded soldiers.

Watters pulled the two to safety as his unit was forced to pull back and establish a new perimeter. Against the discouragement of his fellow soldiers, Watters again ran out of the perimeter three more times to recover wounded men.

During the battle, Watters distributed food and water to those who were fighting. He assisted the medics in caring for the wounded.  However, Watters was killed when he took a direct hit from a mortar round.

His charred, mangled chaplain’s kit is on display at the Chaplains School, Fort Jackson, SC. For his “conspicuous gallantry….. unyielding perseverance and selfless devotion to his comrades,” Chaplain Watters was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on November 4, 1969.

No sane person wants war. The Church’s teaching on just war allows for defense of self, others and country under the strictest of circumstances. To say that there can be no just war flies in the face of Church teaching. Regardless of whether or not the U.S. is involved in combat, however, we will always maintain a standing military to protect our national interests at home and abroad. Those men and women who choose to serve deserve the very best we can give them and that includes meeting their spiritual needs.

To de-fund and disband the Archdiocese for the Military Services would mean thousands of military members and their families would be without adequate spiritual education, direction and care. For Catholics, funding this Archdiocese is an act of charity to our brothers and sisters, not a call to arms. Those who serve in the Archdiocese of Military Services are not war-mongerers; they are Christ-bearers to those who serve and protect our nation. Military chaplaincy is a vital Christian service; to suggest otherwise is unthinkable. Scibilia-Carver’s call for the disbanding of military chaplaincy is loathsome and dishonors those who have served and are currently serving our military.

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf suggests Catholics respond to Scibilia-Carver:

The collection to support the Archdiocese for Military Services is important.  I suggest that you send a donation when the collection is taken up in your parish.  I suggest that you also send a donation right now.

I support the Archdiocese for Military Services and I support Catholic chaplains and I support the bishops who support both because I hate war and the suffering it causes.  We should pour out our support for chaplains, and therefore all the troops and their dependents, with true generosity.

And if you’re not Catholic, you can donate to the Chaplain Corps. Again, our military deserves the best, and that includes spiritual support for themselves and their families.

Also see “Men of God and Country in World War II.”

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.