As the U.S. government shutdown continues, lawmakers are being urged to authorize the celebration of Mass by contract priests, who could otherwise face arrest for their routine ministry on military bases.
“Until the Federal Government resumes normal operations, or an exemption is granted to contract and (government services) priests, Catholic services are indefinitely suspended” at many military installations served by these priests throughout the world, warned John Schlageter, general counsel for the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services.
Lawmakers’ failure to reach an agreement on federal spending and the health care law prompted a shutdown of many government agencies that were not deemed “essential,” beginning Oct. 1.
In addition to affecting federal workers and participants in federal programs, the shutdown has impacted military bases throughout the world, where many Catholic service members rely upon contract priests for Sunday Mass and other sacraments and ministries.
In an Oct. 3 op-ed, Schlageter warned that non-active duty Catholic priests have been banned from carrying out their ministry on military installations during the government shutdown, meaning that some military personnel will be forced to “go without Mass.”
He explained that there is “a chronic shortage of active duty Catholic chaplains,” with only 234 active-duty priests serving the some 275,000 Catholic members of the military.
To help ease the burden, he said, government service and contract priests are employed by the government to “ensure that a priest is available when an active duty Catholic Chaplain is not present.”
However, the government shutdown means that many of these priests on military bases across the globe “are not permitted to work – not even to volunteer.”
“During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so.”
Shortly after his op-ed was released, a resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives to allow religious services to continue on military installations during the shutdown.
The resolution “recognizes that the performance of religious Services and the provision of ministry are protected activities under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
It asks Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to “permit the performance of religious services on property owned or maintained by the Department of Defense” and to allow military chaplains to perform their ministry to the same extent that they did before the shutdown.
The resolution was passed by the House in a 400-1 vote on Oct. 5 and has now been sent to the Senate.
Military Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio applauded the resolution as a way to ensure that men and women in uniform can practice their faith as they serve their country.
“Military personnel enjoy, like all Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of the ‘Free Exercise’ of religion,” he said in an Oct. 5 statement. “In the current political climate, however, nothing can be taken for granted.”
The archbishop thanked the House of Representatives for supporting the measure and voiced hope that the Senate will also “act decisively” to support the First Amendment.