Lawmakers rebuke Biden administration for ending military hospital’s contract with Catholic priests

Walter Reed Historic Tower at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. | Shutterstock

Lawmakers are demanding answers from the Biden administration after a military hospital ended a contract with the Franciscan friars who have provided Catholic pastoral services there for nearly two decades. 

The Holy Name College Friary in Silver Spring, Maryland, received a cease-and-desist order April 4, during Holy Week, that ordered them to halt all services it provides at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. 

Rather than renewing the contract, which expired March 31, the medical center announced it would contract with the secular Mack Global, LLC, instead of with the friars.

The Mack Global website says the company serves the U.S. military, government agencies, and private companies in telework consulting services, administrative and religious staffing, transportation, and roadway services, and professional development and training. Its product supplies portfolio includes janitorial supplies, tactical and training equipment, raw materials, and industrial machinery. It specifically names water-tight doors and gym equipment.

In a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, who is Catholic, accused the administration of having a “lack of consideration to service members’ religious needs and rights” and said he has “grave concerns” regarding a secular organization’s ability to provide Catholics with the pastoral care they require. 

“This highlights questionable judgment by officers awarding a Catholic pastoral care contract to a for-profit company best suited to provide industrial services instead of a Catholic religious institution with a strong record of providing pastoral services,” Smith said in the letter. 

Smith asked Austin to provide answers to a series of questions about the decision to switch to a secular contractor. The letter, which was sent on April 14, requests answers within 14 days. 

In the letter, Smith asked why the department sent a cease-and-desist letter during Holy Week and why they opted for a for-profit contractor. He also asked whether the friars were “notified in a timely manner” and whether they consider a bidder’s “relationship with established religious institutions.” 

He further asked what steps the department will take to “review the … contracting process and requirements regarding contracts for pastoral care services” and requested a justification for “awarding a Catholic pastoral care contract to a for-profit defense contractor over a religious order affiliated with the Catholic Church.” 

Smith said that this is not the first time the Department of Defense failed to adequately consider the “religious needs and rights” of service members.

“The large number of denials for religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine and the questionable decision making regarding the provision of pastoral care services raise serious concerns regarding the Department of Defense’s commitment to respecting the rights of conscience for those who volunteer to serve our nation,” Smith said. 

Smith added that this decision, “coupled with the recent revelation of the FBI targeting Catholics for increased surveillance in Richmond, Virginia, and the failure of DOJ to prosecute repeated anti-Catholic vandalism at churches” raises questions about the “federal government’s respect for, and protection of, the innate religious rights of Catholics in the United States.”

CNA could not reach Smith or the Department of Defense for comment by the time of publication. 

Earlier last week, on April 11, more than two dozen lawmakers sent a similar letter to Austin asking for information about the department’s decision to switch contracts. The lawmakers argued it was a violation of the First Amendment. 

“Priests and pastors guided our troops through the darkest days of our toughest battles,” Rep. Mary Miller, R-Illinois, who led the coalition, said in a statement. 

“The Biden administration chose Easter weekend to kick Catholic priests out of Walter Reed, violating their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion,” Miller added. “I am proud to lead this letter to Biden’s defense secretary to demand answers on this unconscionable attack on Christian service members and the First Amendment.”

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, also criticized the decision. 

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“It is incomprehensible that essential pastoral care is taken away from the sick and the aged when it was so readily available,” Broglio said. 

“This is a classic case where the adage ‘if it is not broken, do not fix it’ applies. I fear that giving a contract to the lowest bidder overlooked the fact that the bidder cannot provide the necessary service. I earnestly hope that this disdain for the sick will be remedied at once and their First Amendment rights will be respected,” said Broglio, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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