Military chaplaincy exists first for the troops

By HENRY P. ROBERSON | Published: June 22, 2012

The culture wars continue, and, as in virtually all wars, truth is the first casualty.

This piece had its origin in a lay friend asking me if it was true that Catholic chaplains could be required to do same-sex marriages; and inflamed by the recent uproar about an enlisted soldier’s commitment ceremony in a military chapel. The simple answer to my friend’s question is, of course not; but it might help to understand what it means to be a chaplain.

First: Why does the military chaplaincy exist? How, in a country with separation of church and state, can the federal government pay for ministers of faith groups to serve in the military? The Supreme Court held that chaplains have no right to serve in and of themselves, But, given the nature of military life, the right of officers and enlisted to exercise their freedom of religion requires the provision of chaplains.

Chaplains exist, in other words, for the sake of the troops, not for themselves or for their denominations. They serve all members of the military and their dependents, not just members of their own faith group.

I served as a Catholic chaplain but took care of everyone of any faith, little faith and no faith. The motto of the chaplaincy is “Perform or provide.” On those rare times when I could not, for whatever reason, take care of the person, I referred them (usually by walking them down the hall) to someone who could take care of them. I never said “no” and left them adrift; it was my duty to make sure that they had what they needed. As a Catholic, I can’t perform same-sex marriage; so I would find a chaplain who could do that. What I think of same-sex marriage does not matter: They have a right to religious support when legal.

The chaplain who conducted the commitment ceremony between an enlisted soldier and her girlfriend was on the firmest ground there is. There is no place in the United States that prohibits a religious ceremony between two adults. Many states don’t recognize a same-sex wedding as a civil marriage; but that has nothing to do with this situation. And that chaplain was doing his job: providing religious services to a member of the armed forces.

Before repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” several chaplains felt that their “religious liberty” permitted them to “out” soldiers who came to them to talk about their sexual orientation. These chaplains apparently felt — wrongly — that the right to confidentiality applied to them, when it belongs solely to the soldier. This is a serious violation of religious and civil liberty, of professional integrity and Army regulation. Chaplains in their basic officer training are instructed on these things; they cannot claim not to have known it.

One wonders what “religious liberty” means to these chaplains. The right to dictate what religious ceremonies others can conduct? The right to walk up to a gay Marine and tell him he’s going to hell?

The rights of a chaplain stop with his ministerial role — or, as my teacher said, “Your rights end where my nose begins.” These examples are outside the ministerial duties of preaching, teaching and religious counseling.

This cry of “religious liberty” is nothing but a red herring; no one is trying to dictate preaching or religious counseling. Nor will it happen to any chaplain. I would defend any one of them, but never someone who disrespects another brother or sister in military service. Respect is a core military value. Basic respect, certainly tolerance, is non-negotiable.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Henry P. Roberson (retired) is a member of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, an organization started by retired chaplains to advocate for a pluralistic and professional chaplaincy. He served as a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Army for 30 years.

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