UPDATE: Secretary of Defense Hagel stated that most DOD workers will return for work. The Times report did not mention contract priests.
The government shutdown has affected a broad swathe of government services, as reported here in the Washington Post. But who would have thought that the standoff on Capitol Hill could disrupt Sunday masses and baptisms on military bases?
John Schlageter, the general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, warned -- in a statement to the Register -- that if the shutdown continues over the weekend many military bases will not have Sunday mass or other scheduled sacraments. .
The nub of the problem is that the shortage of active-duty Catholic military chaplains has forced the government to hire GS and contract priests who are not permitted to "work" --or even volunteer--if the shutdown continues.
He also notes that while the military appears to be looking for "alternative" sources of funding to maintain other programs on bases, like 'sporting" events, there apprently has been no effort to provide a solution that would enable Sunday masses to take place as scheduled. And he sees this failure as a threat to the free exercise of religious for our Catholic troops.
Here's the whole story directly from John Schlageter,
Military personnel enjoy, like all Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of the “Free Exercise” of their particular religious faith. But because military personnel are considered a “captive audience,” the laws of our country require the government to provide access to that faith. This is why we have a military chaplaincy. This all becomes very clear when one thinks of a military family stationed in Bahrain or Japan. They cannot walk down the street to the local synagogue, church, mosque, etc.
There is a chronic shortage of active duty Catholic chaplains. While roughly 25% of the military is Catholic, Catholic priests make up only about 8% of the chaplain corps. That means approximately 275,000 men and women in uniform, and their families, are served by only 234 active-duty priests. The temporary solution to this shortage is to provide GS and contract priests. These men are employed by the government to ensure that a priest is available when an active duty Catholic Chaplain is not present. With the government shutdown, GS and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide 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.
As an example, if a Catholic family has a Baptism scheduled at the base chapel this weekend, unless they can locate a priest who is not a GS or contract priest, they should consider it cancelled.... If you are a Catholic stationed in Japan or Korea and are served by a Contract or GS priest, unless you speak Korean or Japanese and can find a church nearby, then you have no choice but to go without Mass this weekend. Until the Federal Government resumes normal operations, or an exemption is granted to contract or GS priests, Catholic services are indefinitely suspended at those worldwide installations served by contract and GS priests.
At a time when the military is considering alternative sources of funding for sporting events at the service academies, no one seems to be looking for funding to ensure the Free Exercise rights of Catholics in uniform. Why not?
UPDATE from the AMS: Some military bases have been able to get priests to celebrate Sunday Mass, so check your local schedule