The Tone-Deaf Development at Walter Reed

COMMENTARY: Ultimately, the decision not to renew the friars’ contract rests with the Biden administration.

Sign at the North Gate to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Sign at the North Gate to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (photo: Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock)

When U.S. servicemen and women are injured in action, one of the places they're likely to receive medical care stateside is Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. This Army-operated military hospital, located right outside of the nation’s capital, has always been committed to the care — both medical and spiritual — of our wounded warriors. 

Until now, that is. 

Roughly 20% of our military personnel are Catholics. Thanks to an incomprehensible decision by the hospital, if they or their dependents end up at Walter Reed, they are no longer guaranteed ready access to the Church's sacraments. 

Just days before Holy Week, Walter Reed ended its contract for pastoral care with the Franciscan friars of Holy Name College in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland. Incredibly, they are being replaced by a secular government contractor that offers a wide range of specialists in “administrative and religious staffing.” In other words, they are not necessarily priests, and therefore cannot administer the sacraments often asked for by Catholics in the hospital: celebration of the Holy Mass, confession anointing of the sick, and last rites. 

The friars remarked that this decision was “certainly disappointing after 20 years of service.” They then added a note of gratitude for having been “invited into the lives of these true American heroes who have sacrificed so much for our country.”

Meanwhile, the Defense Health Agency, the unit that oversees the Walter Reed facility, is fending off inquiries with evasive platitudes. The new pastoral care contract “is under review to ensure it adequately supports the religious needs of our patients and beneficiaries,” it says, adding that “Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is a welcoming and healing environment that honors and supports a full range of religious, spiritual, and cultural needs.” It points to the presence of one — just one — Army priest affiliated with the Archdiocese for the Military Services on its staff and promises to supplement its Catholic pastoral services “as warranted by other priests in the region.” 

It fails to mention that the Army priest is in the process of leaving his post. Nor has it said that the center was dissatisfied in any way with the services provided by the Franciscan friars, whom it has just humiliated. 

Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio, elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year, is not happy, to put it mildly — and the hospital should be warned that he is a formidable defender of the Catholics in his care. He says it is “incomprehensible” that essential pastoral care is being taken away from the sick and the aged and that the new contracting group “cannot provide the necessary service.” 

Several lawmakers, including Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are also concerned. And they are asking questions. In a joint letter to the Secretary of Defense, they emphasized the following: 

We have made promises to our service members and veterans that if they take care of us, we will take care of them. This extends to not just providing quality healthcare at our nation’s military medical facilities, but by also providing the ability to freely practice their religion to those under the care at these facilities. It is a tenet engrained in the very fabric of who we are as a country, and the DoD’s actions to deny Catholic Pastoral Care from service members and veterans at Walter Reed goes against the morals, way of life, and rights that make up the fabric of our great nation.

The lawmakers want to know why the friars were issued a “cease and desist” order before Holy Week, whether any consideration was given to the awarding the contract to a secular group incapable of offering priestly pastoral care, and what will happen when the lone Catholic priest assigned to Walter Reed leaves active duty. 

In stark contrast to the reasonable concerns of lawmakers, President Biden, our second Catholic Commander-in-Chief, has said nothing about the decision to send the friars packing. Walter Reed, let’s not forget, is located only nine miles from the White House. Indeed, it was originally designed to provide medical care exclusively to military personnel and presidents of the United States. It is even referred to as the “President's Hospital.” 

Ultimately, the decision not to renew the friars’ contract rests with the Biden administration. Yet again, it seems, it has shown a profound ignorance of Catholic teaching. Which raises the question: Does our Mass-going president know what is happening at Walter Reed? Does he even care?

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at West Allis Central High School on July 23 in West Allis, Wisconsin.

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