Navy’s Cutting of Contract Priests: Part of ‘Longer Arc’?

Though ultimately overturned, the decision raises ongoing questions about religious liberty in the armed forces.

Father Lt. Mark Bristol, an active-duty Navy chaplain, celebrates Mass aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt on May 10.
Father Lt. Mark Bristol, an active-duty Navy chaplain, celebrates Mass aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt on May 10. (photo: Courtesy of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA)

Although reversed before taking effect, the Navy’s recent decision to suspend contracts with civilian Catholic priests serving at some California bases is being described by some as part of a larger pattern of increased infringements upon service members’ religious liberty. 

“This is just the latest in a string of self-inflicted wounds on behalf of the military, and specifically the Navy, within the past [few] months,” said Mike Berry, a combat veteran and religious-liberty advocate with the Texas-based First Liberty Institute.

Berry refers, in part, to the Navy’s late-June banon sailors attending “indoor religious services” as a COVID-19 preventative measure, while other activities like riding mass transit or participating in public protests were still permitted. That decision was also ultimately reversed.

But the most recent incidents can also be seen as part of what Berry calls “a longer arc,” as religious-liberty advocates have raised concerns about challenges within the military over the past decade.

“It is part of a trend,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who leads the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and is responsible for the spiritual care of Catholics serving in the U.S. armed forces, told the Register.


California Incident

The decision to discontinue utilizing the services of civilian priests — which would have affected two bases in the San Diego area and one in Monterey in California — was made by regional Navy leadership in late August and was set to go into effect at the end of September.

The measure technically applied to all contracts with off-site religious ministers, but was criticized for putting a unique burden on Catholic servicemen and women and their families. Given the dearth of active-duty Catholic priests in the Chaplains Corps, Catholics — who make up more than one-fifth of the armed services — are dependent on contracted priests to meet their on-base ministry needs. 

Archbishop Broglio issued a statement on Sept. 8, criticizing what was originally presented by local Navy leadership as a cost-saving measure.

“It’s difficult to fathom how the First Amendment rights of the largest faith group in the Navy can be compromised for such an insignificant sum,” he said, referring to the estimated $250,000 — or .000156% of the Navy’s budget — that would be saved by canceling these priest contracts. 

President Donald Trump also weighed in, tweeting on Sept. 9, “The United States Navy, or the Department of Defense, will NOT be cancelling its contract with Catholic Priests who serve our men and women in the Armed Forces so well, and with such great compassion & skill. This will no longer be even a point of discussion!”

A day prior to the president’s tweet, however, the Navy had already reversed course. Rear Admiral Bette Bolivar, commander of the Navy Region Southwest, said in a statement reported by The San Diego Union-Tribune that the Navy would continue to contract civilian priests to minister on the affected installations throughout this next year.


‘Make Religion Available’

The Navy Region Southwest’s initial decision came after the Navy announced a “national realignment” of its religious-ministry services, placing added emphasis on meeting the needs of younger and active-duty members of the Navy. 

San Diego, for instance, is home to a large number of veterans of the Navy and other branches, and it’s not uncommon for veterans to belong to on-base Catholic communities in the area. At the same time, many active-duty sailors belong to civilian parishes in the area; in fact, in several instances, military housing is located closer to a civilian parish than it is to an on-base chapel. Navy leadership likely took this dynamic into account when making the initial decision to cancel their priest contracts.

Even so, Archbishop Broglio estimates that the makeup of the typical Catholic community on the impacted bases is about evenly split between active-duty and retirees. Sailors consulted for this story also spoke about the importance of having Mass accessible on the base on holy days of obligation or when they’re required to work on base on Sundays.

Archbishop Broglio adds that it’s also not always true that civilian parishes are able to meet the needs of military families. Sometimes they don’t have enough room, or their sacramental preparation and religious education programs can’t accommodate military kids who tend to move frequently. Catholic chaplains and priests contracted by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, the archbishop said, are better prepared to meet the unique challenges faced by military families.

Father Dominic-Joseph Castro, the contract priest who serves Catholics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, says his ministry involves what’s done at a typical parish, “and then some.” Because of the transience of active-duty sailors, Father Castro says he “works around the clock” to help Catholics at the school with sacramental and canonical needs.

“I’ll start the paperwork for a wedding here, and they’ll get married in Okinawa,” he shared, adding that much of his ministry takes place during the course of the week, not just at Sunday Mass.

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Father Lt. David Hammond (left), a chaplain aboard amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), baptizes the son of Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Dike, the flight deck officer of Bonhomme Richard, on the ship’s flight deck.(Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Jesse Marquez Magallanes/Released)

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Father Joseph Coffey celebrates Easter Sunday Mass aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) while on deployment in the Persian Gulf in 2004. Father Coffey was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, on March 25, 2019.(Photo: Courtesy of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA)

For Berry at the First Liberty Institute, it’s also a matter of the law. In a letter he submitted to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper asking for a reversal of the San Diego policy, he cited a 1985 court decision that underscores the government’s constitutional duty to “make religion available” to those serving in the military, especially when their service makes it more difficult for them to access religious ministry in their own tradition. Berry interprets this ruling as applying not just to foreign deployments, but domestic assignments, as well.

“Service members do not give up their religious liberty by virtue of their military service,” Berry wrote, adding in his interview with the Registerthat, even if there were just one sailor who wanted Mass on base, the Navy would have a duty to facilitate. He also described military chaplains — and civilian priests who minister in their stead — as “the embodiment of the constitutional obligation that we have as a nation to ensure our service members also enjoy the First Amendment rights of free exercise.” 

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Father Lt. j.g. Jason Burchell, an active-duty Navy chaplain, celebrates Mass in the chapel aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).(Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate)


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Jesuit Father Cmdr. Christopher Fronk, celebrates Mass during a 2011-2012 Navy deployment to Afghanistan.(Photo: Courtesy of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA)

Berry, who was deployed as a Marine to Afghanistan in 2008, added that chaplains and religious ministers are a “force-multiplier,” who help servicemen and women by offering encouragement and hope. He finds it especially troubling that the Navy was set to make access to ministers more difficult at time when the armed forces are losing approximately 22 members to suicide a day.


Bigger Picture

Berry says that providing religious support in the military is as American as apple pie — its history stemming back all the way to George Washington, who called for chaplains as one of his first orders as general of the Continental Army.

But although courts have affirmed the legitimacy of a taxpayer-funded chaplaincy, there have been other recent instances in which service members have had their right to the free exercise of religion infringed upon. In 2013, the Family Research Council prepared a document entitled “Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military,” which includes “a list of discrete events” beginning in 2004 that present “a larger picture of the threat to religious liberty that now exists in America’s armed forces.” The same year, a group of military chaplains established the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty to defend the free exercise of religion within the armed forces.

Berry says many of the most serious violations to service members’ religious liberty transpired during the Obama administration, but said that the problem still lingers. For instance, in 2018, after an Army chaplain rescheduled a same-sex couple’s participation in a marriage retreat for a time when they could be served by a different chaplain, he faced “dereliction of duty” charges, despite the fact that both his personal faith and the Southern Baptist Convention that endorses him as a chaplain both recognize marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. First Liberty Institute represented the chaplain and had the charges dropped.

Another case First Liberty Institute is working on began after a lawsuit was filed challenging the constitutionality of including a veteran and former prisoner of war’s donated Bible in a POW/MIA remembrance display at a New Hampshire VA Medical Center.

Berry attributes the rise of such incidents to, in part, the activism of groups like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group that he characterizes as intent on removing any expressions of religious adherence by members of the armed forces.


Unique Catholic Challenges

Archbishop Broglio says Catholics also face some unique challenges, especially in the Navy, given that the chaplaincy corps is built on what he calls “a Protestant model.”

“In the Navy, there was this notion that ‘a chaplain was a chaplain was a chaplain,’” said the archbishop, suggesting that there can be a lack of appreciation for the significance of the ordained priesthood and the sacraments in Catholic life. “Some of the requirements for a Catholic, they aren’t always immediately perceived. And so, consequently, they aren’t always immediately provided for.”

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Father Lt. Mark Bristol is shown wearing his uniform and a mask in the chapel aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt on May 10.(Photo: Courtesy of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA)

In Monterey, Father Castro says there seems to be a “disconnect” between what Navy leadership thinks he does and the ministry he actually provides, suggesting there’s a preference for a “denomination-less” approach to ministry. He says he’s heard suggestions even before this year that his contract should be canceled because there’s a Catholic parish within a few miles of the base.

“We’ve got everything on base — a gas station, barber, fitness center, dry cleaner — and all of those things are also within a few minutes of the base, but they chose to focus on Catholic ministry.”

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