BROCKTON, Mass. – The military chaplaincy is overwhelmingly popular within the ranks of the U.S. armed forces, but some Catholic peace advocates see a theological conflict with regard to priests serving as commissioned officers.

New Army chaplains attend a March 14 morning Mass in a small chapel at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., where they are training at the U.S. Army's Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

New Army chaplains attend a March 14 morning Mass in a small chapel at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., where they are training at the U.S. Army’s Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Melkite Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy of Brockton sees a conflict of interest for a priest to serve in, and be paid by, any branch of the armed forces, which sanctions the killing of other humans in combat situations.

Fr. McCarthy is a co-founder of the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi USA, along with Catholic icon Dorothy Day, whose popularity diminished among the Catholic elite when she protested U.S. involvement in World War II. Day, who also co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, became a vehement opponent of nuclear weapons and remained so until her death in 1980.

Fr. McCarthy doesn’t have a problem with priests providing pastoral care to soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines or members of the Coast Guard.

In fact, he encourages it.

The Melkite priest urges members of the Catholic clergy to bring spiritual enlightenment to all members of the military, including the Gospel message of peace through nonviolence and loving one’s enemies.

He doesn’t, however, believe that any priest should serve in the armed forces to provide religious care to military men and women.

Being a commissioned officer in the military makes it impossible for that priest to maintain his objectivity when preaching the Gospel, which should include the message that killing any human is an act of evil, Fr. McCarthy told Catholic News Service during an April interview at the chapel in his Brockton home.

“The military chaplaincy is a major spiritual and moral problem in the church,” he said. “The big untruth of Christianity: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, evangelicals … is that one can move logically from the teaching of Jesus to participating in the activities of war; killing, maiming, murder, deceit, etc. It can’t be done.”

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services in Washington vigorously defends the role of the military chaplain.

The archbishop and every military chaplain interviewed by CNS see no conflict of interest for clergy who serve in the Army, Air Force or Navy and believe their presence actually provides armed forces’ leaders with a moral check during strategic military planning.

The U.S. architects of military combat may not heed all of the moral consequences raised by high-ranking chaplains, but they will hear them out and in some cases they have been influenced, Archbishop Broglio told CNS during a June interview in Washington.

Having a chaplain embedded within the military gives the Catholic Church access to the people who make life and death decisions involving wartime combat, he said.

The archbishop also said having a chaplain within the ranks of the armed forces provides a moral compass for the men and women who serve. He noted that no chaplains were assigned to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq at the time that U.S. Army and Central Intelligence Agency personnel were accused of torture and prisoner abuse.

“Not to say that they would have been able to prevent it,” Archbishop Broglio said. “But perhaps they would have been.

“We have to be present also,” he said, “to put a more human face on some of these situations.”

That’s called the ministry of presence, said Fr. Andrew Lawrence, program manager for the U.S. Army’s Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina.

The ministry of presence allows chaplains to move among the ranks, whether that’s during a training exercise on a stateside base or in a combat situation in Afghanistan, Father Lawrence told CNS during a March interview at Fort Jackson.

“In the midst of violence and war and chaos, there is one person in the unit, one person in the organization, who represents God’s peace,” he said.

However, being a man of God serving in an institution that engages in war, does sometimes present a challenge to Father Lawrence, who has been active duty in the Army since 2003. He holds the rank of major.

He has been deployed into combat zones, witnessed the atrocities of war and has been exposed to situations that defy the word of God.

However, he said the military chaplaincy, whose members are noncombat and do not carry a weapon even in a war zone, is vital to the men and women who serve their country.

Fr. Lawrence, Archbishop Broglio and the other chaplains interviewed by CNS argue that the U.S. military does have an obligation to use force to maintain peace and point to the just-war teaching by the Catholic Church, used by Catholic leaders since St. Augustine introduced the concept in the third century. Just-war advocates today call it a responsibility-to-protect theory.

The Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (“Gaudium et Spes”) said that “as long as the danger of war remains and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.”

“Sometimes what is good, what is true, what is beautiful, requires us to defend it,” said Fr. William J. Brunner, a Navy chaplain serving on the U.S. warship USS America, docked in San Diego. “For the men and women who have decided to make that sacrifice, very often they are the ones who are most in need of pastoral care.”

Fr. McCarthy and Art Laffin of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington reject just-war teaching and maintain it is a theory, not dogma.

Following an April peace demonstration in front of the White House, in which Laffin carried signs reading “Love Your Enemies” and “Jesus Would Never Join the Military,” he told CNS he believed that Catholic priests should remind all members of the military that killing in all circumstances is evil.

Fr. McCarthy contends that if priests and bishops were really doing their job as men of God, they would advise members of their flock not to go into the military.

He has been calling for the “nonviolent love of friends and enemies” since the 1960s, when he became the original director of the Program for the Study and Practice of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

“My primary vocation, even before being ordained, has been to call the churches back to following what is there in the Gospel, Jesus’ teachings of nonviolent love of friends and enemies,” Father McCarthy said. “The church exists to save souls. Nothing is more important than that.”

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