WASHINGTON –– With the U.S. military undergoing dramatic changes — in mission, as troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and in social structure with the open admission of gays, extension of combat roles to women, and focus on how sexual assault is handled — the Marine chief of chaplains finds her job ever-evolving as well.
The Rev. Margaret Kibben, a Presbyterian minister who is a rear admiral and Navy deputy chief of chaplains, supervises the deployment of 290 Marine chaplains and shares responsibility for the 840 Navy chaplains. She told Catholic News Service that chaplains have important roles to play as the military adapts to changing roles.
"Our primary role is to ensure free expression of religion," Rev. Kibben said. So, regardless of how religious beliefs form someone's thinking about issues such as gays serving in the military, it's up to chaplains to ensure that "you don't feel your faith is threatened."
In an interview during a military women's leadership symposium outside Washington, Rev. Kibben explained that as the Defense Department phased out its "don't ask, don't tell" approach to gays serving in the military and began openly allowing it, chaplains were among the first to receive training in how the change would affect their work.
"There was a lot of walking through the details," she said, about what chaplains might be asked to do in ministry.
She said that across the entire military chaplain corps, "less than a handful" of chaplains decided that they could not continue to serve in a military that openly allowed homosexuals to serve. "And some of those were near retirement anyway, or in the process of considering whether to come in."
With the recent uproar over the rate of cases of sexual assault within the military, Rev. Kibben said there has been training about what a chaplain's role might be in interacting with victims of assault, perpetrators and others who are aware of incidents.
"The chaplains are incredibly committed to helping deal with sexual assault," she said, but they need guidance, for example, on what kind of conversations are protected and when they are obligated to advise authorities of a situation, as well as how to help members of the military get an education in basic morals that they may have missed earlier in life.
"For just about every topic with a social dimension, chaplains have a role to play," she said. The decreasing religious participation found throughout society has implications for the military, Rev. Kibben said, but people who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" still seek out the services of the chaplaincy.
Her job requires she balance a limited number of chaplains of various denominations with the needs of Marines and sailors assigned to a particular ship or base who may represent dozens of faiths, not all of which could have a chaplain of that faith available. All military chaplains are trained to provide basic assistance and sometimes religious services to a variety of faiths.
For example, she said, there may be 500 Muslims in the Navy, but they're not all serving in the same place or even near each other, so any Muslim chaplain would be hard-pressed to be able to serve a sizeable congregation of Muslims. Where to position a Muslim chaplain is something of a mathematical exercise.
Nationwide, Catholics make up the largest single religious denomination, at about 24 percent. But there are only about 50 priests among the entire military chaplain corps, Rev. Kibben said. "When I started 27 years ago, there were about 200." The Department of Defense requires that chaplains be college graduates, have theological training and be ordained, or the denominational equivalent.
The Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, which determines the policy for how the church participates in the chaplain corps, interprets canon law as requiring that only priests may serve as chaplains. Some other countries, including Canada, allow permanent deacons to also serve as chaplains.
Msgr. Frank Pugliese, vicar general of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, said deacons cannot be chaplains because they "do not have the full care of souls," meaning they cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions. "So to put a deacon in the situation of being a chaplain leaves the chaplaincy in the hands of someone who can't do the entire ministry from a Catholic perspective. If they're Catholic, the least you want them to be able to do is say Mass."
He said it seems extremely unlikely the archdiocese would change that policy any time soon. Instead, he said recruitment of chaplains has taken a new direction, with the military archdiocese co-sponsoring the education of seminarians, who commit, with the approval of their dioceses, to serving in the military for a while.
"This year we had several seminarians ordained as deacons, and several ordained priests," Msgr. Pugliese said. "We're within a year or two of the fruits of that showing in our numbers."
Navy Lt. Commander Jean Marie Sullivan, a special assistant to the chief of Navy operations, is an active Catholic who helped fill the gap left by the shortage of Catholic chaplains as a shipboard extraordinary minister of holy Communion during her assignment on a frigate about a decade ago. She said she was trained to conduct Communion services and carefully reserved the consecrated hosts in a locked safe in her quarters. On Ash Wednesday she obtained some ashes to use for a simple service, as well.
"I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it," she said. "On a ship with 330 people, we'd have about five people each Sunday, then on Ash Wednesday it seemed like the whole ship showed up."
Msgr. Pugliese told CNS that policy changed "years ago … because of reported abuses of the Eucharist. In the military, custody of the Eucharist is a very difficult thing."
As she prepares to take command of her own ship in a couple of years, Sullivan said part of her responsibility will include making sure the religious needs of her crew are met. Her current and recent assignments have kept her on land and out of command positions. Now, she recognizes that part of her new job will entail making sure she and other Catholics have access to Mass and other religious activities while at sea.
Msgr. Pugliese said there is a system of military personnel known as "Catholic representatives" who may conduct liturgies of the word in the absence of a priest, and who help make sure a Catholic chaplain is periodically available on a ship or that Catholic personnel can get to a Mass at a church near a posting.
Sullivan, who grew up around the world because her parents were in the Foreign Service, said she is quite familiar with the extent to which some people have to go to for religious services. She said she made her own first Communion in Saudi Arabia, where it was illegal to hold services of any faith except Islam.
"We had to meet in secret, on Fridays," she said. "Our priest was arrested and jailed at one point."