State of the Question: A Response to The Chaplains Dilemma

In “The Chaplain’s Dilemma” (11/17), Deacon Tom Cornell articulates well the need for priests in the military, but I disagree with his (and Gordon Zahn’s) proposal that the chaplaincy be “civilianized” to be more effective.

I spent 27 years as a chaplain in the United States Navy. I served as Executive Assistant to the Navy Chief of Chaplains, as Fleet Chaplain for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and as the Pacific Command Chaplain. I also taught the courses on conscientious objection, privileged communication and confidentiality at the Navy Chaplains’ School and to officers in Newport, R.I.


Cornell’s position often relies on misguided generalizations, uninformed opinions and skewed perceptions. Just as a missionary who learns the customs and language of a people becomes effective in preaching the Gospel, so priests in the military who make the same sacrifices and endure the same risks and hardships as other service members command their respect in a way civilians never could.

Last year, a U.S. Marine General in Iraq, General Jim Mattis, claimed that his most trusted resource was his chaplain. He had ordered his Marines to demonstrate a show of force in full battle gear when faced with a local Iraqi demonstration. His unit chaplain, Father Bill Devine, suggested instead that the troops warmly greet the demonstrators and give them bottles of water. Father Devine explained that the gesture would be understood as hospitable and might even be disarming. The general thought the idea bizarre at first, but ordered his men to do what his chaplain advised. “And it worked,” the general explained. “There were smiles all around, even some embraces, and our friendly relations resumed on the spot and have remained ever since.” This is a good example of how a priest in uniform influenced the very general Cornell criticized in his article for his hard-nosed attitude. I doubt a civilian cleric would have enjoyed such influence; security wouldn’t have allowed him in the war zone.

Cornell also maintains that the government trains chaplains. In fact, chaplains come to the military fully trained by their own faith groups. The government merely provides each Chaplain Corps with a school so that experienced chaplains can teach new chaplains about the local culture to enhance their own effectiveness.

Cornell’s criticism of chaplains not being trained to support Conscientious Objector Status is unfounded. The subject is addressed specifically with every new chaplain. Military instructions support all those who are authentic and sincere in their newfound beliefs that all warfare is contrary to their conscience.

Some chaplains might compromise themselves, but no one is above temptation when an opinion may jeopardize status or security: It is a human flaw not confined to the military. There is a defining moment in each of our lives when we are called to stand up and be counted, and how we respond either can define us as a hero or make us look pathetic. I can point to many Chaplain Corps heroes who have demonstrated personal courage and credibility. Two such chaplains are, in fact, being considered for sainthood.

When the bishops were asking their people to protest pending partial-birth abortion legislation, I was directed by Navy lawyers to tell Navy priests they were not to participate; the Uniform Code of Military Justice specifies that officers cannot become involved in political activity. I reminded all our priests not to become involved in political activity when in uniform, but that once they put on their vestments they represented the church, and all the faithful had a constitutional right to hear what other Catholics were being told. My directive went unchallenged.

A Baptist friend of mine, a chaplain, tells the story of how his orders to the Naval Academy in the 1970s were about to be cancelled because he was black. Cardinal John O’Connor, then senior chaplain at the academy, threatened to pull out all his chaplains if the orders were cancelled. They never were. Similarly, as a senior chaplain, I had an evangelical chaplain being pressured to reveal the confidences of a marine who had been murdered. The rationale was that since the marine was deceased the privilege of confidentiality no longer held. I threatened to pull out all chaplains should any action be taken against the chaplain. That ended it.

In all three instances, a civilian chaplain would never have had such influence.

The spiritual writer Brother Roger of Taizé wrote: “The equilibrium of a Christian is comparable to that of a man who walks on the edge of a razor. Only God can maintain his balance.” So it is with Catholic chaplains who minister in the military—it is a very challenging place to live out the Gospel. We have to do it compellingly and with credibility. It is like walking on the edge of a razor, and God alone can maintain our balance.

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David Pasinski
10 years 2 months ago
Imagine the famous Christmas truce scene from World War I... What if Chaplains were there also participating. How do they go back into the trenches and tacitly or explicitly encourage shelling one of their brother clergy as well? Would make an intersting drama...
10 years 2 months ago
I would like to recommend a recent article of mine, "My Father: A Veteran's Story - Part 2". You can find it at . In it I tell, briefly, a story of tragedy and sacrifice by Catholic Chaplain Father Veret (sp?) in the Battle of the Bulge. I don't know if anyone has ever told his story before.
10 years 2 months ago
I found Bishop Joseph W. Estabrook's "State of the Question" reflection well-stated and compelling, regarding the proposed "civilianization" of the chaplaincy. However, why would a civilian chaplain be any less influential in the cited circumstances? It is illogical to think that a civilian chaplain would not be assigned to a war zone just for being a civilian--allowances for civilian journalists "embedded" among troops in the most conflictive circumstances are evident and public knowledge. Nothing would keep the military from assigning chaplains to front-line situations, under a similar special-status accomodation. Although it is true that learning the local language and culture is essential for the preaching of the Gospel, missioners like myself do not assume the disvalues of local cultures, however traditional they may be (cannibalism is an extreme and rare example, weekend drunkenness or misogyny more common ones). Christians must maintain their perspective that military forces and their activities constitute, overall, a necessary but temporary contradiction of the values of God's Reign, the values we are sent to announce--quite apart from the particular quality of acts of bravery or selflessness that occur therein. Standing as a sign of the new reality coming into our history by God's hand, our civilian status would consistently remind military personnel and their families of the finality of a Christian perspective, beyond armed strife, just as celibacy and simplicity of life point beyond current disvalues of hedonism and consumerism. Fr. Bob Mosher, Santiago, Chile. Tel. (56-2) 516-0819
10 years 2 months ago
Two impressions of Bishop Estabrook's comments regarding chaplains: He seemed to denigrate the holders of views contrary to his as being ignorant and misguided, with skewed perceptions. Then his response reflects those who possess and love the trappings of office. reflective of his associations with the upper echelons. As a medic in WWII I took a reduction in rank to become a chaplain's assistant to a man of humility, courage, compassion who spent himself in caring for troops not only in our outfit but to other outfits, beloved by all. Would have been so had he not carried an officer's rank. Fr. Nilus McAndrew, CP lives in my memory as stellar example of the priesthod of Christ. Dom Fidelis


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