by Elinor Mitchell
Along with a number of anticipated political and economic effects, the federal government shutdown prompted one surprising consequence: the suspension of Catholic Masses at U.S. military bases. Following the government’s shutdown, all government employees, including the Catholic chaplains contracted by the government, were prohibited from performing their regular duties. Even on a volunteer basis, priests who provided services in spite of the ban faced arrest. As a result, many active duty Christians went without Mass early this month, sparking a tidal wave of protest and calls for reform. The ban, which applies to all religious leaders contracted by the government, has caused controversy and raised questions regarding religious liberty and the federal government’s right to impose on any religious practice.
According to John Schlageter, General Counsel for the Archdiocese for Military Services, there is a “chronic shortage” of Catholic chaplains in active duty, leaving the nearly 275,000 Christian soldiers with only 234 priests. The government bridges that gap by contracting priests to perform services at home and abroad. That being said, many Americans in active duty depend on the government for regular religious services. But, in the event of a government shutdown, this system presents a problem. If all government employees, including contracted chaplains, are forbidden from working, who will accommodate the needs of active duty Christians?
News of the ban quickly sparked widespread criticism from the Catholic community. Many argue that a contacted priest does not fit the typical “government employee” mold, and provides an indispensible, necessary service. Some say it is simply a case of right and wrong, and that depriving Christians in active duty of a weekly Mass is unjust. The ban also raises a constitutional question; is the government entitled to regulate religious activity? Because the ban arguably infringes on priests’ and active duty Catholics’ right to free practice under the First Amendment, critics say that the federal government has overstepped its authority.
According to CatholicVote, since the eruption of negative press, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives have passed a Concurrent Resolution to exempt volunteer priests from the ban. The resolution, passed by a 400-1 vote, made it clear that House members did not intend to infringe on regular religious practices. Additionally, according to the Catholic News Service, most civilian Catholic chaplains were allowed to return to work as of October 9.
Most chaplains are back at work, but John Schlageter estimates that 35 priests are still not allowed to say Mass. Though the situation has been partly rectified, the federal government is under greater pressure to quickly resolve the budget dispute and to reinstate regular Christian services.