Iafrate (a paradoxically combative pacifist) opined:
I was secretly hoping that the Church would use the opportunity to quietly get itself out of the business of serving as chaplain to the American war machine.He went on to describe the chaplaincy as,
No such luck.
[I]n effect supporting the war effort through sacramental meansAnd perhaps the kicker:
What is the Church to do in the case of unjust wars? Deploy their warrior shepherds right along with the Catholic faithful who decide to participate in such wars? In these cases, if the Church DOES offer chaplaincy services, then the Church's message of peace and her judgment on particular wars is undermined.... The Church has no trouble denying communion to those who are theoretically in favor of the unjust killing of persons through abortion, but follows persons who participate in unjust killing [in war] around with the ciborium!Now the fact is, that almost any foolish position one can conceivably imagine has been taken stridently by someone, somewhere on the net. Why, one might ask, bother to highlight this particular example, especially when much of the author's ire stems from an elsewhere stated complete pacifism and rejection of 1700 years of Catholic "just war" doctrine -- a viewpoint which will doubtless result in different conclusions than others might draw.
As I thought about it, though, I realized there was a deeper issue going on here, which underlined one of the very human aspects of Catholicism.
The US Military Archdiocese has a brief history of chapliancy throughout Christendom on its website. John the Baptist and the Apostles counseled soldiers who came to them to be just and merciful, but are not recorded to have asked them to leave the military profession, even under the institutionally pagan Roman empire. The presence of a number of Roman soldiers among the lists of early martyrs shows that Christians continued to serve in the Roman military throughout the period of persecution up until the 4th century, and then under the Christian empire, priests were specifically brought along with the legions to serve the spiritual needs of the troops.
One section of which particularly struck me as underlining something about the nature of the Church's understanding of ministering to soldiers was from the section dealing with the Catholic chapliancy during the US Civil War:
Volunteer units from various states often had a preponderance of Catholics and were accompanied by their local priests. It seems that about forty priests served as chaplains with the Union Army (probably about twenty at any given time). Approximately six hundred chaplains served with the Confederate troops and, of these, twenty-eight were known to be Catholic....Faculties were given to priests by their own bishop for their own diocese, and further faculties had to be requested in each diocese through which the army traveled. So, for example, Archbishop Kendrick of Baltimore delegated Archbishop Hughes of New York to sub-delegate faculties to the chaplain of the N.Y. Irish Brigade. And Navy chaplains would need new faculties from port to port. A re-script from Pope Pius IX for both Union and Confederate chaplains extended chaplains' faculties beyond their diocese, at least temporarily, and granted a variety of practical concessions that civilian priests did not enjoy. But the Holy See did not intend a canonically independent and permanent chaplain corps; it merely provided overlapping jurisdiction for the duration of the war.With significant numbers of Catholics serving on both sides of the war that consumed more American lives than all other wars we have fought combined, the pope's concern was to assure that chaplains were able to provide the sacraments to men close to death on both sides of the conflict: not to pick which side to provide "sacramental support" to.
I imagine that any student of American history has his own ideas on which side in the Civil War was right, and yet for many of the individual soldiers who fought and died in that (or any other) war, their service was determined not by a dispassionate examination of the issues behind the war, but rather because they lived in a particular place (North or South) and they were called up to go and fight in that region's army.
Far be it from me to suggest that there is not a "right side" in most wars, but the fact that the leaders of the "wrong side" were wrong to start a war for the reasons that they did does not necessarily mean that all those soldiers serving in their armies share fully in their guilt. At an individual level, war is often a vast human tragedy, and the Church has historically recognized the importance of providing priests to provide the sacraments to the soldiers and urge them towards justice and mercy within their duties as soldiers.
Perhaps no where is this better underlined than in the Great War, when (as the modern nations of Europe were locked in a death struggle that resulted in death at a previously unimaginable level) the Catholic Church sought to make sure that Catholic soldiers in all armies had chaplains available to them. According to the military archdiocese history page, "The Holy See, therefore, set out to appoint a bishop for each country to be the Ordinarius Castrensis, or Bishop for the Military."
One of the elements of Catholicism which sets it apart from our Protestant bretheren is its emphasis on sacraments as channels for grace, and thus salvation. This emphasis (and particularly the importance of absolution and last rites for those in danger of death) led Catholic chaplains into the thick of battle to minister to their men. Unarmed, moving about the battlefield under enemy fire to provide help (both sacramental and also at times medical) to men in danger of death, military chaplains provide a vivid image of the sense in which Christianity is "not of this world". (One such was Fr. Vincent Capodanno, a chaplain killed while ministering to men on the battlefield in Vietnam, for whom a cause for sainthood has been opened.)
One other very interesting article I found in reading up about military chaplains was this paper by a student a US Santa Barbara, which examines the experience of Catholic chaplains in the German army of WW2. The paper draws heavily on the personal diaries of two priests Fr. Perau and Fr. Tewes, both of whom were drafted into the German army and became chaplains, in which capacity they ministered to troops on the Eastern Front throughout the war. The author observes that in these priests' dairies (as in others) it is clear that their loyalties were first to the Church, then to their men, and lastly (if at all) to the Nazi state. Both priests were revolted by Nazi anti-semitism and made efforts to help both Poles and Jews they came in contact with through their ministry, including providing sacraments (against orders) to Polish prisoners and civilians.
The paper is worth reading in that it underlines the conflicts that these chaplains felt in serving the German army in any capacity, and yet at the same time their conviction that making sure that the sacraments and Catholic moral teaching were available to Wehrmacht soldiers, many of whom themselves were conscripts serving against their will. Fr. Tewes wrote in his diary:
Suppose an ambulance comes to the corner where you are standing, with badly wounded men inside, some lying in their blood on the floor and you call for a doctor to help. What would you do if the doctor said to you "I will only provide medical assistance once the question of guilt is completely resolved." The situation of that doctor is my situation.I bring the Wehrmacht example up not to make any moral equivalence between the US Military Archdiocese which Iafrate objected to and the WW2 German army, but rather to underline the importance of ministering to all Catholics. There's a certain immanentizing character which infects certain more activist forms of Christianity (often "progressive" but certain kinds of "conservative" as well) which sees the Christian mission as to achieve a specific worldly end-state as soon as possible: end poverty, establish the right government, enact just laws, etc., etc.
These are not unworthy goals, but the central Christian message is much simpler than that: save souls. Wherever men and women are in the midst of suffering an death, there the Church and her priests should be to minister to those souls and prepare them for the last things. In that sense, the purpose of chaplains is not at all to support one side in a war by sacramental means. Their purpose rises above all sides and touches upon that which unites us all as humans: our immortal souls, our sin, and our need for the graces of salvation.