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yes, minister

By Diogenes (articles ) | Mar 04, 2007

Maurice Child's application was refused on the grounds, it was said, that in his interview with the Chaplain-General he was asked what he would do for a dying man, and answered: 'Hear his confession and give him absolution.' The correct answer was: 'Give him a cigarette and take any last message he may have for his family.'

-- from Evelyn Waugh's biography of Ronald Knox, discussing a High Church Anglican priest's attempt to enlist as a military chaplain at the outbreak of World War I.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently ruled that a Jesuit chaplain at an NIH clinic was wrongly suspended and fired, and ordered his reinstatement. The ground of the ruling appears to be anti-Catholic animus of the part of the chaplain's supervisor. The more interesting (and still unresolved) problem is the self-contradiction in the notion of "multi-faith ministry." From the Washington Post:

Since he came to the center in 1994, [Fr. Henry Heffernan, S.J.] had been fighting the clinic's desire to have him minister to non-Catholic (as well as Catholic) patients and to have Catholics seen by non-Catholic clergy, according to testimony before the EEOC. Heffernan had made that point to his boss, O. Ray Fitzgerald, who felt that the priest's attitude was old-fashioned, according to the EEOC decision.

"It just doesn't work," Heffernan said yesterday of so-called "multifaith" ministry. "Ministers of other religions are personable, but when they interact with a Catholic patient, as far as the Catholic patient is concerned, it's a social call, not any sort of religious activity."

Heffernan's point is beyond dispute. A non-Catholic visitor can heal, comfort, and encourage a Catholic patient, but he can't minister to him in the strict sense. Regrettably, however, many half-Catholics, including some senior ecclesiastics, see no ultimately decisive difference between religious activity and what Heffernan terms a social call ("the sacraments are about accepting who we are"), and the chaplaincy industry has done its utmost to flatten out the notion of ministry such that religious commitment -- the chaplain's as well as his "client's" -- becomes largely irrelevant. And note that, in this mindset, aspects of specific ecclesial conviction that resist the interchangeability norm become a threat to the professional ministry business. Back to the article:

Evidence that Heffernan was targeted, the federal rulings said, included the fact that he was ordered to take elementary courses in chaplaincy before any other chaplains, despite having been a priest and hospital chaplain for years. When he refused to take the basic courses, he was suspended. He was suspended another time for going to the clinic to administer Mass to patients on his days off, something he said he did because he was concerned that Catholic patients weren't getting sufficient spiritual service.

Suspended for offering Mass for his patients on his day off. That tells us quite a bit about the contemporary professional approach to professional chaplaincraft. And we're probably safe in surmising that the "elementary courses in chaplaincy" Heffernan refused to take were principally intended as a program of ideological indoctrination and assimilation into the etiquette of the guild: can't have wild men on the loose saying unscheduled Mass and asking embarrassing questions about the lethally flawed logic on which the entire industry is built. As we've seen elsewhere, this aggregation of religious activity into professional associations also serves as a useful tool for progressives wishing to pressure the Church into change. Such associations conventionally insist on non-discrimination based on sex, marital status, libidinal proclivity, etc., whence the restrictions the Church places on her ministers makes her a violator of employment rights or professional standards or both.

Take a look at the penultimate paragraph:

Thomas Landry, interim executive director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, said most institutions are moving in the direction of multifaith ministry because it gives them more flexibility. However, it depends on resources and the skills of certain chaplains, he said. "There is no template that fits every institution."

As far as one can tell from its website, the NACC is perfectly true to type: no stray fleck of Catholic belief intrudes on its severe professional banality. And Fr. Landry seems unfazed by the prospect of institutions "moving in the direction of multifaith ministry." But the Jesuit Heffernan's challenge remains unanswered: how does one go about multi-faith ministry without abusing the notion of faith or that of ministry? A plurality of faiths entails a plurality of systems of belief that express incompatible truth claims. Sure, a chaplain can move around among those whose faith is partially in conflict with his own and -- if he is deft and the patient receptive -- he may counsel, edify, and instruct. But truly religious ministry is going to be ex opere operato -- i.e., not dependent on the gifts of the minister or the disposition of the faithful, and this relationship can only obtain between co-religionists. Yet the jargon of professional chaplains suggests that they're united, not in their passion for faith, but in their vagueness about how religious doctrine is important at all. Ministry is a snap once you clear that awkward credal business out of the way. One wonders whether "multi-faith" is better termed "uni-doubt."

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Show 13 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Mar. 05, 2007 12:26 PM ET USA

    My sister-in-law is a veterinarian. I don't go to her for a checkup. It is true, sh is trained to treat any type of animal but I am not just 'any' animal, I am a human. I apply the same logic to my spiritual well being as I do to my physical well being. btw: jchrysostom, thanks for taking one for me and my family. You are a better man than I.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 05, 2007 11:28 AM ET USA

    Protestant ministers of every variety are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable. They are not doing more than any educated, baptized lay-person (priest, prophet, and king) is capable of. They are not ordained PRIESTS. It must really stick in their collective craw that they cannot administer Catholic Sacraments. They hate the exclusivity of Truth. An Episcopal man told my sister that she could go to Adoration at his chuch, too...to "Adore" a piece of bread?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 05, 2007 8:59 AM ET USA

    Since there is a shortage of priests, lay people have gone to 'classes' and assumed the tiltle, Catholic Chaplain, which is contrary to law. It has been my experience that they believe they have the same power as priests and are effective replacements. Asa military Chaplain, I am so sorry for the wounded soldier who did not get to see a priest in Germany. That is a case for the IG. There is a priest on call. I would volunteer in a heartbeat to go there.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 05, 2007 7:36 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately, the degeneration and metamorphosis of chaplaincy into nothing but pop psychology has been occurring for decades. In 1984 (a fitting year) I resigned from the NACC following my conclusion that the group had eschewed the Gospel for the Democratic Party Platform.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 05, 2007 12:31 AM ET USA

    This post is positively sublime! I just can't wait to use "libidinal proclivity" and "uni-doubt" in the interests of clarity next time I converse with an appologist for gay "rights" or syncretism.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 04, 2007 6:37 PM ET USA

    Amen, Diogenes & frjpec. When I endured 8 weeks of a CPE course b/ 2nd & 3rd theology, a Protestant chaplain on staff at a Catholic hospital was in charge of the course. One homework task was to write our own creed. At the next class, the Unitarian, Lutheran, Presbyterian etc. students each read their own creative creed to the class. I read the Nicene Creed. The prof & students told me that I had to write my own. I told them that I could not write one better than Jesus & His Church.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 04, 2007 3:27 PM ET USA

    The old priest who instructed and eventually baptized me (in the early '50's in Cheyenne, WY) used to go to the hospital every day to visit the sick. Minister to the Catholics and just call---in his warm, open and friendly way---on the others. And he said he had brought many, many of them as converts into the Church. Always said he did no proselytizing at the bedside, but made many converts anyway. I'm sure he did. He did it for me.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 04, 2007 2:51 PM ET USA

    At my "Catholic" university "campus ministry" has replaced "chaplaincy." Result? Our first year commemoration of 9-11 was a multi-faith cocktail of Hindu prayers, American Indian chants, and Martin Luther King readings. There were NO references to anything explicity Christian or remotely American. A casual observer, listening in, would have had absolutely NO idea what we were referring to. Brighter students came away scratching their heads saying, "I thought John Lennon was dead?"

  • Posted by: - Mar. 04, 2007 12:29 PM ET USA

    Another nail hit squarely on its head. What laser-like vision and aim. Thank you!!

  • Posted by: - Mar. 04, 2007 10:12 AM ET USA

    One of the first questions asked when I arrived at the Landstuhl, Germany military hospital from Iraq on a stretcher was whether I wanted a visit from "the Chaplain." "Is he a Catholic priest?" I responded. "Well, no, he isn't, they just kind of visit everyone." With wounds to my side and stomach, I had no inclination to see anyone for purely social reasons, as Fr. Heffernan. puts it. "No thanks, then," I said. "I'd rather have a Catholic Bible." The nurse never did find one.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 04, 2007 8:38 AM ET USA

    Having served in the military as a physician I have some experience with these matters. It agree that Fr. Landry is veering off "the way" and operating as if of the world. Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Uncle Di. I hope that it will help me to focus more on my vocation than on my profession (regrettably, the professional association that nominally represents me to the popular culture is the American Psychiatric Association).

  • Posted by: - Mar. 04, 2007 8:03 AM ET USA

    I'll say it before anyone else does: We are an Easter people.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 04, 2007 7:02 AM ET USA

    This kind of attitude has been around for years, ask almost any priest, transitional deacon or 3rd year theologian about their "CPE" (clinical pastoral education) experience, and many will tell horror stories about the anti-Catholic bias that exists within these programs. Most CPE programs are led by mainline protestants who often salivate at the chance to string up a Catholic seminarian, in the hopes that they enlighten them with what is often pop psychology and inclusive theology. Fr. John

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