Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

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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