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The Role of Military Chaplains

by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien


In an October 13, 2007 speech at a Vatican-sponsored course for military ordinaries and chaplains in Vatican City, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore said military chaplains must be voices of conscience and defenders of the human rights of their own soldiers, enemy combatants and civilians. The course, attended by chaplains of many faiths, was sponsored by the Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, for Interreligious Dialogue and for Promoting Christian Unity. Archbishop O'Brien addressed several aspects of the role to be fulfilled by military chaplains: just war ethics, torture, interdenominational responsibilities, humanitarian efforts, etc.

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317 – 320

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Catholic News Service, Washington, D.C., October 25, 2007

Some months ago, watching a television interview of a U.S. Marine general in Iraq, I was surprised by one of his replies. So was the interviewer.

She asked the general the reason for the exceptionally good relations between his Marines and the sheiks of the province being protected by his men. He listed several factors involved in their successful mission, one of which was, "I followed the advice of my chaplain."

The reporter picked up on this comment immediately, asking the general to explain the role of his chaplain.

"For some reason, over a period of days tensions were growing between the local population and our troops, and I feared violence. It reached such a point that during one of my staff meetings, I told my commanders to prepare to arm my Marines and, as a show of force, to have them circle the exterior of our base camp in full battle gear when the demonstration was set to occur later that week.

"After the staff meeting, Father Bill Devine — our chaplain happens to be Catholic though I am not," the general explained. "Father Devine said he had a plan he thought would work without resorting to a show of arms. My priest suggested that my Marines instead would mingle with the demonstrators to greet them and offer them bottles of water. My immediate reaction was to dismiss the chaplain and his bizarre plan, but on second thought I called him in and asked him to explain.

"Among the Iraqi people it is a very friendly and hospitable gesture to offer someone water and a gesture that might prove to be disarming to a crowd that came to demonstrate under the hot sun," he explained.

"I took his advice several days later, not knowing what the result would be," the general concluded. "And it worked! There were smiles all around, even some embraces, and our friendly relations resumed on the spot and have remained ever since."

I cite this as one example illustrative of the role of "the Catholic military chaplain in peace missions from an ecumenical and religious perspective": a Catholic priest counseling his Protestant commander on Islamic symbols and mores. As should be the case, the commanding general realized he was dealing with a deeply religious culture with which he was not thoroughly familiar but with which his chaplain should have been familiar and indeed was.

This obligation of the international military communities to take seriously and to respect alien religious beliefs is ever more critical today with the increase of U.N. multinational peacekeeping missions, the role of the three monotheistic faiths in the ever sensitive Middle East, the naturalistic and animistic beliefs in many Third World countries, the growing influence of countries with Buddhist and Hindu cultures and, finally, the expansion of military collaboration between the countries recently rid of communism and Western Europe / America nations.

Basic to the chaplain's effectiveness as a promoter of humanitarian law is the understanding of his role as a noncombatant in every situation. Recently our ordinariate received a request by a younger priest chaplain to enter the Ranger training course. This is a nine-week Army training exercise spent in thick jungle with Ranger candidates living completely off the land, foraging for food and water while facing life-threatening obstacles.

Ranger candidates are severely tested in the art of self-defense to involve the potential of taking the lives of aggressors. Every Ranger candidate, therefore, is required to carry an array of weaponry, including live ammunition.

The priest asked for permission in this one instance to carry arms — if only to receive the coveted "Ranger patch." He was refused permission by us even to carry an unloaded weapon and therefore he had to forgo Ranger training. Even to make a single exception, and in the context not of real combat but training for combat, we saw to be a severe compromise of a chaplain's core identity as set forth in Geneva Convention and other protocols.

Obviously for the chaplain's role and advice to be effective it must be respected, trusted and desired. This places a heavy burden on chaplain leadership of all countries and religious denominations to train all their chaplains thoroughly not only in the knowledge of other faiths but in respect for the faiths of others. Firmly embraced as our Catholic faith is by priests and people, Catholic clergy and laity must also avoid even the appearance of proselytizing — as must chaplains and faithful of every religious belief. Knowledge and respect for others' religious beliefs must even extend to providing them with otherwise unavailable resources for prayer and worship. Islamic prisoners of war, for example, should wherever feasible be given a prayer rug and a Quran. This in no way suggests communicatio in sacris or religious indifferentism.

On the other hand, even when chaplains are well prepared we should not take for granted that commanders see the need or the proper role of chaplains. This, I believe, has been the case in a number of Eastern European countries whose communist armies were suddenly forced to be responsive to a democratic government. Deeply ingrained in communist ideology throughout their professional career, these commanders now heard the call for religious and pastoral care for their troops. Indeed each country in question had to meet a prior condition of eligibility to be accepted into NATO, namely, the presence of a functioning religious chaplaincy.

One cannot presume that these military commanders would easily come to respect, trust and desire the advice of chaplains — and chaplains often of a much lower rank. Even now there might be difficulties in chaplains' free access to their troops in former communist areas. We might hear from such East European representatives on their ongoing experiences in introducing the active chaplaincy into their armies for the first time.

In my country we have almost 200 religious denominations represented in the chaplaincy, mostly Protestant but now also Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist chaplains. There are more than 3,000 chaplains on active duty throughout American armed forces, and while Catholics represent 25 percent of the total military population, only 8 percent of American chaplains are Catholic. It is often the case that a Protestant chaplain is responsible for arranging for Catholic sacramental and pastoral needs by contracting civilian priests or by appointing well-trained Catholic lay leaders.

These interdenominational dependencies impose upon our commanders and senior chaplains the responsibility of educating their uniformed clergy in an across-the-board acceptance of basic principles: respect without proselytizing, a basic understanding of other faith groups' beliefs, customs and disciplines, the role of the chaplain not as warrior but as peacemaker and bridge builder, objective evaluations of chaplains' performance leading to promotions in rank without regard to denomination.

First and foremost, chaplains of every faith, land and culture must solidly agree and promote the basic dignity of every human being, believer and nonbeliever, ally or enemy, combatant or civilian, prisoner or free, general or private.

It can be taken as a given that where there are inhumane living conditions for soldiers or their families there is not an effective chaplaincy; perhaps there is no chaplain, perhaps the chaplain is restricted, perhaps the chaplain is poorly trained or lacking in courage. Where there is an acceptance of direct killing of noncombatant civilians for instance, there is no chaplaincy worth its name. Where torture is justified in eliciting prisoner information, chaplaincy is ineffective or nonexistent.

The "new warfare" involving terrorist insurgents carrying out attacks in civilian dress against an organized government should and must, I believe, require the development and refining of traditional just war principles. Further, when interrogators question captured terrorists, the importance of obtaining critical information soon brings on the moral distinction between licit techniques of interrogation and torture.

In some cases torture is easily recognizable and condemnable. The vicious and utterly barbaric treatment of individuals in the American Abu Ghraib prison leaves no doubt as to the barbaric extremes to which human beings can resort, especially in times of war. It is significant, perhaps, that this prison did not have an assigned chaplain, though Army regulations required one.

Not only should chaplains be expected to act to stop such cases of torture but should be called upon as well in individual cases to judge licit interrogation techniques (standing at attention for one hour) from torturous methods (sleep deprivation for 24 hours). To do this objectively and fairly not only should the chaplains be prudent and experienced in matters of ethical treatment of captives but should have developed guidelines and principles to turn to a field that now, more than ever, needs development.

Torture is not easy to define, but (as our U.S. Supreme Court stated regarding pornography) common sense usually knows torture when one sees it.

Similarly, proportionality questions raised in the 2003 course on matters such as long-distance bombing, or so-called "sterilized combat," need guidelines and informed technical judgments based on clear ethical principles which must evolve with ever more complicated technologies.

Chaplains must be looked to and respected for being the voice of the little man, the small cog in the big military wheel. He must be the voice of conscience, not intimidated by rank or power in speaking out differentially but unambiguously on the nuances of ius ad bellum, ius in bello and ius post bellum. Where ethical questions arise which are complex and involve military technicalities the chaplain should be the convener of minds in effective dialogue. The chaplain must be the voice of the convinced minority conscience, well-versed in an effective in communicating the meaning of primacy of conscience.

Chaplains should be assured of the full support of their civilian ecclesial superiors, who for their part should intervene publicly if necessary if a chaplain is the object of unfair treatment in carrying out his duties.

Among all other religious groups (I think I am safe to say in this context) our Catholic tradition demands a rigorous philosophical, theological, spiritual and pastoral formation of their priests. Bishops and religious superiors must ensure that the clergy to whom they entrust the ministry of military chaplains must reflect that solid formation. Such a priest chaplain will more securely dialogue with chaplains of other traditions as well as with superior commanders of every faith in those matters of ethical, spiritual and humanitarian concern. Similarly, such a Catholic chaplain will not be uncomfortable when being directed by qualified chaplains and leaders of differing faith traditions.

Every chaplain must respect the instinctive hunger for the transcendent in every human being, leading such faith journeys humbly, prayerfully, respectfully and nonintrusively. Regardless of rank or power or position, the chaplain must see himself primarily as a man of God and not as an agent of the state. To put it another way, he must wear his uniform and his rank on his body and not on his soul. And how privileged every chaplain should view himself as one invited to witness his belief in a loving God to a uniquely youthful and impressionable population ever in search of role models.

It is especially (but not exclusively) to the young uniformed personnel with inadequately or ill-formed consciences that the chaplain must play a principal role in time of "peace missions" which can easily develop to armed force. How rarely do the young confront what for some is an implicit contradiction between the Fifth Commandment and the real possibility of having to shoot a weapon in defense of self or others? How practical for the military is Christ's counsel to turn the other cheek?

The chaplain must guide sensitive consciences in those matters and recognize and support the person whose conscience reaches the final conclusion that bearing arms is an un-Christian act for him.

Like civilian priests but possibly fraught with more complexities, the chaplain must draw a clear line in his own mind between internal and external forums and then do all in his power to explain this distinction clearly to those in command and those who seek his counsel. Such explanations should be presented in the general description of the chaplain's place in the chain of command, but also prior to his involvement in individual cases when tasked by command to speak with victims and/or accused.

Confessional matters aside, the chaplain is morally bound to professional secrecy as well: information that reaches him during counseling sessions or information committed to him as professional officer. When such information involves potential serious injury or death of another or proposed actions in serious conflict with humanitarian law, he should be able to report the wrongdoing to an official ombudsman designated by the military to handle such serious matters of conscience. Where no such office exists or is unable to be reached, justice dictates that some other prudent action be taken to minimize or avoid the evil threatened.

Where the inhumane treatment of noncombatants, wounded soldiers or prisoners is in question the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states (No. 2313):

"Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out."

The chaplain, who might come across such crimes (outside the confessional) is obliged to make them known to the appropriate authority with as much discretion as possible.

An increasingly common and complicated humanitarian dilemma presents itself in the presence of female warriors. In most countries females were accepted, such as in World War II, as noncombatants: nurses, counselors, social workers or "desk jockeys" far removed from military action. Some were increasingly permitted to engage in peace missions. Today, however, the line between peace missions and some form of necessary armed intervention is very thin indeed as the number of female war casualties attests in modern-day interventions.

Similarly, in my country virtually all females are armed (15 percent to 20 percent of the armed forces), receive the same combat training as their male counterparts and patrol side by side with them in conflict situations. Female combat immunity was once an assumption in the Christian West, based on the high regard for and nurturing role of women. It is to be hoped that the ethical and moral basis for that assumption could be reopened, researched and refined, if necessary, with respect to present realities.

More common as well, and surely a humanitarian issue is the close military lifestyle of male and female. Some countries have unisex ships and barracks, and even where restrictions are in place, the reality offers a high probability of illicit and immoral sexual activity, with young people placed in those situations not of their own choosing.

The revealing of statistics regarding out-of-wedlock pregnancies and abortions might force open discussion on these difficulties, but "political correctness" usually prevents such an honest, humanitarian assessment.

Much more could be said. Indeed, not only is the issue of great importance but of the widest magnitude as well. The humanitarian role of all chaplains includes responsibilities in promoting the dignity of human life, whether involving ally or enemy as well as the chaplains' comrades in his own armed forces.

Finally, this would seem to offer a fruitful area for ongoing ecumenical and interfaith collaboration as well as round-table exchanges among appropriate U.N. bodies, Red Crescent, Red Cross and Magen David Adom.

© Catholic News Service

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