(CNSNews.com) – Some Catholic priests under contract or GS (general schedule) to the military are not allowed to offer the Catholic sacraments--including saying Mass, consecrating marriages, or performing baptisms--on military property during the government shutdown, and if they do, even on a volunteer basis, they risk being arrested, according to the general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
About 25% of the U.S. military is Catholic, some 275,000 service members, but there are only 234 active-duty priests. To fill the gap, contract or GS priests are brought in. But under the rules of the shutdown, many of those priests cannot perform their religious duties on military bases unless their contracts allow it.
“These men are employed by the government to ensure that a priest is available when an active duty Catholic Chaplain is not present,” said John Schlageter, general counsel for the archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. “With the government shutdown, many GS and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work – not even to volunteer. “
“During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so,” said Schlageter.
He explained, for example, if a Catholic family has a baptism scheduled for this weekend on an Air Force base staffed by a GS or contract priest, that baptism “is most likely cancelled.” If you are stationed in Japan or Korea and served by a GS or contract priest, “then you have no choice but to go without Mass this weekend.”
“Until the federal government resumes normal operations, or an exemption is granted to contract or GS priests, Catholic services are indefinitely suspended at many of those worldwide installations served by contract and GS priests,” said Schlageter.
“At a time when the military is considering alternative sources of funding for sporting events at the service academies, no one seems to be looking for funding to ensure the Free Exercise rights of Catholics in uniform,” said Schlageter. “Why not?”
Steve Skojec with CatholicVote.org said, “This is outrageous. It is a violation of the First Amendment. It is a prohibition of the free exercise of religion to order priests under penalty of arrest that they cannot volunteer their time to offer Mass to the faithful on base. This cannot be allowed to stand.”
“Our government is out of control,” said Skojec.
CatholicVote.org posted further comments from John Schlageter and the Military Archdiocese, noting that, so far in Northern Virginia, “3 Masses have been cancelled at local Fort Belvoir.”
In addition, “In one situation a couple that is to be married at an Air Force Base this Saturday and did all of their preparation with a GS priest will now be married by an active duty priest who is being taken in from somewhere else,” said Schlageter. “This means that the priest that the couple got to know over the past few months will not be able to witness their marriage. One priest in Virginia Beach will be celebrating Mass in a local park off base.”
The general counsel also reported, “We are also learning that some chapel musicians will not be able to play at Sunday Mass during the furlough.”
He recommends that military personnel without a GS or contract priest now because of the shutdown to try to find a local chapel near their base.
Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with The Catholic Association, said in a statement, "The idea that a priest would be arrested for or blocked from celebrating Mass for members of the military is something out of a totalitarian horror show. The government should do everything in its power to make sure that our servicemen and women are not punished with religious liberty violations during the government shutdown. This is yet another example of the Obama administration playing politics with our religious liberty."
According to its website, the Archdiocese for Military Services, USA "was created as an independent archdiocese by Pope John Paul II in 1985 as the only Catholic jurisdiction responsible for endorsing and granting faculties for priests to serve as chaplains in the U.S. military and VA Medical Centers."