Thursday, January 22, 2009


Over at ‘America’ magazine, there’s a little dust-up over chaplains in the armed services. It’s of interest more widely than might at first seem apparent. The original article that started it is here.

I have written about chaplains, mostly in regard to professionals (doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, and – at some length – lawyers) in the military. The Post ‘Bishops Bomb’ from November 2, 2006 comes to mind.

A proposal was put forward in the magazine by a Catholic deacon that while the ministry of Catholic priests is necessary in the military, they should be civilians, in order to be more effective.

In response, a sub-bishop of the Catholic archdiocese for the military has written a piece. He is a former Navy chaplain, who after 27 years retired after holding some hefty billets and is now a sub-bishop for the archbishop who oversees Catholic ministry for all the Services.

He wishes to refute the idea that priests (and clergy generally) who are not actually military chaplains would be a good idea. The concept of non-military chaplains would not work very well, he says.

I won’t repeat here all the arguments about professionals in the military and chaplains specifically. The November 2006 Post is the first of several that deals with that in the period from late 2006 through the Watada trial of mid-2007 and again around the time that military psychologists were discovered to be involved in the ‘BISKIT’ torture teams (with, rather relevantly, the connivance of their ‘parent’ organization, the American Psychological Association).

I’ll just go with the thoughts prompted by the points that the good bishop raises.
Bishop Estabrook begins by reciting his own career record in the Navy. What caught my eye was his comment that he has “taught” courses on conscientious objection, privileged communication, and confidentiality at the Navy’s school for chaplains in Newport, R.I. I’m sure he did. But military ‘schools’ at the level he’s talking about aren’t exactly university post-grad courses on bosky campuses, in oak-paneled libraries or class-rooms, reading and discoursing upon ancient hefty tomes.

Bets are that they are held in an old barracks or today’s equivalent of a Quonset hut. The course probably doesn’t last longer than a few months. The classes probably involve a great deal of Power-Point and photocopies of assorted regulations. There are probably few essay questions on the ‘test’. Nor would spelling be a priority.

The ‘school’ would be open to chaplains of all faiths, and some form of it would be mandatory for all as an introductory course. Given the vast differences in formal schooling, let alone aptitude, among the ministerial schools of the many faiths recognized by the military, it would be a Lowest Common Denominator course, and the bar, as above implied, would have to be set rather low, especially, I imagine, in the past decade and more of the Fundamentalist Ascendancy.

The bishop follows his creds with a story, or an anecdote: Marine General James Mattis “claimed that his most trusted resource was his chaplain”. There are two possibilities here: the General’s comments were made in some sort of after-dinner speech or address to a chaplains’ gathering and he was being polite and upbeat, the military equivalent of Rotarian rubber-chicken boilerplate. Or, in the alternative, a significant reason that our forces have not been doing so well on the Eastern Front is that the General commanding seems to be spending way too much time with his staff chaplain rather than the officers entrusted with advising him as to matters military and implementing his operational plans.

In this particular story, the General – as the bishop tells it – had ordered his troops to “demonstrate a show of force in full battle gear”, when suddenly a chaplain, a priest named Bill, suggested that instead the troops sort of meet-and-greet folks and pass out bottles of water. And the General, after considering the advice “bizarre” yet goes ahead and so orders it.

The idea of not trying to shock-and-awe people whose country you are occupying, but rather to try to engage them as human beings, is a militarily sound one. That it had occurred to nobody including the General is, at this point alas, a credible possibility. That the single chaplain alone, on the basis of the wisdom of his advice and strength of his character, stared down the whole command structure like Luther in front of the Diet and comes up with an idea that has escaped the consideration of an entire senior command staff is an implication suitable only for a movie script (perhaps one is in the works). That the General could report that “it worked” and that there were smiles, embraces, and friendly relations all around is certainly possible, but it is most surely a script according to the stylings of Oprah.

The bishop does “doubt that a civilian cleric would have enjoyed such influence; security wouldn’t have allowed him into the war zone”. Two rather big points.

In order to enjoy that sort of influence in a tight-knit, hierarchical organization with its own very special ways of doing everything, a clergyman ‘right off the street’ isn’t going to gain much entrée. He isn’t ‘one of us’, as the officers would say. Of course, a clergyman who had some working familiarity and experience in dealing with military folk, and especially with senior staff officers and senior commanders, would be able to circumvent the potholes of operational malapropism.

But that brings Us to the second point: ‘security’ won’t allow that civilian clergyman to be there. You don’t get to ‘be’ in important places in the military unless it knows it can ‘trust’ you. And to unpack that word ‘trust’ in this context is an exercise well worth the time and effort. The military, especially at these exalted levels, has to ‘know’ you; and that only comes from ‘being around’. But also from having a ‘place’, keeping to your ‘place’, and knowing your ‘place’. Having a uniform and a rank as well as a job description is very valuable. But also expensive.

You don’t get ‘security’ clearance until the military knows it can control you, alas. And thereby the rub. You are a commissioned officer in the US military. You can be court-martialed, and can certainly lose a career, unless you stay within some very clear and distinct lines. Father Bill may have had a very good day (although probably not as simply and easily marvelous as the story would imply), but Father X assigned to the guard battalion at Abu Ghraib, or Father Y assigned to minister to the guard force at Guantanamo, probably had few of them, if indeed they even bothered to try.

Which also raises the point: did the good bishop, who by his own report was what appears to be the highest-ranking priest in the naval chaplaincy for a while, have any such good days there in the precincts of the Pentagon? Did he have bad ones and not tell anybody? Very possibly so – he would have lost his security clearance, perhaps been court-martialed, and all the rest. Chaplains are – must be – ‘team players’; there is precious little room for prophecy even in its best and most authentic sense; Jeremiah would have wound up in Fort Leavenworth’s walls quicker than you can say “Integrity and Christian Witness and speaking-truth-to-power”. You go along to get-along; there’s a price for that.

On the other hand, if they were not ‘team players’, or even if they simply weren’t on the team, then a clergyman would have a hard time getting ‘access’ at all. He might be able to come aboard a Stateside ship or base to do a service and perhaps counsel individual troubled souls, but he wouldn’t be going overseas on missions, especially to a war zone, and especially to a war zone where ‘stuff happens’ and continues ‘to happen’. For that you have to be ‘embedded’ in so thorough a way that it makes the modern media look fiercely independent.

The bishop would like it to be thought of as just another form of “missionary work” – you go to a foreign land, you learn the culture, you sort of ‘go in their door to bring them out your own’. But like so many other cuddly or at least familiar historical analogies that have been thrown at Us over the past years, this one doesn’t quite fit.

If you say something to piss off the tribal chief, something like say ‘Do unto others’, you could wind up in a world of hurt. It was for this reason that some of the most enterprising missionaries either found themselves reduced to merely being ‘models’ of a good Christian life and ix-naying the Christian preaching, or preaching ‘love’ to a culture that is based on ‘war’ and getting whacked.

Among Catholics, the Jesuits – if memory serves – back in the day when they were at the top of their game, got themselves into a big snit with the lesser Orders in foreign lands: the lesser Orders wanted to simply put it out there loud and clear – be Catholic, do this and don’t do that, or burn in hell; the Jesuits wanted to finesse things, especially with feudal hierarchies such as the Japanese shogunate and the daimyos. To the point where being ‘Catholic’ was quietly reduced to a much lower priority than ‘being patient’ and ‘keeping access’.

The Jesuit thinking was that it was counterproductive to force the Chinese and the Japanese to forego ‘ancestor worship’ and listen to services in the Latin, get them all annoyed, and then be unable to ‘really really’ have an impact on the long-term, ‘strategic’ (it might be termed today) changing of the culture. It’s not really varsity-level play, they figured, to alienate the entire ‘elite’ of a complex society simply over the basis of culture-bound particulars, when there was the possibility of ‘major change’ that might be, with a little indulgence and loosening up of ‘principles’, achieved. That was about the size of it.

The lesser Orders were more ‘realistic’, perhaps. Sumus quod sumus, as Garrison Keillor’s denizens of mythical Lake Wobegone might say; we are what we are. That being the case, let’s just show’em what to do, let those who truly wish Christianity (Catholic Christianity) come forward, and the rest can take their own sweet time or be damned or both. We do what we can; we don’t debase ourselves in the fatuous hope of achieving ‘bigger things’ that are, in all but fairy-tales, pretty much impossible; and thoroughly ‘Christianizing’ an entire complex, hierarchical civilization that had been in business for millennia … would fall into the realm of ‘not today’, without a doubt.

And it doesn’t take too long before insignificant particulars migrate from ‘telling the beads’ to Charity and Justice and such things. And Truth, as all knoweth full well, goes out the frakking door when diplomacy is ‘on the table’.

It's curious that the Jesuits might look down their noses at the military chaplaincy's considered soft-sell of principles in order to retain 'access' and for the abstract but strategic 'greater good', when that Order, even in its heyday now long past, did precisely that in its work on the foreign missions. And, more recently, I recall reading somewhere that Jesuits were the major players in helping Teddy Kennedy 'see' that one could be a good Catholic and be pro-abortion back there in the 1970s. The Jesuits and the military chaplainry are - wheeee! - 'sisters under the skin'. It's sobering to realize just what can be politely locked away if you're doing it in so good a cause as 'the greater glory of God'. The fate of Cardinal Wolsey and the more recent Richard John Neuhaus (deliciously, a nemesis of the Order for being too unprincipled) should have made that clear.

‘Christianizing’ the military, even the US military, falls into that latter category a whole lot more than any of Us might care to imagine. More and more of the younger troops, especially in these troubled economic times, have been raised in not-overly-churched situations. And the senior officers are now doubly ensnared. In the first place, military business is a tough and lethal business when you get right down to exercising lethal force. It’s not easy to follow the Golden Rule just in the nature of things.

But in the second place, although the military is bound to take its orders from the civilian Executive Branch (and in some ways from a Gongress that has pretty much abdicated any real responsibility), that Executive, in this day and age, has become somewhat aggressive. Nor is it only a ‘Bush’ problem or a Republican problem: an invasion ‘of the Left’, for ‘humanitarian’ purposes or to ‘save the children’ or ‘help women’ is going to wind up doing as lethal a job of shooting as an invasion for ‘imperialistic’ purposes. (Although I suppose a good case can be made that ‘humanitarian’ invasion is simply a ‘humanitarian’ imperialism, as opposed to the ‘nationalist-economic’ imperialism of the Right. In either case, and especially if both cases are in play, then I wouldn’t expect things to get too much better in a new Administration.) We are becoming a Reich, simultaneously ‘humanitarian’ and ‘nationalist’, simultaneously’ humane’ and invasive, simultaneously ‘sensitive’ and ‘patriotic’ as those words are currently bandied about.

That being the case, chaplains are now in the unenviable position of being – as it were – Reichspriests, and the good bishop himself a Reichsbishop. Ach.

The bishop then goes on to relate how, in the matter of protesting partial-birth abortion legislation, he was advised by Navy lawyers (the JAGs) that chaplains could not protest in uniform, since they were commissioned officers (as if they would be immune from consequences if they protested in slacks and Hawaiian shirts). But, he reports, he told them that “once they put on their vestments they represented the church [sic], and all the faithful had a constitutional right to hear what other Catholics were being told”. As if it would not be ‘noted’ what they preached, and such ‘word’ would wind up in the ‘invisible file’, that vast miasmic layer of opinion, truth, half-truth, factoid and ‘scuttlebutt’ that hangs over any Service, influencing who gets promoted and who doesn’t. A ‘prophetic’ military ministry would be a very brief one indeed.

The bishop then relates – in best ‘ecumenical’ form – that in the 1970s the senior chaplain at the Naval Academy, future Cardinal John O’Connor – threatened to “pull out all the chaplains” if the orders for a black Baptist chaplain’s assignment to the Academy were revoked. And they weren’t. Of course, O’Connor was shrewd enough to be surfing a national wave that the Navy brass of the era were sufficiently fuddy-duddy to be opposing; it helps a lot to be standing up to ‘power’ when the national government is on your side and your immediate bosses were such blockheads as to take up a position on the low ground.

But in all these cases, the military chaplains – and the ecclesiastical superiors who oversee them – are at best able to make a small difference here or there. No chaplain – Catholic or otherwise – was able to prevent the abomination of preventive war that was Iraq; no chaplain – Catholic or otherwise – was able to stop Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. Indeed, during the Fundamentalist Ascendancy, it can only be prudently presumed that the psychologists on the torture-teams and the JAGs (with some few very honorable exceptions) who went along with the torture were joined by a chaplainry far too given over to ‘the powers that be that are of God’ and of a militarism and outright jingoism that lubricated the skids along which the entire abomination has rolled these many years.

It’s anybody’s guess how much ‘truth’ has been suppressed in favor of maintaining ‘access’; a strategy that has utterly undone the American media and ‘the press’ (and ultimately did not serve the ‘Jesuit’ approach in 16th-century China and Japan).

One wonders what happened back in the days when Constantine suddenly made the Empire ‘Christian’ overnight. Did the legions do ‘their thing’ more charitably? Was it a kinder and gentler Empire?

One also recalls that in World War 1, famously, French and German bishops were both busily blessing their troops, as were Orthodox clergy to the vast, already-doomed Russian formations. Individual acts of true priestly integrity and ministry may have been – doubtless were – performed on all sides. But the war came, and went on, and ground out millions of soldiers’ lives before the nations finally called a halt. At its conclusion, no high-ranking prelate emerged as having played a great role in stopping it.

It seems an interesting coincidence to me that just as the Vatican report on homosexuality in American seminaries is (finally) being released, there is this small but steady trickle of articles about Catholic military chaplains and that special archdiocese – hitherto so reticent – that oversees the military ministry. The prelate who conducted that investigation – or review – of American seminaries was the same fellow who up until recently was the archbishop of that military archdiocese. He conducted his review, submitted his report some years ago; it was promptly sat upon, and he was promptly given a promotion to head the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Rome then appointed an American with lots of ‘Roman’ experience to run the military archdiocese. Wheels within wheels, and We shall see what We shall see.

But the good bishop – this Estabrook – is too clever by half, from the text of the article.

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Blogger David said...

You are on to an important insight. The church has always tried to inculturate its message: first as a minority oriental sect trying to reach the Hellenized Jewish diaspora, then all of pagan society itself. To this end, Paul squared-off against Sts. Peter and James the brother of Jesus.

Aquinas appropriated the binary categories of the Attic Philosopher. People involved in this work usually wind-up on the Index at first like Ricci, the China Rites Jebs, DiNobili in India - indeed Paul and the Dumb Ox himself.

Jesuits like Teilhard, Sobrino, Phan, Haight, Haught et al suffered - some even as we speak - for trying to accommodate the culturally bound 'magisterium' to post Enlightenment categories.

It takes some getting used to for the kenotic Christ to be explored as the Greek Logos and later expressed as an analogue of the Tao or the endpoint of evolution but it happens eventually for pastoral reasons and the faith is richer for it.

JPII warned against footsie with Marxism but B16 recently ordered the Chinese Patriotic Catholics and the underground Church (with 24 bishops and priests still in prison) to end their enmity and accommodate each other to form a single entity to better serve several million mainland Chinese Catholics.

Jesuits have been at the forefront of all these endeavors. The key is to foster interreligious dialogue without letting the faith become a tool of wealth and power. From the time of the Sadducees, Christians - Jesuits in particular - haven't always struck the right balance but the effort to do so is a worthy one until fame, money and power become primary motives for the accommodation.

Jewish Christians like the Sadducees disappear from history at the same time as the Temple did (70AD) because they got too close to the flame of ephemeral institutional power and went down with the ship. Islamophobic, apocalyptic, Zionist Christians of the imperial neocon tendency await a similar fate.

11:14 AM  

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