Navy cancels religious-service contracts — leaving Catholics in the lurch

Jesus saves … but the US Navy cuts. In a strange budget maneuver, the Navy has decided to end its contracts with outside ministries to provide religious services to its officers and enlisted personnel, relying instead entirely on its chaplain corps. That has the material effect of curtailing access to Catholic Masses, a point noticed in San Diego by the Union-Tribune. It appears that the policy is nationwide, however:

Catholic Masses at San Diego-area Navy bases have ended because the Navy, in what it says is a cost-cutting move, has declined to renew its contracts with Catholic priests, and there are not enough Catholic chaplains on active duty to fill the void.

Protestant services on bases, which are led by active duty chaplains, will continue, said Brian O’Rourke, a Navy Region Southwest spokesman.

The changes to the Navy’s religious ministries are part of a national realignment announced on Aug. 20. It is unclear how many priests this will affect. …

While the Navy has an active duty component of clergy — the Chaplain Corps — the number of Catholic priests among them is small, reflecting a worldwide shortage of Catholic priests. To make up for that shortage, the service contracted with priests to lead Catholic services on U.S. bases.

Those contracts are the ones being canceled.

The net effect is that Catholics on Navy bases in the US no longer have access to on-base Mass. (Overseas bases and ships at sea will continue to have Catholic Mass.) That matters, Navy personnel say, because that gave them a sense of heightened community that simply going out to off-base parishes won’t provide. The disparity between access to religious services will also undermine morale and the sense of broader community on naval bases, as Catholics will certainly see this as differential treatment.

One priest whose contract got canceled plans to raise those issues more publicly:

“One issue is discrimination (and) another is the violation of your right to practice your religion,” Rev. Jose Pimentel, a priest who has led services at Naval Base Coronado and Naval Air Station North Island for eight years, said when reached by phone Friday. Pimentel was notified Aug. 19 that the Navy would not exercise the final two years of his contract, citing “funding constraints.”

“It’s hard to quantify what I do,” Pimentel said, saying he’s done everything from performing weddings and baptisms to counseling families of service members who died by suicide. “I’m a 25-year veteran of the Navy and Air Force, so I can provide a certain level of support they wouldn’t get from the civilian side.”

The discrimination tack will be a hard sell legally. In terms of public relations, though, it’s likely to be a very effective argument. Pimentel alone had a congregation on base that he estimated as between 250-400 people a week, who will not be served fully by the Navy’s chaplain corps of Protestants and other faith ministers. It’s true that Catholic chaplains are tough to get, in large part because of a priest shortage in the US, but that doesn’t mitigate the Navy’s role in tending to the religious life of its personnel in an equal manner. Contracts with local parishes to get them to extend their already-stretched-thin priest resources to serve the Navy’s needs makes sense, even from a budgetary standpoint — unless the Navy thinks it’s cheaper to replace the Catholics who decide not to re-enlist after cutting off their access to on-base Masses.

The Navy insists that this is nothing more than a cost-saving decision. If so, it’s a strange place to look for budget savings. How much will the Navy save by cutting these contracts? It looks a little bit like the Pentagon’s strange and now rescinded decision to save $15 million a year by closing Stars And Stripes — pennywise and pound foolish. The damage to morale alone will outweigh the paltry amount that the Navy will end up saving in its nine-figure budget.

Maybe they could do better by buying three fewer hammers a year! I kid, I kid

One has to suspect that Donald Trump might intervene in this decision, as he did with Stars and Stripes. The campaign is worried about the Catholic vote already in this election, and Joe Biden is already trying to leverage his Catholic identity to win more swing voters. Ordering a reversal on this policy would be an easy and nearly cost-free way of reaching out to both Catholics and the military rank and file. Let’s see if the campaign is paying attention.

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