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Navy Reverses Suspension of Contract Priests, But Future Remains Uncertain

On Aug. 20, Vice Adm. Yancy Lindsey, Commander, Navy Installations Command, announced that “religious services will be cut at bases where those services are readily available in the surrounding community outside the base” in order to “reduce redundancies and capture efficiencies” as part of a national realignment. Commander, Navy Installations Command, commonly referred to as CNIC, is responsible for the Navy’s religious programs as it ties in with CNIC’s mission areas: sustaining the fleet, enabling the fighter, and supporting the family.

After public outcry from elected officials and Catholic service members affected by the religious service cuts, the decision was reversed on Sep. 9 at the behest of the Commander-in-Chief. Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, commander Navy Region Southwest, said in a public statement, “Contrary to previous discussions, this year we will continue contracted religious ministry programs and services similar to what we’ve had in place previously. We will also continue to assess how best to meet the needs of our sailors and their families throughout the region.” It seems that the Navy will not carry out the planned cuts affecting religious services this year but may do so in the future. If the decision had not been reversed, what detrimental impacts would the cuts have made on the Roman Catholic faith community in the naval service, and in reverse, what would its effects be on the service itself?

Due to the continual shrinkage of active duty Catholic chaplains serving in the Navy, now at 48, the Navy, in times past, hired local parish priests, also known as contract priests, to administer the sacraments at bases which had no assigned Catholic chaplains. This flexible relationship allowed Catholic sailors and their families to receive the sacraments and form a unique community, where service to God and country established a one-of-a-kind association among its parishioners. Young Catholic sailors, living in the base barracks with no means of transportation, were grateful for the presence of on-base religious services. For those sailors who desired to attend daily Mass during their hour-long lunch breaks, this was a possibility since the commute was much shorter than that to a church, off base. This all would have been a mere distant memory if the Navy ceased its contracts with civilian Catholic priests.

As reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune on Sep. 5, the Navy bases in the San Diego area were the first among possibly many more installations affected by the initial decision. Fr. Jose Pimentel, who has served sailors stationed at Naval Base Coronado and North Island Naval Air Station for eight years, was “notified on Aug. 19 that the Navy will not exercise the final two years of his contract.” Richard Haas, a retired Navy Captain and parishioner at the Coronado chapel for thirty years, in a statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune, said, “It’s part of being in the military – the camaraderie. To me it’s synonymous, you all have a common thread – you served in the military.”

The Navy’s categorization of on-base religious services as redundant and inefficient, where off-base services are available, exposed the Navy hierarchy’s disregard for the Catholic faith and the exercise of service members’ First Amendment rights. In response to the announcement, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Military Services stated, “The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, has received many messages and is well aware of the items published about the decision by the US Navy regarding the pastoral care of Catholics at Naval Base Coronado, NSA Monterey, NB Ventura County—all of which are currently served by civilian Catholic priests willing and able to continue their ministry.”

“For some time now, Archbishop Timothy Broglio has been engaged with the Navy Chief of Chaplains and has been trying to meet with those responsible for this decision. The savings from cancelling these contracts amounts to $250,000.00 (approximately 0.000156% of the Navy budget). It is difficult to fathom how the First Amendment rights of the largest faith group in the Navy can be compromised for such an insignificant sum. The Archbishop hopes that the Navy will reconsider the decision.”

Frédéric Bastiat, in his seminal essay That Which Is Seen and That Which is Not Seen, wrote, “In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause – it is seen. The others unfold in succession – they are not seen: it is well for us if they are foreseen.” Bastiat predicted that “it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse.”

As noted by His Excellency, the Navy would have saved approximately $250,000 by canceling the contracts of civilian Catholic priests. In comparison, a single Tomahawk cruise missile costs the American taxpayers an estimated $1.4 million. On-base grocery stores, gyms, and barbershops would continue to receive funding despite the existence of these establishments, off-base. If we follow the logic presented by Bastiat, the frugal savings may have afforded the Navy to provide more funding to other programs under the purview of CNIC; but what were the unseen consequences that the hierarchy chose not to foresee?

Service members would have come to the understanding that practicing one’s religious faith is not a priority; especially given that they would have fewer options of exercising their faith. Considering that religious practice is deemed non-essential, the moral life would naturally fall to the wayside as well. Legal cases involving misconduct and violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice would increase within the ranks. Moreover, contrary to enlightened public opinion, absent religion, there is no universal consensus of a common moral creed among a body politic. Each man is the author of his own moral code: what is right or wrong; what is just or unjust. In an institution where order, discipline, and strict adherence to a moral code is necessary for mission success, such moral confusion would inevitably lead to mission failure.

Catholics should not be naive and believe that the Navy will cease their efforts to suspend contracts with civilian Catholic priests, even if the initial cost-cutting effort was temporarily reversed by the direct influence of the Commander-in-Chief. With much of the national budget set to tackle the enlarged debt, now valued at $26 trillion due to COVID-19 government spending, and welfare programs that will only increase in costs with Baby Boomers set to retire over the next several years, the military’s budget will continue to diminish and thus, “redundant” programs will inevitably be targeted for cuts again on an annual basis.

The Navy leadership ought to reconsider the priceless value of civilian Catholic priests serving our sailors and take into account the aforementioned unseen consequences of a reality where such priests do not exist. If not, the institution will face the consequential suffering of their actions as foreseen by Bastiat:

“This explains the fatally grievous condition of mankind. Ignorance surrounds its cradle: then its actions are determined by their first consequences, the only ones which, in its first stage, it can see. It is only in the long run that it learns to take account of the others. It has to learn this lesson from two very different masters – experience and foresight. Experience teaches effectually, but brutally. It makes us acquainted with all the effects of an action, by causing us to feel them; and we cannot fail to finish by knowing that fire burns, if we have burned ourselves.”




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