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It is time for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA to consider allowing nuns to serve as U.S. military chaplains. Currently only priests, and thus only men, can serve as Catholic chaplains in the military.
The Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS) oversees Catholic chaplaincy for the United States military (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy), for the employees of the U.S. Veterans Health Administration and its patients. It also provides some ministry for American government employees serving overseas.
Nuns could fill many of the ministry needs to serve our military personnel, and add to the talent pool among military chaplains. The women who are nuns serve Christ with radical commitment, many have the educational credentials to serve as chaplains, and there are American Catholic women who want to serve both God and country. Moreover, they could help ease the current shortage of chaplains, and in particular Catholic chaplains, in the U.S. military.
Nuns serving as chaplains could be considered somewhat like physicians assistants – not performing surgery as a medical doctor would, but carrying out many other vital functions which complement the role of the surgeon.
The AMS has identified seven “core elements” of Catholic life for which chaplains are responsible. Nuns could carry out five of the seven responsibilities identified, and nuns could assist in the other two. These are:
a. Sunday, Holy Day and daily Mass.
b. Comprehensive Religious Education and Sacramental preparation, with an emphasis on youth
character formation, individual moral development, and military family cohesion and readiness.
c. Comprehensive Sacramental Ministry. This includes the sacraments of Baptism, First Eucharist,
Confirmation, Penance, Marriage and the Sacrament of the Sick
d. Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA)
e. Young Adult Ministry (Catholics Seeking Christ and other programs) focused on spiritual readiness
for active duty (18-29 yrs of age)
f. Spiritual Enrichment programs (i.e. faith formation retreats, Why Catholic?, RENEW 2000, Encounter Christ, Life Teen, Troops Encounter Christ, etc.)
g. Pastoral counseling
Nuns as chaplains could conduct: (b) religious education, (d) RCIA instruction, (e) Youth Adult Ministry, (f) Spiritual Enrichment programs, and (g) pastoral counseling.
Nuns as chaplains could assist with: (a) Mass and (c) Sacramental Ministry
In addition, nuns would be an asset in conducting military responsibilities of chaplains such as ethics training and religious-leader engagement.
This possibility of women serving in the military as chaplains in traditions which do not allow women to carry out all ritual responsibilities is not limited to Catholicism. Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women, for example, are in a similar situation. One Muslim woman, Army Reservist Lieutenant Colonel Shareda Hossein, who in her civilian career already is a Muslim Chaplain, has tried to pursue this, as covered in a 2008 Washington Post profile. The Army has proven uncooperative.
In conversations over the past few years I have repeatedly raised this possibility of nuns becoming military chaplains among a variety of military chaplains, Catholic and others, as well as with lay Catholics. The three main objections I hear strike me as unconvincing.
First I hear, “But women can’t celebrate Mass.” Of course not. This is not the issue. This objection comes from those who are not listening to what this proposal is. Also, sacramental rituals are just one part of a chaplain’s job, perhaps 10 percent. The role of female Catholic chaplains would be the other 90 percent.
Second I hear, “Oh no, all nuns are liberal!” This is factually untrue, and is has undertones and overtones of suggesting ”we don’t want women.” And what if it were true? Individual women religious and women’s religious orders in the U.S. are diverse. Let women speak for themselves about who they are.
Third I hear, “No woman would want to serve in the military as a Catholic chaplain.” In all of the cases of those who have voiced this objection to me, they tell me they have never asked women if they would want to serve. This is a chicken verses egg challenge. Is the AMS going insist on taking a position of a closed, locked door and then wait until women pound on it, or are they going to hang an “open” shingle on their door? What would the harm be? Why not say, “if you want to serve, let’s talk”? One way to crack this egg open is for any Catholic women interested in serving as a military chaplains as a nun to contact the military archdiocese here.
At least on the AMS Web site, the group claims theirs is “a flexible, creative ministry.” Opportunity knocks for them to exercise their flexibility and creativity inside the traditions of the Catholic Church. The early church welcomed educated women such as Damaris of Athens. Now the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA has an opportunity to continue this deeply rooted Catholic tradition by including women as Catholic chaplains.
Jennifer S. Bryson, Ph.D. is a Visiting Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA in the Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute.