Chaplains get guidance on ministry to same-sex couples

In October 1949 the newly established U.S. Department of Defense issued a policy statement for all branches of the military saying in part, “Prompt separation of known homosexuals from the armed forces is mandatory.”

In June 2013, reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning a law that barred federal recognition of same-sex unions as marriages, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his department would give the same benefits to “all military spouses — regardless of sexual orientation — as soon as possible.” What a difference 63-plus years make. Those six decades between 1949 and 2013 had witnessed a gay rights revolution in the military as in other sectors of American life.

Guidance for chaplains

Military chaplains have inevitably been affected. In response to the Supreme Court decision and the policy shift announced by Hagel, the archbishop who heads the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, in September sent Catholic chaplains new ground rules.

Citing a need to re-emphasize “what is clearly held by the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio began his compendium of do’s and don’ts like this: “No Catholic priest or deacon may be forced by any authority to witness or bless the union of couples of the same gender.”

Titled “Renewed Fidelity in Favor of Evangelization” and directed to chaplains serving the armed forces, Veterans Administration hospitals and the U.S. Foreign Service, the document briefly explains how priests and deacons should handle situations involving same-sex spouses. A separate section contains guidance for Catholics in command positions (see sidebar).

Archbishop Broglio expressed thanks to Congress for legislation that took effect earlier this year which gives chaplains conscience protection against coercion to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Catholic chaplains on active duty with the armed forces now number 235 out of a total of 2,884 chaplains. Another 2,375 chaplains are in the reserves. According to Archbishop Broglio, same-sex couples make up less than one half of 1 percent of military married couples. “While every individual is important, such a small group cannot be allowed to mandate policy for all,” he said.

The archbishop’s statement isn’t first set of gay marriage guidelines for chaplains of a particular religious group. In late August, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Nashville-based North American Mission Board sent that denomination’s chaplains a similar policy statement. At 439 active-duty chaplains, Southern Baptists are the largest contingent of any church.

Policy shift

Historically, the practice of the U.S. armed forces from the start until the recent past has been to exclude known homosexuals, either by refusing to admit them to service or discharging them if their sexual orientation became known. The Department of Defense statement of 1949 codified that policy and extended it uniformly to all branches of the military.

The policy remained in place from 1949 to 1993. A 1982 Defense Department regulation intended to withstand court tests stated its rationale like this: “The presence of such members [gay service personnel] adversely affects the ability of the armed forces to maintain discipline, good order, and morale.”

Meanwhile, though, the gay rights revolution was gathering steam and becoming a political force that the military, along with other institutions of American society, needed to reckon with.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton promised to lift the ban on gays in the military. As president, he had to settle the next year for congressional approval of a policy popularly known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In practice, that meant gay service members who kept their sexual orientation to themselves could serve undisturbed.

The arrival on the scene of the gay-friendly administration of Barack Obama provided fresh impetus to efforts to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Legislation for that purpose was enacted in 2010 by Congress and signed into law by President Obama that December.

“No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love,” the president said.

Since then, agitation has continued for same-sex spouses of gay and lesbian service members to receive treatment equal to that of spouses in traditional marriages. The Supreme Court’s decision last June striking down the Defense of Marriage Act overturned the only significant legal obstacle to that.

The benefits thus made available to partners in same-sex military marriages include health care coverage, housing allowances, military identification cards and survivor benefits. The Defense Department said in August that the benefits were available retroactively to June 26, the date of the Supreme Court ruling.

Details of guidelines

Archbishop Broglio’s document does not go into either the history of gays in the military or the case against same-sex marriage — a subject he treated in another statement earlier this year. Regarding Church teaching, it cites as its authority the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Besides barring priests and deacons from officiating at same-sex wedding ceremonies, the statement specifically rules out their participation in married couple retreats open to same-sex couples, and instructs them to send a non-Catholic in a same-sex relationship who seeks counseling to “a chaplain who is able to assist” while encouraging a Catholic “to live by the teaching of the Gospel.”

The guidelines say chaplains’ participation in retirement, change of command and promotion ceremonies is possible “as long as the priest is not required to acknowledge or approve of” a same-sex spouse. In the case of funerals, Catholic chaplains should avoid situations that appear to suggest Church approval of a same-sex union. Persons known to be in a “sinful relation” are excluded from positions like lector, extraordinary minister of holy Communion, altar server, catechist and pastoral council member. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.