Catholics take stock of shutdown aftereffects

When the federal government shutdown put a halt to nonessential services Oct. 1, Catholic Masses and other ministries on some military bases around the world were among them. Catholic chapels operated by priests who are civilian contractors — not active-duty military chaplains — were closed for the duration of the 16-day shutdown.

Except, that is, for the Catholic chapel at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia, where Father Ray Leonard is the contracted civilian chaplain. After filing a lawsuit alleging that canceling Catholic Masses was a violation of the First Amendment rights of Catholics on the base, Father Leonard was advised that he could begin services again a day before the shutdown ended.

Religious rights

But Father Leonard and Fred Naylor, a military veteran who belongs to the Catholic community at the base, are continuing to pursue the lawsuit, because the deal to end the federal shutdown ends in Jan. 15, meaning the whole thing could happen all over again, and the government did not acknowledge the right of Catholics to participate in Mass.

The suit was filed Oct. 14 with the help of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, after Father Leonard volunteered to continue to serve his community of 300 families without pay and was told he would be subject to arrest if he did so. Protestant religious services, which are conducted by active-duty military chaplains, continued without interruption. However, there are not enough active-duty Catholic chaplains to serve all of the Catholics in the military, which is estimated to be 25 percent Catholic, so the military hires civilian priests.

Father Leonard said the Catholic chapel functions like a parish, with baptisms, marriage preparation and weddings and a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program. The first weekend of the shutdown, there was a special blessing of animals planned in observance of the Oct. 4 feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and a cookout, as well as the Saturday vigil and Sunday morning Masses.

“That was all gone,” Father Leonard told Our Sunday Visitor.

Now he is hoping for a federal judge to rule that Catholics can have Mass on base even during a shutdown, because many cannot leave the base to get to Mass in a nearby town. At Kings Bay, the town of St. Marys, where the nearest Catholic parish is located, is 16 miles away, and many service members do not have cars. Other bases, including some in Japan, might not have a nearby parish at all.

“Participating in the Eucharist is a requirement of our faith,” Father Leonard said. “By not allowing Masses, they are not allowing Catholics to practice their Faith.”

Effects on the poor

Meanwhile, bishops and leaders of Catholic ministries around the country have taken a deep breath since the reopening of federal government services and started to take stock of the effects of a shutdown — and what the effects of another shutdown might be.

One thing that became eminently clear was that the shutdown had a disproportionate effect on people who are poor, because they rely more on government services.

“The shutdown has had a widespread impact on many people, especially the poor, who suffered for lack of basic services during the period,” Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a statement. “With the government now open, beneficiaries of government services, particularly the elderly and children, can hope to resume a normal life with a safety net securely in place.”

Poor people also bore the brunt of mandatory across-the-board federal spending cuts that went into effect earlier this year — the sequester — and the bishops are urging Congress to replace those cuts with “a responsible budget that provides adequate funding for anti-poverty programs,” according to the USCCB statement. A second year of sequestration officially begins Jan. 15, the same day the current Continuing Resolution funding the government expires, with potentially more furloughs as a result. The government hits its next debt ceiling Feb. 7.

Service concerns, delays

Catholic Charities USA reported that its agencies were being affected in at least two ways: food pantries, especially in areas that have a large federal government workforce, started seeing increased demand within days of the federal shutdown, as workers contemplated the reality of going weeks without a paycheck and the ongoing need to feed their families; and programs that are run with the help of federal funding were in danger of being shut down as soon as the money already received ran out.

Many of Catholic Charities USA’s 170 member agencies have programs funded partially by federal grants, or cooperate in delivering federal programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While SNAP benefits, sometimes called “food stamps,” were to continue during the shutdown, many administrative functions, such as processing applications, were affected.

Michael Burrus, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., bluntly said: The “impact of a government shutdown on Catholic Charities, our staff, our programs and, most importantly, the clients we serve, is real.”

Burrus’ agency was able to keep the doors to its programs, including a shelter for abused women and their children and a foster grandparent program, open during the 16-day shutdown, but he warned his staff that the agency would not be able to pay for them indefinitely without promised grant money coming in.

Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said other diocesan Catholic Charities agencies reported similar consequences of the shutdown. In Tallahassee, Fla., furloughed workers came to Catholic Charities agencies in need, their lost pay putting their family at risk of going hungry. In southern Nevada, seniors worried that they would lose the food and social life they have grown to count on through the Meals on Wheels program. And in Lubbock, Texas, a program for runaway youth was in jeopardy when grant-funded positions went on hiatus.

In an attempt to avoid a repeat of the shutdown, a joint Senate/House committee currently is meeting to try to find common ground on spending.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.