A Department of Defense spokesman refused to say whether the agency would restrict a civilian Catholic priest from administering last rites to a dying service member on a military base.
“I feel no particular compulsion to answer outlandish, hypothetical questions in a yes/no fashion nor does the Department, generally, answer hypotheticals at all,” Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in an email according to CNS News.
“Further, it is a matter of long standing Department policy to not address matters that are currently under active litigation,” Breasseale added.
Roman Catholic priests have been taking up the slack left by an inadequate number of active-duty Catholic chaplains, an issue made clear since the Oct. 1 government shutdown. Within days, civilian priests were on notice they would be barred from the military bases they served and would even be subject to arrest if they made any attempt to perform their duties.
The priests offer their services for free, and still, they’re refused.
Since the shutdown, bases that had relied on civilian contract priests to celebrate mass and administer the sacraments have gone without for two weeks. So Father Ray Leonard filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense, claiming the agency’s actions violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
“Father Leonard wishes to continue practicing his faith and ministering to his faith community free of charge on the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay during the government shut-down, but has been told that he is subject to arrest if he does so,” the lawsuit, filed by the Thomas More Law Center, said.
“With no end in sight to the federal government shutdown, dozens of Catholic priests under contract with the United States military remain on furlough, denied access to the bases and military populations they serve,” the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services said in a statement issued Friday.
“Additionally, unless the issue is resolved, Confessions, Baptisms and any other sacraments celebrated by furloughed priests will be denied for the second week in a row,” said the archdiocese. “As many as 50 U.S. military installations around the world are affected.”
The possibility that last rites may be denied makes the issue all the more problematic. Last rites in the Roman Catholic Church are the final opportunity one has to put his spiritual affairs in order before death. Last rites are not a sacrament, but they comprise parts of these three sacraments:
Extreme unction, the anointing of the sick
Penance, the repentance of one’s sins, and
Viaticum, the taking of the Eucharist (Holy Communion).
Even a prisoner condemned to death is given his last wish, whether it be a favored meal or a last cigarette.
I can’t confess to being a huge fan of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., but I actually stood up and cheered during his 2008 presidential bid during a debate, when the he was asked, “When does life begin?”
Then-Sen. Barack Obama went through a long, convoluted explanation that never really answered the question. McCain simply said, “Life begins at conception.” Period. No waffling, no apologies. Whether you agreed with him or not, you had to appreciate his convictions.
When the question of offering last rites to service members was posed to Breasseale, Hagel’s spokesman, he said the Defense Department doesn’t deal in hypotheticals. The agency does engage in hypotheticals — often outlandish ones — every time it engages in war games.
The correct answer should have been: “Yes. We would never deny one of our nation’s heroes his dying wish.”