The Catholic Crunch: Inside the Shortage of Catholic Military Priests

Troubling trends leave Catholic military chaplains short-handed as America comes home from war.

Protestant U.S. Army chaplain Brian Chepey leads prayers on Sept. 11, 2011, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
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If almost any member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were visiting Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia during the recent government shutdown, they would not have been able to attend Mass there. Nor would any other service member within a quarter of the military that identifies themselves as Roman Catholic.

The shortage of Catholic priests, or "chaplains" as the military calls its spiritual leaders, is an ongoing issue within the Department of Defense. The Pentagon still faces a lawsuit from the Thomas More Law Center after learning that the small base in Georgia had to furlough its Catholic priest because he is a contractor, while the active duty uniformed Protestant chaplains were able to continue their ministry. This is a common trend for a military with roughly 35 percent declared Protestants and a comparable percentage of chaplains, according to the latest Defense numbers. Catholics, however, make up 25 percent of all troops but only 8 percent of the chaplain corps – not enough to go around.

Catholics and the military share a tight bond. Roughly 10 percent of all Catholic priests have a military background themselves, and 20 percent come from military families. And every member of the Joint Chiefs except for Marine Corps Commandant Gen. John Amos is a practicing Catholic, according to the Archdiocese for Military Services.

As the military transitions home from more than a decade of bloody, brutal warfare, attention now turns increasingly to those who would help offer both religious and social compassion.

[READ: Defense Overturns Bans on Civilian Catholic Priests During Shutdown]

A Chaplain is a Chaplain?

"Presently the shortage has been more acute than it has been in the past," says Archbishop Timothy Broglio. He heads up the Catholic church's Military Services archdiocese, which was created by Pope John Paul II to provide spiritual support and other religious services to the U.S. Armed Forces. Catholic chaplains in the military numbered in the thousands during World War II. Now there are fewer than 240.

"That's quite a change," he says.

The main contributing factor to the shortage of chaplains within the military stems from a general drop in the number of Catholic priests worldwide. Since 1980, the priesthood has decreased by 10 to 12 percent per decade, according to a 2005 Catholic University analysis, adding the trend will likely continue. There were roughly 60,000 priests in the U.S. in 1965, compared to fewer than 40,000 today, according to Georgetown University.

The standard physical requirements of becoming a military officer further weeds out the applicant pool. A candidate has to endure as much as 14 years of school, training and real-world pastoral experience before he could join the chaplain corps.

The sea services have been hit the hardest in recruiting priests to the military. According to the archdiocese, the Army has 118 Catholic chaplains for roughly 100,000 active duty Catholic soldiers. The Air Force has about 60 for about 63,000 Catholic airmen. The Navy, however, only has 52 active Catholic priests for its roughly 107,000 Catholic sailors and Marines. (These figures are all estimates. The true number of Catholic troops is skewed by the more than 338,000 who identify themselves as "Christian - No Denominational Preference.")

"It's a significant moment," says Broglio. "They're all aware of the shortage."

The needs of civilian dioceses and religious communities also limits the number of prospective priests who will enter military service.

Catholic doctrine makes this shortage feel even more acute. Unlike the numerous Protestant denominations, only Catholic priests may perform the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, confession, marriage and ordination, as well as conducting last rites known as "anointing the sick." Many of these, particularly confirmation and marriage, require significant preparation for the participants as well. A lay person or deacon may conduct some of these services but almost always under the supervision of a priest.