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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Catholic chaplains, however, continue to fight the perception that all chaplains are capable of fully ministering to troops regardless of their denomination. Or, as Broglio's predecessor put it, "a chaplain, is a chaplain, is a chaplain."

Officials within the Catholic church point to the unique tasks only a Catholic chaplain can perform to dispute this mentality. Most Rev. Edwin O'Brien wrote in the Catholic Review after leaving his position in the Military Services archdiocese about his frustration over this notion that any chaplain can accommodate the needs of any service member, regardless of faith.

"In other words, it makes no difference what religious needs you have as long as there is a chaplain of any denomination nearby. For Catholics, this is unacceptable," O'Brien wrote in 2010.

Broglio says this "unfortunate mantra" reflects a lack of understanding for the specificity that a Catholic priest brings to his ministry. There are still some in the chaplain corps who do not understand this unique relationship, he says, though a majority understand the difference.

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By the Numbers

"We could use an additional 200 priests today. We know that isn't going to happen," says Lt. Col. Rajmund Kopec, an Army chaplain who previously deployed with the 101st Airborne Division to Iraq as a battalion chaplain. He was one of only three priests in the whole division, and was responsible for a region roughly the size of Pennsylvania.

"What it means is we have to be a little more creative with the resources we have," he says. Kopec, currently working within the Army's Office of the Chief of Chaplains at the Pentagon, is responsible for helping place priests at military facilities worldwide to ensure they are reaching the maximum amount of troops.

Chaplains' responsibilities include not only to perform services, says Kopec. A chaplain must also have the savvy to know the full extent of religious resources and, for example, link up a particular troop with another chaplain elsewhere who might be able to perform a specific role.

All military chaplains must also balance religious responsibilities with that of a staff officer, particularly when deployed to a warzone. A chaplain assigned to a unit must coordinate with the commanding officer and plan for logistics and travel, as well as battlefield situational awareness to ensure he isn't putting himself or others in unnecessary danger.

"It's a constant balancing act of trying to find the balance between, 'What do I need to do as a minister?' and 'What do I need to do as a staff officer?' and be good at both," say Kopec. "You're always striving for that type of balance, where you take care of your soldiers. As a battalion chaplain, you don't care if they're religious or not – you're responsible for their well-being."

Military chaplains are charged with tending to the morale and welfare of all troops, regardless of their religious denomination or if they believe in God at all.

"When sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen answer the call to serve, they are ordered away from their home communities and beyond the reach of their own clergy," says Navy Chaplain Capt. Michael Parisi, the executive assistant to the Chief of Navy Chaplains.

"[Chaplains] offer service members and families complete confidentiality as they process what they've been through in multiple deployments and combat tours," he said in an email to U.S. News. "We regard this complete confidentiality as a sacred trust. Chaplains also help service members and family members find care from partners such as counselors and medical and behavioral health professionals."

Kopec says some of his most profound conversations and interactions occur with troops who are not Catholics, and even some who are atheist.

Once while stationed with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Carson, Colo., Kopec was working late and went outside to smoke a cigarette. He met a fellow soldier at the smoke pit behind his office who was working a late shift on security duty. For about 20 minutes they shared jokes, smoked cigarettes and talked. Kopec says it was nothing unusual to him at the time, but he would later learn of its profound effect.