If any group of Americans could reasonably be expected, and trusted, to conduct themselves in ways that minimize the danger of spreading infection during public worship, you might think that would be the men and women of the U.S. armed forces. They’re used to obeying orders, including those that involve appropriate personal protection and maintaining safe distances. And it’s likely that, from a public-health point of view, no religious community in the United States has done more to safely recommence worship with congregations than the Catholic Church.
Word of this has not, it seems, reached the high echelons of the United States Navy, for many naval commands recently issued orders prohibiting the participation of Navy personnel in religious services off base. Both enlisted personnel and officers are required to sign affidavits that they have received those orders and that they know they will be held accountable for disobeying them. Checks have been instituted to ensure compliance, and Big Brother is watching: One Catholic naval aviator who attended an off-base Mass was asked if he had done so, answered honestly, and was immediately quarantined, his naval future in jeopardy.
Weirdly, these orders were also extended to “civilian personnel, including families,” who were “discouraged from” attending indoor church services. As Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, pointed out in an Independence Day weekend statement, this was simply bizarre: “Of course, the Navy cannot legally prohibit family members from frequenting religious services off base. Those family members return home where the military member lives. What is the protective effect of the prohibition for the Navy personnel? Zero.”
The prohibition on naval personnel attending religious services off base, which seems to rest on an assumption of probable irresponsibility by men and women who are otherwise assumed to be responsible in handling nuclear-powered ships, high-performance aircraft, and all manner of lethal weapons, strikes at every believer in the Navy. It has, however, a particularly harsh effect on Catholics. Navy parsimony has pared religious-affairs budgets to the bone. Three on-base Catholic chapels at West Coast naval installations are closing, which will intensify an already serious problem: For many Navy Catholics, on-base Masses are simply not available, and the only recourse is to attend Mass off base. Now these patriots, sworn to protect the Constitution with their lives if necessary, are being forbidden to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, on pain of disciplinary action or an end to their service careers.
Something is wrong here. Archbishop Broglio tried to get the Navy Chief of Chaplains Office to intervene, but, as he put it delicately in his statement, “they have been unable to offer any relief from these provisions.” Worse, the archbishop’s effort to contact the chief of naval operations, Admiral Michael M. Gilday, has not even received the courtesy of an acknowledgment. That is, at best, an act of disrespect to a dedicated pastor trying to help those under his pastoral care.
Everyone with any sense recognizes that, as the country tries to reopen under very difficult conditions, some people have behaved stupidly, imagining that their defiance of commonsense precautions is some sort of assertion or reaffirmation of freedom. But freedom, as Lord Acton and others insisted, is a matter not of doing what we like but of having the right to do what we ought. Navy personnel freely surrender certain personal liberties for the good of the service and the nation, as they willingly put up with inconveniences and restrictions that would grate at their fellow citizens. But the men and women of the U.S. Navy do not forswear their right to worship when they accept an officer’s commission or enlist. Moreover, the discipline that naval personnel would likely display in participating in worship in ways that do not jeopardize the health of others might be a salutary example to less disciplined fellow citizens.
Admiral Gilday should pick up the phone and call Archbishop Broglio. Then he should order all commands to do what a few have had the common sense to do already: rescind these inappropriate orders and restore to the men and women of the U.S. Navy their religious freedom. I believe they can be trusted to exercise it prudently; so should those who command them.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His new book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, has just been published by Ignatius Press.