Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey condemned President Joe Biden’s administration for not renewing a contract that gives a community of Franciscan priests the ability to provide pastoral care to military members and veterans receiving care at Walter Reed National Military Center.
In a letter addressed to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Smith said the decision indicated the Department of Defense was unwilling to respect the religious faith and the rights of conscience of service members.
Smith wrote that the Holy Name College Friary, the Catholic community that has provided pastoral care at Walter Reed for about twenty years, received a cease-and-desist letter on April 4. The letter was sent during Holy Week, the holiest time of the Christian liturgical year which culminates in Easter. The priests and brothers of the community were prohibited from providing any kind of religious service.
“The Catholic pastoral care contract awarded to the Franciscans of Holy Name College expired on March 31, 2023, and a new contract was awarded to Mack Global LLC, a defense contractor, self-described as ‘your one-stop procurement for janitorial supplies, industrial machinery, aggregates and raw materials,’” Smith continued. “This highlights questionable judgment by officers awarding a Catholic pastoral care contract to a for-profit company best suited to provide industrial services instead of a Catholic religious institution with a strong record of providing pastoral services.”
Walter Reed has said that service members can receive Catholic counseling or services through the current active-duty Army Catholic Chaplin. However, Smith points out that the Archdiocese for the Military Services has reported this individual is in the process of separating from the military.
“Furthermore, to require one Chaplin to serve the population one of the largest military medical centers in the world is burdensome, unreasonable, and demonstrates a lack of attention to the spiritual needs of our nation’s servicemembers undergoing medical recovery – of which spiritual care is a critical component,” said Smith.
Smith noted that the Department of Defense has denied religious exemptions requested by military members who were mandated to get the COVID-19 vaccine as part of the federal government’s response to the virus’s global outbreak in 2020.
“Coupled with the recent revelation of the FBI targeting Catholics for increased surveillance in Richmond, Virginia, and the failure of DOJ to prosecute repeated anti-Catholic vandalism at churches, this decision raises serious concerns regarding the Executive Branch’s position regarding 1st Amendment protections and invites questions regarding the Federal Government’s respect for, and protection of, the innate religious rights of Catholics in the United States,” said Smith.
The Archbishop for the Military Services, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, said it is “incomprehensible that essential pastoral care is taken away from the sick and the aged when it was so readily available.”
“This is a classic case where the adage ‘if it is not broken, do not fix it’ applies,” he said in a statement. “I fear that giving a contract to the lowest bidder overlooked the fact that the bidder cannot provide the necessary service. I earnestly hope that this disdain for the sick will be remedied at once and their First Amendment rights will be respected.”
Smith has been joined by other members of Congress, who are demanding Austin to explain the decision to order the Catholic priests and monks to stop providing pastoral care at the medical center.
“Biden didn’t just kick out the Catholic priests who have been providing religious services at Walter Reed Military Medical Center for 25 years, he picked Holy Week to do it,” tweeted Senator Marco Rubio.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services released a statement on April 7 saying the federal government’s actions violate the First Amendment and the right to freely exercise religion.
“Adequate pastoral care is not available for service members and veterans in the United States’ largest Defense Health Agency medical center either during Holy Week or beyond,” the Archdiocese wrote. “Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is one of many medical centers within the Department of Defense and Defense Health Agency whose pastoral care lies within AMS jurisdiction.”
“The refusal to provide adequate pastoral care while awarding a contract for Catholic ministry to a for-profit company that has no way of providing Catholic priests to the medical center is a glaring violation of service members’ and veterans’ Right to the Free Exercise of Religion,” the statement continued. “The lack of adequate Catholic pastoral care causes untold and irreparable harm to Catholics who are hospitalized and therefore a captive population whose religious rights the government has a constitutional duty to provide for and protect.”