Pluralism in prayer by US military chaplains

Pluralism in prayer by US military chaplains

I’m somewhat surprised by Archbishop Edwin O’Brien‘s opposition to a proposed law that would guarantee military chaplains the right to pray according to their conscience at military gatherings. O’Brien is the archbishop of the US Military Archdiocese, i.e. the head of all Catholic chaplains in the US military and pastor of all Catholic servicemen and their families.

The law would forbid anyone from preventing a chaplain from praying from his own specific religious tradition at public military gatherings. For example, if a military unit was holding a change-of-command ceremony and the unit chaplain was asked to say a prayer, he would be allowed to use a Catholic prayer if a priest, or a Jewish prayer if a rabbi, and so on.

Now O’Brien’s objection is that such a requirement could result in military commanders dropping prayers at such ceremonies rather than risk offending the PC police.

Our military is a pluralistic society that relies heavily on unit cohesion,” he wrote. “When military chaplains, who are assigned as chaplains for the entire unit, are called upon to deliver public prayer to mandatory attended gatherings, they are speaking with some form of command sanction.

“This legislation would appear to give the ‘right’ to a chaplain to decide independently to use denominational-specific prayer in any setting,” Archbishop O’Brien added. “To avoid the obvious adverse effect on unit cohesion that such activity would cause, it is entirely possible that commanders, who are ultimately responsible to protect the free exercise of religion for all their people, would decide to dispense with public prayer entirely. Our military would not be well served by this turn of events.”

Acceptable pluralistic prayers?

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  • I think Archbishop O’Brien is simply urging common sense and common courtesy, against an “in your face” approach that some more strident folks have pursued.

    When I’m praying for a group of people, and it’s not a Catholic setting, it’s not selling out if I pray a more generic Christian prayer; likewise if I pray an even more generic prayer for a group that is not Christian. These are case-by-case decisions.