Journal issue: Religion, State and Society 39, no. 1 (March 2011). The Changing Nature of Military Chaplaincy

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2011

Journal issue: Religion, State and Society 39, no. 1 (March 2011). The Changing Nature of Military Chaplaincy.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

This whole issue is devoted to the topic: The Changing Nature of Military Chaplaincy. Ever since the days of Emperor Constantine, Christian clergy have been engaged with armies, usually as chaplains, providing pastoral care of the soldiers, raising morale, offering spiritual nourishment and often burying the dead. This task, however, has always presented major moral problems, when chaplains appear to be justifying violence and hatred of the enemy, in strong contrast to the Christian Gospel of love. How this dilemma has been faced over the centuries is the subject of the six articles in this issue of the above journal, each of which has a useful bibliography attached. These describe military chaplaincies in a variety of historical and geographical settings, and reflect on the tensions, challenges and benefits that the system has engendered and still continues to bring. Despite the above title, the most noteworthy aspect is actually on the continuity of the issues involved.

David Bachrachs’ article on the wars in Germany in the tenth and eleventh centuries depicts chaplains developing the same kind of spiritual support for secular warfare as prevailed until the twentieth century. Rulers of all kinds have considered the mobilization of such resources by the clergy to be a vital prerequisite for victory But as Oliver Rafferty shows in his account of Catholic chaplains in the British forces in the First World War, the clergy on both sides preached imminent victory for their armies, championed mutually incompatible claims that God was on their side, and even legitimized mass slaughter. Such steps only discredited the office of military chaplaincy, often irreparably.

The moral dilemmas faced by chaplains in Hitler’s armies in the Second World War, as Doris Bergen has shown, were even more acute. They worked hard to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their officers and men. But in so doing they also legitimized the Nazi war aims and thereby sanctioned even the more atrocious war crimes. As Bergen noted, the chaplains contributed to the “spiritual numbing” of the Third Reich. Angelika Dörfler-Dierken’s examination of the post-1945 Lutheran chaplaincies in the reconstituted West German armed forces is therefore valuable in pointing to the changes made. Today the German Protestant Church expects chaplains to be the moral conscience of the army. They no longer hold military rank, hence are not compromised in advance. Their role is to sharpen the consciences of individual soldiers and to question whether the military operations are actually conducive to peace or whether they only add to the spiral of violence. Such a prophetic ministry, promoting the church’s peace ethic, may easily cause conflict with both the military leaders and civilian politicians. How to maintain such a stance in war-like situations, such as Afghanistan, remains to be seen.

In the case of Canada, as Joanne Rennick shows, the military chaplaincy used to be a bastion of Caucasian, male, predominantly Christian conservatism. But after 1945 drastic changes took place, both in the armed forces and demographically in the wider population. The effects of secularization and immigration, as well as the deliberate inculcation of the idea of Canada as a nation of peacekeepers, altered the armed forces’ understanding of their mission, and hence of the role of chaplains. Today chaplains face increasing pluralism among their charges, deinstitutionalized beliefs and a loss of moral consensus. So too chaplains are now obliged by law to accept a wider set of values and lifestyles, which makes conventional forms of religious ministry more difficult. Yet, as elsewhere, chaplains continue to meet the basic needs of military personnel and offer their pastoral services.

Military chaplains in Afghanistan, where Canada also had its share of troops, have faced momentous challenges, as is made clear in the final article by Gutkowski and Wilkes. Chaplains have often had to act as interpreters for soldiers facing a religious “frontier” in a majority Muslim country, where language and cultural barriers, let alone opposition to the foreign military presence, make for almost insuperable hurdles. Christian military chaplains require special training in cultural sensitivity to encounter Muslim populations at the same time as carrying out their traditional roles of providing for the support and pastoral guidance of their own troops.

As these articles show, the ethical and religious challenges of today are not so very different from those of earlier years. But the today’s extra range of encounters, both geographical and ideological, have only made the chaplains’ opportunities for service more demanding as they seek to influence the hearts and minds not only of their soldiers but of the local populations as well. The danger still exists that the chaplains’ religious tasks will be instrumentalized by the military commanders for tactical or propaganda purposes. On the other hand, their good intentions may easily be misconstrued. Using the chaplains’ religious authority to persuade locals of the good intentions of international forces, as in Iraq, Vietnam, or Afghanistan, may lead to ambiguous results. But such problems are not new. We can be grateful to the editors of Religion, State and Society for providing this comprehensive look at the contemporary perceptions of the issues connected with military chaplaincies.