Every now and then, bishops write letters for their priests to read to the faithful during Mass. In 1996 the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services sent a letter to its chaplains instructing them to urge their flocks to back the "Project Life Postcard Campaign" in support of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.
Father Vincent Rigdon wanted to follow this order in rites at Andrews Air Force Base. But there was a problem. Pentagon officials had issued a gag order against chaplains preaching sermons that mentioned this anti-abortion effort.
The standoff ended up in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which in 1997 backed Rigdon and an Orthodox Jewish chaplain.
"What we have here," concluded Judge Stanley Sporkin, "is the government's attempt to override the Constitution and the laws of the land by a directive that clearly interferes with military chaplains' free exercise and free speech rights, as well as those of their congregants. On its face, this is a drastic act. ...
"The chaplains in this case seek to preach only what they would tell their non-military congregants. There is no need for heavy-handed censorship."
That settled that, for a decade or so.
However, debates about military chaplains have a way of living on -- in part because chaplains work in a church-state minefield that requires them to answer to the government, as well as to God.
Thus, the Pentagon powers that be flinched again when the current leader of the military services archdiocese sent a pastoral letter to his chaplains to be read -- from pulpits -- during Masses on Jan. 29.
In it, Archbishop Timothy Broglio joined with most of America's Catholic bishops in blasting new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rules that will require the vast majority of religious institutions to include free coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives in their health-insurance plans. This would include sterilizations and the abortifacient drugs known as "morning-after pills."
This Obama administration move, he argued, "strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith. The federal government, which claims to be 'of, by, and for the people,' has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people -- the Catholic population -- and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful. It is a blow to a freedom that you have fought to defend and for which you have seen your buddies fall in battle."
However, it was another passage that seems to have triggered alarms at the Army office of the Chief of Chaplains.
"We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law," stressed Broglio. "People of faith cannot be made second-class citizens. ... In generations past, the Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. I hope and trust she can count on this generation of Catholics to do the same."
Soon after this letter was distributed, the Army chaplaincy office emailed senior chaplains asking them not to read it during Mass. Instead of obeying their archbishop, priests were told they could briefly mention the letter and place copies at chapel exits. Only Army leaders objected to Broglio's message.
The archbishop then talked with Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who -- according to the military services archdiocese -- backed away from the gag order. In turn, Broglio agreed that the "we cannot -- we will not -- comply" reference, with its hint at civil disobedience, would be removed from the text if and when it was read by Army chaplains. The line remained in printed copies.
The controversy simmered all week, with leaders on both sides backing away from further conflict.
By Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was hinting that the Obama administration might be willing to work with religious groups to see "if the implementation of the policy can be done in a way that allays some of those concerns."
Also, Carney said he didn't know if President Obama had prayed about the HHS rules controversy, but "he did consult with some religious leaders about it. ... When you seek to find the appropriate balance ... you have to weigh all of these factors, including the need to provide services to women and, obviously, the issue of religious belief."