Republicans online are saying Obama is to blame for Catholic priests being unable to perform Mass on some military bases this Sunday, as opposed to blaming Republicans for the government shutdown that has actually cancelled services. This latest accusation centers around an opinion piece by right-wing pseudo-journalist Todd Starnes, which unfortunately many people are treating as news. Starnes’ purposefully dishonest Fox News article is circulating in various forms around the Internet, especially among Conservatives anxious to believe the worst of America’s president.
Here are the facts: Catholic priests are often paid as independent contractors to perform services for Catholic military personnel and their families, because there are far more Catholics in the military then there are active duty Catholic chaplains. However, these contractors are not being permitted to lead Mass or other religious functions this Sunday because there is no money to pay them, thanks to the shutdown of the federal government.
Reading accounts of these actual events and comparing Starnes’ reactionary misinformation would be a master-class in how today’s political pundits twist the truth to serve partisan political agendas, if it weren’t quite so obvious.
Most of the above facts are also laid out in an op-ed by John Schlageter, a General Counsel for the special Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, along with some reasonable questions. It explains the chaplain corps, which consists of ordained religious personnel who serve as active duty members of the military, and who are tasked with helping men and women in uniform to practice their First Amendment freedom of religion while serving their country. Given that soldiers often serve in locations such as foreign countries where they do not have access to their religious institutions, such as churches, synagogues, or mosques, chaplains are necessary. However, as Schlageter explains, there are not enough Catholic chaplains to serve all these personnel. According to his op-ed piece, the result is that “approximately 275,000 (Catholic) men and women in uniform, and their families, are served by only 234 active-duty priests.”
These numbers are why the military has to contract civilian priests to perform Mass and provide other services. Soldiers have a right to practice their faith, and the military normally provides the means. However, during the shutdown, the military cannot pay these independent contractors to serve Catholic soldiers. Unfortunately, in many places, those contractors will not be permitted to use on-base facilities to do so, even as volunteers. Obviously, this is a bad situation, something those affected have every right to complain about.
In fact, Schlageter raises a very valid question at the end of his op-ed: The major military academies (Naval, Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard) have all found ways to fund football games as well as classes. Yet serving soldiers, who are already working without pay, don’t get to go to Mass on Sunday? The piece addresses this question, asking if the military leadership has its priorities straight if it will fund football but not their soldiers’ fulfillment of their first amendment rights.
Fox New commentator Todd Starnes, however, doesn’t want to point the finger at military leaders who are actually making these decisions. He wants to point it at President Barack Obama. It is not enough to blame the President for everything else, he has to blame Obama for both Catholic mass being cancelled and the government shutdown the Republicans have purposefully caused in their war against the Affordable Care Act.
At first, Starnes lays out the some of the above situation, leaving out certain basic facts, such as the fact that active-duty priests who are members of the chaplain corps are not affected, and that in many places, services will take place as normal. Instead, he frames these questionable military funding priorities as part of prejudice against Catholics, without once mentioning if members of any other religion will be affected by the shutdown as well. Then, he tries to link the whole thing to President Obama, as if the Commander-in-Chief is purposefully seeking to deny servicemen the chance to honor their beliefs, hoping, I suppose, that close Catholic allies like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi just don’t notice.
Starnes is a hardcore partisan political hack, a Conservative extremist, well known even among the worst pundits for his conspiracy theorizing, exaggeration, and racism. Remember the furor when an Indian-American woman became Miss America, and how all the stories featured a quote from a Fox News commentator questioning whether the woman deserved it, and arguing she did not represent “American values”? That was Todd Starnes.
For Mr. Starnes, the situation is not about re-examining why the military considers sports a more essential function than soldiers’ practicing their faith. It is about attacking the other side. Fortunately for Starnes he can rely on trash-talking quotes from the most paranoid, partisan, intolerant, and authoritarian Catholic in American public life, the Heritage Foundation’s Bill Donahue.
Donahue is the Catholic League President whose response to allegations of priests molesting children was to blame the children. He is commonly criticized for placing political partisanship above religion, seeing anti-Catholic persecution around every corner, and misrepresenting Catholic values. Always willing to live down to his reputation, Donahue provides Starnes with the exact quote he is looking for: ““In American history there has been no administration more anti-Catholic than the Obama administration. For them to deny Catholic men and women the opportunity of the sacraments and to deal with their prayerful vocations is really a stunning statement.”
See what happened there? We went from a story discussing how the military would not be paying contractors to attributing direct responsibility for the canceled services on the President. No evidence is offered, just the hyperbolic quote, but then Starnes is off to the races.
We are expected to believe that when military leaders are deciding whether or not civilian contractors they are not currently ready to pay—thanks to the Republican shutdown of the federal government over Obamacare—are allowed to use facilities on base, the Obama administration takes the time to micromanage them, out of sheer spite for religious soldiers. Obviously, according to Starnes and Donahue, military officers, who just love ceding power over even minor decisions up the chain of command, are not basing that decision on rules they already have. It’s not like the military tends to have rules for everything. It is not as if some of the world’s most bureaucratic organizations would have regulations relating to liability or security concerns when non-military personnel use parts of their bases, right?
The fact is, if the military decides that these laid-off civilian contractors are not permitted to use military facilities, that decision would be made much lower on the chain-of-command than the President of the United States. Commanders are already forcing their soldiers to serve without pay, a situation none of them can be happy with. But the crucial question of why those commanders are making football happen but not Mass is relegated to a short one-sentence quote near the end of the article, only appearing after Starnes is able to serve his real function in life, which is, as always, to say Democrats are horrible and Republicans are good. It all has to be a White House conspiracy.
Shockingly, no one at the Pentagon returned calls from this serious journalist, which just proves the federal government is in on it. Clearly, no Catholics work at the Pentagon, they are all part of the anti-Catholic mafia. Then, when Starnes calls the Air Force public affairs office, and they tell him to take the perfectly reasonable step of calling the local military bases where these decisions are actually being made, he somehow doesn’t take that idea seriously. Starnes treats it like a door slammed in his face instead of, you know, a pointer about where the actual story is.
It is all lead up to Starnes’ unsupported, self-serving conclusion, which is of course the reason he wrote the article in the first place: “So in President Obama’s world – college football players are essential but Catholic priests are not.”
Boom. Game, set, and match, Mr. President. You personally make football happen and keep children from getting baptized, because those are your goals. Preserving your signature policy achievement against ruthless political extremists determined to destroy it, presiding over an economy about to crippled by its own federal government, and engaging in the most dramatic public relations battle you’ve had yet in a presidency full of them, those things obviously aren’t your priorities. You just hate Catholics. Probably because you are a Kenyan Muslim reptile person, or something.
This, unfortunately, is the current level of public discourse in most Republican political circles. Perhaps the only thing we can be thankful for is that Starnes’ conspiracy theory is one in which Catholics are the victims, instead of the many hateful fantasies in which Catholics are evil, the Pope is the Antichrist, the Vatican is a front for the Illuminati, etc. And to be fair, it doesn’t go as deep into la-la land as other fun and completely untrue recent “news” stories, such Wednesday’s “Obama Prohibits Practice of Catholicism in U.S.”, which makes even Starnes’ intellectual dishonesty seem fair and balanced.
Even more sadly, several other online sources are using Todd Starnes’ propaganda piece as the basis for their own stories. Meanwhile, the piece by John Schlageter—who is, again, a General Counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, and has actual knowledge of the situation—is barely being circulated. Too reasonable, I suppose. So it is up to Mr. Starnes and his ilk to keep the people they call “low-information voters” informed about things like the White House’s war on Catholicism and how Obamacare requires you to implant a computer chip in you head. Sadly, Starnes’ piece hides the legitimate question in Mr. Schlageter’s piece, which the latter articulates as “At a time when the military is considering alternative sources of funding for sporting events at the service academies, no one seems to be looking for funding to ensure the Free Exercise rights of Catholics in uniform. Why not?”
Legitimate concerns and actual questions aside, if the notion of both making the cancelled Catholic Mass services Obama’s fault and exonerating Republicans of all blame for the shutdown they purposefully created appeals to you—and sadly, there are many of you out there for whom this is true—the article is linked to below, along with the reasonable and informative Catholic op-ed you won’t read.
Written By: Jeremy Forbing