A top-level directive ordering military chaplains to be gender-sensitive and include atheists in “spiritual reflections” on Remembrance Day is sparking unexpected emotional backlash, says Bishop Scott McCaig of the Military Ordinariate of Canada.
“I don’t think they expected this to blow up the way it did,” said McCaig. “The amount of concern, scrutiny and emotion that this has generated, I think is a real surprise to the office of the Chaplain General.”
He added that he has spoken with many chaplains since the publication of the directive and they “are very discouraged. Morale has been very negatively affected.”
The directive was handed down from above by Chaplain General Brigadier-General J.L.G. Bélisle a month before Nov. 11 services at war memorials across Canada. “The Chaplain General Direction on Chaplain’s Spiritual Reflection in Public Settings” supersedes a 2013 policy, Public Prayer at military ceremonies.
Revelation of the order in The Epoch Times earlier this month sparked Conservative MP Blake Richards to demand in the House of Commons: “What is going on?”
“Under this Liberal government, our military chaplains are being told that they can’t even pray for the fallen,” Richards said during Question Period.
On Oct. 19, Defence Minister Bill Blair took issue with the no-prayer interpretation of the directive, posting on X (formerly Twitter): “Let’s be very clear: @CanadianForces chaplains are not — and will not be — banned from prayer on Remembrance Day, nor at any other time. This directive is about expanding participation in the reflections of military chaplains — not about limiting it.”
However, the directive is clear in substituting “reflections” for “prayer,” and specifies these reflections are non-religious in nature.
“The order ‘remove headdress’ should never be given before a chaplain’s reflection,” the directive reads, “as this occasion is not considered a religious event as outlined in the Canadian Forces Manual of Drill and Ceremonial.”
While acknowledging that “prayer may occupy a significant place for some of our members,” the directive suggests that because “we do not all pray in the same way” and “for some, prayer does not play a role in their lives,” that “it is essential for chaplains to adopt a sensitive and inclusive approach when publicly addressing military members.
“Chaplains shall endeavour to ensure that all feel included and able to participate in the reflection with a clear conscience, no matter their beliefs (religious, spiritual, agnostic, atheist).”
The policy suggests that chaplains might offer “thoughts on Canadian or CAF (Canadian Armed Forces) values; a search for meaning and belonging; an insight or wisdom; or words of thanksgiving, recognition, hope or remembrance.” Chaplains must “choose words that are inclusive” and “employ a language mindful of the Gender Based Analysis (GBA+) principles.”
“Prayer has to be authentic, and basically, what this memo is saying is, ‘do not be authentic,’ “ said Andrew Bennett, program director of Cardus Faith Communities, and Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom.
“As a chaplain, you cannot follow this directive and have any integrity because you’re not living out your actual religious tradition. According to this directive, a Catholic or Protestant chaplain couldn’t invoke God the Father. Jewish or Muslim chaplains cannot pray to the one God, as that could offend the Hindus and the Buddhists. This is inclusion by exclusion.”
The new instructions from the Chaplain General rely heavily upon the Mouvement laïque v. Saguenay case, a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled on the use of prayer at the council meetings of a small Quebec town. The directive quotes a section of the judgment: “The evolution of Canadian society has given rise to a concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs.”
Bennett thinks the Chaplain General is misusing the Saguenay case.
“I don’t think they’ve actually read the Saguenay decision,” said Bennett, “because it doesn’t prohibit public prayer.
“It points to the need to ensure the public space is more open. There are lots of other decisions in various courts, including courts of appeal and the Supreme Court that say that, yes, you can have public displays of religion. So just to trot out one case that you misused to advance your objective is intellectually dishonest.”
For the moment, the impact of the new directive is unknown. The Military Ordinariate has about 70 people working under its authority, a combination of priests, permanent deacons and lay pastoral associates. McCaig is telling the chaplains to be patient.
“We don’t know where this is going to go yet. The minister of defence has said that he’s not going to ban prayer, so he would seem to be contradicting the Chaplain General’s directive. … I would say it’s a little early to make any decisions or to jump to conclusions. Let this play out a little bit.”
Because the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the War Memorial in Ottawa are organized by the Legion rather than CAF, McCaig contacted the organizers to see if it would be possible to hold an interfaith or ecumenical prayer service following the official ceremonies. He said the “organizers were very sympathetic, but the proposal was not accepted because of security concerns.”
The Ordinariate has organized a Requiem Mass to be said for the fallen soldiers at Notre Dame Cathedral on the morning of Nov. 11. McCaig will preside.
The Catholic Register