What Is a Chaplain?   

Steven T. Collis’s just-published The Immortals tells the stories of Fr. John Washington, Rabbi Alexander Goode, and ministers Clark Poling and George Fox.  The “four chaplains” were renowned for sacrificing themselves to save men aboard the Dorchester, an American troop carrier torpedoed by a German U-Boat that sank off Greenland in February 1943.  They gave spiritually, Fr. Washington absolving soldiers who frantically jumped into the frigid North Atlantic to abandon ship.  They gave physically – each surrendered his own life-vest to another man, and Goode’s gloves saved a man who clung to a lifeboat for eight hours.  They demonstrated faith in action, their good works enabling men to stay warm because of their faith. (James 2:16)

Or consider the English parish priest, denied access to British MP Sir David Arness as he lay dying October 15 after being stabbed.  The priest rushed to the scene – as priests were once wont to do – to administer last rites.  He was excluded by police to “prevent contamination” of the crime scene.

Clearly, it was more important that Arness’ killer face a British judge than Arness be helped to face his eternal judge.  The same thing happened to priests at the 2013 Boston Marathon killings.  In the contemporary calculus, crime victims don’t need chaplains.

Vatican II tells us to examine the “signs of the times.” They are not always salutary.

Ours is an era of aggressive secularism.  For over 70 years, Americans have been propagandized: a “strict wall of separation,” we’ve been told, requires American public life to be stripped naked of religious influences.  Richard John Neuhaus coined the term “naked public square” to characterize the mentality.  Something that once would have been deemed a normal exercise of Constitutionally-guaranteed religious freedom – like access to a chaplain – suddenly turned into some kind of special “pleading” for exemption from norms of general applicability.

Secularism has grown exponentially under COVID.  As the chattering classes have been framing everything in terms of sheer physical survival,  spiritual considerations have also suddenly become “special pleading” that required an “exemption” from “generally applicable norms.”  Under that draconian model, numerous politicians claim to be able to shut down religious worship. Hospitals denied dying patients access to a chaplain’s ministrations.

The Church itself did not help. The “field hospital” broke camp; shuttered churches were not providing sacramental ministry.  That experience of abandonment made many believers compare (unfavorably) the flight of many chaplains today to the four chaplains who went down with their ship, after they had gotten off to spiritual and physical safety as many men as they could.

In light of these experiences, Harvard’s choice last September of  Greg Epstein – an atheist – as chief of chaplains was almost logical. Proponents downplayed its significance by claiming it is primarily a ceremonial or administrative position, “primus inter pares” (a Christian theological term), as a Bloomberg opinion writer put it.  That seems to mean he leads the nondenominational prayer to somebody at Commencement, develops the Campus Ministry budget, makes sure other chaplains put in their office hours, does scheduling, etc.


If that’s his job description, it’s yet another reason to cut higher education’s administrative bloat and costs: the other chaplains can rotate through generic “prayer” while the admin stuff can be done by a competent assistant.  But it’s doubtful his selection was the result of overlooking his atheism because of his advanced paper-pushing and people skills.

Epstein was saluted by Harvard for his book, Good without God, an effort to defend “deep purpose, compassion, and connectivity” without any religious foundation.  Epstein, the “humanist/agnostic/atheist” chaplain at Harvard, was declared the “godfather to the [humanist] movement.” Harvard has a chief of chaplains who’s “spiritual-but-not-religious!”  (No comment on the “cultural appropriation” of a religious term for an atheist).

One can be a spiritual-but-not-religious “chaplain” in a safe space like Harvard, where privileged “victims” can experience existential angst while being assured they are on the fast track to a good job and secure future.

Pardon me, however, if I note that chaplains have traditionally not hung out in safe spaces to offer hot cocoa, petting puppies, and gauzy “spiritual” talk to those who are. . .safe.  Chaplains were to be found in unsafe spaces: burning buildings, terrorism scenes, concentration camps, and sinking ships.

As Bishop Robert Barron noted, a “chaplain” normally leads worship.  What does atheist humanism “worship,” apart from its navel?  And, as Karol Wojtyła noted, since God is not man’s enemy but his completion, a “humanism” that denies man’s supernatural destiny is both incomplete and anti-human.  Encouraging such bowdlerized “humanism” by designating its practitioners “chaplains” violates truth-in-advertising.

In the wake of COVID, people need real chaplains, the kinds we once knew.  While they have been restricted and restrained, we have ersatz “chaplains” preaching the “gospel of man” and, worse, politicians-who-are-not-chaplains-but-play-one-on-TV, offering Caesar’s salvation while outlawing Christ’s.

Maximilian Kolbe died a chaplain.  Although not selected for the starvation bunker, he volunteered to take the place of a man who was.  Sixteen days later, after having shown what a chaplain’s “accompaniment” looks like, he shepherded his final congregation across heaven’s threshold.

 The Polish Jewish-Catholic writer Roman Brandstaetter once made this observation about a writing project:


In an interview in the French press, Ionesco revealed his intention of writing a play about St. Maximilian Kolbe.  He told a French journalist, “I am currently thinking about the difficult dilemma of how I should write that drama, so that it does not become propaganda for the idea of Christianity.”

Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco wrote the libretto to the 1987 opera, Maximilien Kolbe.  He helped create the French “Theater of the Absurd,” which essentially rejected meaning in life.  Brandstaetter – no mean playwright himself – captured Ionesco in his absurdity: how do you write a play about a Catholic priest who voluntarily offered his life in a starvation bunker out of love of neighbor while trying to ensure “it does not become propaganda for the idea of Christianity.”

Or perhaps Ionesco was writing the job description for what the modern world wants in a “chaplain.”


*Image: Stained glass window honoring the Four Chaplains [Pentagon, Washington D.C.]

You may also enjoy:

Anthony Esolen’s Friendship from Above

Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s Priests without People

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.