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Leading Catholic lawmaker calls on Defense secretary to back military archbishop in Walter Reed dispute

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is seen in an Oct. 2, 2020, photo. A leading Catholic lawmaker has called on the Biden administration to back the U.S. Military Archdiocese in the matter of pastoral care at Walter Reed. (OSV News photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

A leading Catholic lawmaker and religious freedom advocate has called on the Biden administration to support the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services in a dispute over a long-running Catholic pastoral care contract that a leading U.S. military medical center awarded to a secular defense contractor.

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, issued an April 4 “cease and desist” order to Holy Name College Friary, a community of Franciscan priests and brothers in Silver Spring, Maryland, who have served service members and veterans at Walter Reed for nearly two decades. The military archdiocese told OSV News it had tried to get Walter Reed to extend the contract with the Franciscans beyond the March 31 expiration date to cover Holy Week observances, but without success.

“This letter was issued during Holy Week, five days before Easter – the most sacred period for those who practice the Christian faith,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said in an April 14 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Walter Reed is one of several major medical centers operated within the U.S. Department of Defense and the Defense Health Agency, so it falls within the pastoral jurisdiction of the military archdiocese. Because the contract with Franciscans expired March 31, Walter Reed directed the Franciscan priests to halt religious services on its grounds.

Smith noted the Franciscan priests and brothers “have a strong record of providing pastoral care to military patients and veterans at Walter Reed” prior to being barred “from providing any form of religious services.”

The new Catholic pastoral care contract, Smith said, was instead “awarded to Mack Global LLC, a defense contractor, self-described as ‘your one-stop procurement for janitorial supplies, industrial machinery, aggregates and raw materials,’” Smith continued.
 “This highlights questionable judgment by officers awarding a Catholic pastoral care contract to a for-profit company best suited to provide industrial services instead of a Catholic religious institution with a strong record of providing pastoral services,” Smith said.

Smith, a Catholic champion of religious freedom around the globe who has authored legislation empowering the U.S. to help advance the cause of religious freedom in other countries, noted his concerns for the First Amendment religious freedom rights of Catholics in the U.S.
 “It is imperative the Department of Defense moves immediately to rectify this situation and conduct a review of contracting practices related to the provision of religious services at military institutions throughout the Defense Department,” he said.

Other congressional lawmakers have taken note of the controversy over the Catholic pastoral care contract at Walter Reed. On April 11, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and other Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate, sent a letter to Secretary Austin asking why the Franciscans’ contract with Walter Reed had ended just before Holy Week.

“We have made promises to our service members and veterans that if they take care of us, we will take care of them,” the letter said. “This extends to not just providing quality healthcare at our nation’s military medical facilities, but by also providing the ability to freely practice their religion to those under their care at these facilities.”

In an April 11 email to OSV News, a spokesperson for Walter Reed said the “current pastoral care contract is under review to ensure it adequately supports the religious needs of our patients and beneficiaries.”