Defence Forces Chaplaincy Review Board

Today I had a very interesting and useful meeting with the Irish Defence Forces Chaplaincy Review Board, which was established in December 2022. I spoke with Lt Col Padraig Brennan and several of his colleagues on the Board. Their remit is to establish a Defence Forces Chaplaincy Service that promotes and embodies the values of the Defence Forces through inclusivity and diversity, catering for the needs of those from all faiths and none. Lt Col Brennan is the Military Assistant to the Director General within the European Union Military Staff (EUMS) at the European External Action Service (EEAS). He is also the President of the Irish Defence Forces Chaplaincy Review Board.

I was hugely impressed by Lt Col Brennan and his colleagues on the Irish Defence Forces Chaplaincy Review Board. I found them to be extremely thoughtful and I think they are approaching their work in a diligent and professional manner. I don’t wish to divulge the content of the discussion, other than to say that I tried to provide an atheist perspective on the pertinent issues. After the meeting had concluded, my own reflection was on the fact that change in this area is very explicitly in the interests of all current Roman Catholic chaplains. Counter-intuitively, whereas my most recent litigation concluded that the Irish Defence Forces unlawfully discriminate against non-Christians and in favour of Christian votaries, among the victims of this discrimination are the Christian chaplains themselves.

The existing Irish Defence Forces Regulations require that all State-funded chaplains within our military must be appointed by bishops. During my recent litigation, I repeatedly made the point that my complaint about this issue involved no suggestion that existing Roman Catholic chaplains do a poor job. Many Roman Catholic military chaplains are very highly qualified and do wonderful work. A Roman Catholic chaplain who has a distinguished career in the Irish Defence Forces should be very proud of their service, but this is inevitably diminished since they cannot know they were appointed because they were the best candidate for the job. The reality is that their bishop would not have appointed them to the role if they were not an ordained priest. This process excludes all non-Catholics from consideration, it excludes all lay Catholics from consideration, and it excludes all women from consideration. Since the current Defence Forces Regulations improperly exclude the vast majority of the population from these roles, the only thing a Roman Catholic chaplain can say about their appointment is that they were the preferred candidate from among a small coterie of available ordained priests.

This is an incredibly unfortunate fact with respect to many highly experienced and competent chaplains within our Defence Forces. Others who have been appointed to State-funded jobs can have the confidence that comes with their roles being openly advertised. This means they can have certainty that their position was awarded to the best candidate, as measured by a set of objective criteria. No matter how talented a Roman Catholic chaplain in our current Defence Forces might be, they cannot have any of the assurance and conviction that comes with winning an appointment in these circumstances. It will always be the case that they were awarded their role through unlawful religious discrimination. For those who are nevertheless extremely talented and effective at their job, this means that they too are among the victims of this discrimination.

Of course, any Roman Catholic chaplain within the Irish Defence Forces who is incredibly confident about their own qualifications and capabilities, could always resign and re-apply for their job according the same kind of open and competitive process that everyone else follows. Otherwise, they will unfortunately always have an asterisk beside their name. For this reason, it is in the interests of those Roman Catholic chaplains as well as everyone else, that the Defence Forces Regulations are changed.

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