Q: I am [in the U.S. armed forces] and we were discussing the fact that military chaplains come in all denominations. Can a Jewish, Muslim, or Sikh chaplain baptize someone a Catholic? Can a Jewish, Muslim, or Sikh chaplain give Communion or last rites to a Catholic? –Eric
A: This is a well timed question, since we were just recently discussing the extremely rare circumstances in which a Catholic may receive Holy Communion at a non-Catholic liturgical service (see “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?” and “When Can Catholics Receive Communion at a Non-Catholic Service?” for more on this). Those questions, however, pertained to Catholics living an ordinary civilian life, not in the unusual circumstances that Catholic soldiers and other military personnel often find themselves in. When they happen to have access to a Catholic chaplain, all’s well and good—but what are Catholic soldiers supposed to do when they’re fighting in the field, and the only chaplain around isn’t even a Christian, let alone a Catholic?
In those countries of the world today that proclaim religious freedom, the armed forces can have chaplains from a variety of faiths. As a general rule, they are expected to respect the religious convictions of the personnel to whom they are duty-bound to minister—in other words, military chaplains cannot proselytize in favor of their own faith, much less criticize the beliefs held by soldiers who are of other religions. Those fighting in combat may end up having a chaplain nearby who’s of their own faith, or they may not. This logically can lead to highly unusual situations, in which (say) a Lutheran chaplain might find himself counseling a Catholic serviceman who just saw his best friend die, or a Catholic chaplain could wind up praying over a dying soldier who professes Hinduism. In the military, that’s often just the way it is.
But for Catholic military personnel living with this unusual state of affairs, theological doctrine doesn’t go completely out the window! Let’s examine Eric’s questions one by one, to see how it works.
First of all, with regard to baptism, as we’ve already seen in “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” and many other articles in this space, anybody can baptize validly in case of necessity (c. 861.2). The minister of the sacrament doesn’t even have to be a Christian! In the Catholic Church’s eyes, a baptism is valid so long as the person administering the sacrament says the proper words while pouring water over the person, and intends to do what the Church requires. It’s as simple as that.
Now let’s apply this to the scenario of a Catholic catechumen fighting in the military. If he were wounded and in danger of death, any military chaplain could baptize him validly—and would not hesitate to do so, either, if he knew that’s what the wounded soldier wanted. A Sikh (e.g.) chaplain wouldn’t personally believe in the sacrament of baptism, of course; but he would still carry it out, in accord with the wishes of the serviceman for whom he was spiritually responsible.
But baptism in a non-emergency situation is different. In normal circumstances, the code asserts that the ordinary minister of baptism is the diocesan bishop, a priest, or a deacon (c. 861.1). So, for example, if a Catholic member of the military lived on base with his/her family, and had a newborn child who needed to be baptized, a Catholic cleric should be the one to do this. And if a serviceman were a catechumen, planning to be baptized into the Catholic Church, he would ordinarily be baptized by the Catholic cleric assigned to care for the spiritual needs of the Catholics at the military base. In other words, so long as there is no emergency, there is no need for a non-Catholic chaplain to administer a Catholic baptism.
Eric’s next question regards the Eucharist, and before answering it an important distinction needs to be made between consecrating the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ (which can only be done by a priest, c. 900.1); and distributing already consecrated Hosts to the faithful, which can also be done by others in extraordinary circumstances (as we saw in “Questions About Eucharistic Ministers”). Certainly no military chaplain can celebrate a Catholic Mass and consecrate the Eucharist unless he is a Catholic priest; but given the extraordinary circumstances in which military personnel often have to function, it could conceivably happen that a non-Catholic chaplain is given a pyx containing consecrated Hosts for distribution to the Catholic servicemen in the field. Again, non-Catholic chaplains presumably do not themselves believe in the Eucharist as we Catholics do; but they are nonetheless required to respect the faiths of the military men and women under their spiritual care.
Finally, Eric raised the question of the administration of the sacrament of Extreme Unction, otherwise known as last rites. In the battlefield, of course, this is more than a theoretical issue, and a soldier who’s a practicing Catholic would naturally want to receive the sacraments if he were mortally wounded during a war. But as we saw in “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?” this is not a sacrament which can be administered by anyone other than a Catholic priest (c. 1003). Note that any priest can validly administer this sacrament to any dying Catholic—so if a soldier were dying and no Catholic military chaplain were available, a priest from (say) a neighboring village could certainly be summoned if available.
This is not to say that a non-Catholic chaplain couldn’t simply pray over/with a dying soldier if no Catholic priest were around. But the actual sacrament of Extreme Unction itself can only be administered by a priest. On a related note, only a Catholic priest can hear confessions (c. 965), so while a non-Catholic chaplain might offer counsel and comfort to a wounded/dying soldier, he could not absolve him of his sins.
On the surface, this may sound a bit complicated, because some Catholic sacraments can only be administered by priests, while others can validly be celebrated by non-priests as well. Fortunately, military chaplains—Catholic or not—understand what they can and cannot do for the personnel whose spiritual wellbeing is under their care. If a serviceman isn’t sure, he can simply ask. The one thing that Catholics in the military should always be able to count on is that they will have as much access to the sacraments as is humanly possible. And in those situations where it’s impossible, they can confidently ask God Himself to fill in the gaps.