The Rationalist Society of Australia has sought answers from Australia’s Defence ministers about publicly expressed views of a number of Defence Force chaplains, including views claiming same-sex marriage as “bereft of the fullness” and “often quite harmful”, and non-religious people suffering from being “self-deceiving”.
In a letter sent to Defence minister Richard Marles and Defence Personnel minister Matt Keogh in January – which has not been answered – the RSA argued that some Defence chaplains held views that were incompatible with delivering appropriate care for Defence personnel.
RSA president Dr Meredith Doig also raised concerns about Defence’s “go-slow approach” to introducing suitable non-religious support into the Army’s and the Air Force’s pastoral care capability.
In her letter, Dr Doig pointed to a number of public comments by Defence chaplains – including in official Defence publications – that, she argued, were at odds with Defence’s own values, and with wider societal values.
She noted that Defence chaplains have made disparaging remarks about non-religious people. In 2018, one chaplain wrote in an Army journal that non-religious people suffered from being “self-deceiving” for choosing “not to believe in God and His plan to restore the Divine-human relationship”.
In the same Army publication, another chaplain argued that Army personnel were suffering negative effects of the “widely practiced and culturally endorsed inauthentic expressions of sexuality.” The chaplain wrote that any form of relationship outside of God’s “intended blessing” – marriage between a man and woman – was “bereft of the fullness it could have” and was “often quite harmful”.
Another chaplain viewed problems experienced by Defence personnel as ‘sin’ and said solutions required ‘repentance’.
Dr Doig asked Mr Marles and Mr Keogh whether the Albanese government considered it appropriate for those providing frontline wellbeing and pastoral care in Defence to hold such views.
“Many non-religious personnel are uncomfortable seeking support from religious clergy who work as chaplains because they are worried about encountering dogmatic religious views on issues such as on sexuality and homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, and voluntary assisted dying,” she said.
The RSA has long been calling for the Defence Force to reform its primary wellbeing support capability – religious-based chaplaincy – to better meet the needs of its workforce, a majority of whom are not religious.
In November, a Defence official told Senate Estimates that Army and Air Force were considering adding to their chaplaincy branches a non-religious capability similar to Navy’s new secular roles.
In December, Mr Keogh’s chief of staff told the RSA that the Army and Air Force would “examine the lessons” of the Navy’s initiative to introduce some secular roles, with a review of the roles due in 2024.
In her letter, Dr Doig told the ministers that the delay in introducing secular roles into the Army and Air Force posed unacceptable risk to the wellbeing of Defence personnel.
“We were concerned to learn that a review of Navy’s secular Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officer (MSWO) roles would not be due until 2024. This means similar roles in Army and Air Force could only be introduced many years into the future – if, indeed, they are accepted by Army and Air Force,” she wrote.
“The need is urgent. Army and Air Force must move with greater alacrity away from relying on religious-based chaplaincy and instead provide the choice of secular support for their personnel, a majority of whom are not religious.
“Given the need for secular roles has already been accepted by the Commonwealth through the Navy’s Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officer roles, will the Albanese government urge similar reforms in Army and Air Force sooner rather than later?”
*This article was revised on 30 November 2023.