Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the hospital of preference for sitting US presidents since its opening in 1940, is under fire for hiring a secular firm to provide pastoral care to patients.
Priests from the Holy Name College Friary in Silver Spring, Maryland have been providing spiritual care to patients at the center for almost two decades.
Until now. Management at Walter Reed chose not to renew the Franciscan priests’ contract, instead hiring a secular firm to handle the provision of related services, according to the Associated Press.
Walter Reed informed the friary in March that an alternative bidder had been selected for the new contract – a secular defense contractor Mack Global LLC.
On April 4th, in the middle of Holy Week, the center issued a cease-and-desist order to the priests who continued to provide pastoral service after the contract formally expired on March 31st.
Timothy Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and archbishop for the Military Services, expressed dismay at the news.
“The refusal to provide adequate pastoral care while awarding a contract for Catholic ministry to a for-profit company that has no way of providing Catholic priests to the medical center is a glaring violation of service members’ and veterans’ Right to the Free Exercise of Religion,” he said in a statement issued by his office.
The Franciscans provided a separate statement when asked to comment.
“While this is certainly disappointing after 20 years of service – after building trust and so many wonderful relationships and friendships – the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province respect the process,” they said.
“It has been an incredible privilege – and, really, a very powerful ministerial experience – for the Franciscan Friars to be invited into the lives of these true American heroes who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
Walter Reed issued its own justification, saying it “honors and supports a full range of religious, spiritual, and cultural needs.”
The center said the new contract is “under review to ensure it adequately supports the religious needs of our patients and beneficiaries.”
It declined to provide any further details on why it parted from the friary.
Several Republicans in Congress expressed outrage at the decision. Eleven signed and sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for more information on the secular firm’s contract.