Vatican Bureaucrats Aim to End Heroic Vietnam War Chaplain Canonization

In an especially shameful statement of cowardice, a Vatican consultant wrote: “With ongoing military actions in the world today, raising someone from the military for veneration may not be appropriate for our Church.”

An advisory panel of theological consultants recently voted to suspend the cause for sainthood for heroic military chaplain Fr. Vincent Capodanno. Writing to the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican body responsible for canonization decisions, the theologians claimed that Fr. Capodanno, a member of the Maryknoll religious order and a U.S. Navy chaplain who served faithfully and courageously in the Vietnam War with the United States Marine Corps, did not deserve consideration for sainthood—despite the fact that he died on the battlefield while shielding a Marine from enemy machine-gun fire.  

Throughout his deployment with Marine combat units in the jungles of Vietnam, it has been documented that Fr. Capodanno “put the well-being of Marines above his own personal safety.… The priest would move among the wounded and dying on the battlefield to provide medical aid, comfort, and Last Rites.”   

Yet, in an especially shameful statement of cowardice, one of the Vatican consultants involved in the sainthood cause for Fr. Capodanno wrote: “With ongoing military actions in the world today (think Ukraine), raising someone from the military for veneration may not be appropriate for our Church.”

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It is this statement, from a Vatican theologian who is completely out of touch with faithful Catholics throughout the world, that tells us everything we need to know about an increasingly out-of-touch Vatican bureaucracy that seems to be attempting to destroy everything that is good and true in the Church—and beyond. Claiming that “raising someone from the military” to sainthood would “not be appropriate” for our Church reveals the animosity that these Vatican-chosen consultants hold toward the rest of us.   

As the mother of a soldier in the United States Army who served courageously in Iraq, I find it difficult to understand the ignorance reflected in such a statement from a Vatican theologian who is so blind to the sacrifice that military families make. Some—like Fr. Capodanno’s family—have made the ultimate sacrifice. Catholics have always been over-represented in the military, and it is a disappointment for them to see how little their sacrifice is acknowledged by the elites within the Church.  

Fortunately, the unique sacrifice that Catholic chaplains have made has not gone completely unnoticed. There have been five Catholic priests—including Fr. Vincent Capodanno—who have earned the medal of honor from a grateful country. The citation for the Medal of Honor awarded to Fr. Capodanno posthumously in 1969 reads

In response to reports the 2nd Platoon of M Company was in danger of being overrun by a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense enemy small arms automatic weapons, and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded. When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid. Instead, he directed corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and with calm vigor continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant Marines. Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire.

The story of Fr. Capodanno’s saintliness was described in a book by Fr. Daniel Mode which was based on more than 100 interviews with people whose lives were touched by the holy priest. In the book, The Grunt Padre: The Service and Sacrifice of Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam, 1966-67, Fr. Mode includes the story of a severely injured Marine, Corporal Ray Harton, who regained consciousness on the battlefield to find Fr. Capodanno reassuring him that “Someone will be here to help you soon…God is with us all this day.” Fr. Capodanno later died on the battlefield from 27 bullet wounds.  

But this is not the end of the story in the cause for canonization. Archbishop Timothy Broglio, leader of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, told reporters for Catholic News Agency that the Vatican theologians “only make a recommendation to the congregation.…The postulator has already petitioned the congregation to appeal the decision and allow the postulator to respond to some of the questions raised by the theologians.” It is the dicastery that “has the responsibility ‘to determine if the process can continue.’”

At this point, it is important that faithful Catholics begin to pay attention to the ways in which a small but powerful number of Vatican theologians and bureaucrats are attempting to destroy everything that is good within our Church. The controversy surrounding Traditionis Custodes is just the latest example of the animosity that Vatican theologians and bureaucrats hold toward faithful Catholics. Fr. Capodanno said Mass—in Latin—for the soldiers on the battlefield in Vietnam. Ironically, the Latin Mass was likely used against him by the Vatican theologians who claimed that the devout priest was “too fastidious.”  

This is not the first time that theologians have attempted to denigrate the military—especially the United States military. Claiming that because Russia invaded Ukraine we need to disparage all soldiers is an ignorant statement, and the Vatican should be ashamed to have allowed that theologian’s words to stand.   

Heroism in the cause of freedom must be valued. The Father Capodanno Guild, a private Catholic association that was formed to help promote Fr. Capodanno’s canonization cause, has asked for prayers for this noble cause. Fr. Capodanno’s story is inspiring, and his sacrifice should be acknowledged by a grateful Catholic Church in need of saintly heroes right now.  

  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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