Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas was recently chosen by his brother bishops to lead the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee of Pro-Life Activities. The 68-year-old native of St. Louis, Missouri, was selected on November 14 by a vote of 96-82 over Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. The vote surprised some as a cardinal usually serves in the position; New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan currently serves in the role.
Archbishop Naumann was ordained a priest for the St. Louis archdiocese in 1975. He served in a variety of parishes and became vicar general. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop in 1997, and became coadjutor archbishop of Kansas City in 2004; he succeeded Archbishop Keleher as archbishop of Kansas City in January 2005.
The pro-life cause has long been of importance to Archbishop Naumann. As a priest in St. Louis, he served as archdiocesan pro-life coordinator from 1984 to 1995. During that time, the archdiocese established a Project Rachel ministry for women recovering from abortion, as well as the Lifeline Coalition. He was a founding board member of the Vitae Foundation, which promotes effective pro-life messaging. He is also a regular participant in the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, supports a variety of pro-life organizations, and regularly participates in pro-life Rosaries in front of abortion clinics.
He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: What will you be doing as chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities?
Archbishop Joseph Naumann: First off, I’m not chairman yet. I’ll be chairman-elect for a year and Cardinal Dolan remains chairman of the committee. So, I’ll be chairman a year from now. The reason for this is that often bishops elected to the committee are not members beforehand. So, serving as chairman-elect for a year gives the new member a chance to participate, learn about the work of the committee and create continuity from year-to-year. In my case, however, I have already served as a member of the pro-life committee.
Regarding the work of the committee, the pro-life issue has been, and remains, one of the paramount moral issues that the Church tries to give some guidance on to our own people, as well as society at large. Many years ago, the bishop’s conference developed a pastoral plan for pro-life activities. There are four dimensions: 1) prayer, 2) education (which includes informing people about the issue, working to change minds and hearts), 3) pastoral care (we in the Church providing alternatives to abortion, and post-abortion ministries), and 4) advocacy (supporting public policy to protect human life, helping the Church to have a voice before Congress).
CWR: Some media reports noted that it was unusual not to have a cardinal in this role. Is this something notable, or much ado about nothing?
Archbishop Naumann: The conference has only selected cardinals for this committee; I think it was an unspoken way that the bishops’ conference said how important this role is. My selection doesn’t signal a waning of that importance. I have served six terms on this committee, and I had the opportunity to work in the pro-life apostolate in the Church when I was a priest in St. Louis. Many bishops congratulated me; I think they supported me in light of my many long years of service.
What I thought was not helpful, in some of the articles I saw in the secular media—and some of the Catholic press—to suggest that a vote for me was a vote against Pope Francis, or a vote for Cardinal Cupich was against Pope St. John Paul II. That was just secular society trying to create conflict where there was none.
For years it was the conventional practice not to choose a cardinal as president of the bishops’ conference, but then Cardinal George of Chicago was elected in 2007 and it changed that. Conventional practices have a way of changing from time to time.
CWR: Is this position one you pursued?
Archbishop Naumann: The process is that whenever open chairmanships are coming up in the conference, bishops are invited to propose nominees. The nominations go to our priorities and plans committee, which looks at the top 10 vote-getters and creates a slate with their names. Four are picked off that slate—you don’t know who the other candidates are until their names are sent to all the bishops, so you’re not running against someone—and when two accept the nomination, they become a slate presented to the full body of bishops.
CWR: Why is the abortion issue of such importance to you personally?
Archbishop Naumann: I was asked to do this work while I was a priest in St. Louis. Archbishop John May, who was my archbishop at the time, called me in 1984 and asked me to do it. I was an associate pastor at the time, and had never been in charge of a parish pro-life committee. I thought there were plenty of people better than me for the job, but I was happy to serve.
My own father was murdered before I was born. It was in December 1948, and I was just three months along inside my mother’s womb. So, I was part of a crisis pregnancy, in a sense, even though it was a different culture at the time. As the issue evolved, and became an issue in our culture today, my personal background gave me a greater sensitivity to women facing a pregnancy under traumatic circumstances.
CWR: When you preach on the pro-life issue, how do you present the topic?
Archbishop Naumann: If I’m preaching a homily focused in this area, I begin with the acknowledgement that there are likely people in the pews who have had a direct experience with abortion. I say to such people that they know better than anyone else what a tragedy abortion is, and ask them to pray for me in my work that I can help others to know about the pain they’re experiencing.
I bring up the Project Rachel ministry, which helps women to heal from abortion. I tell them that that help is there, if they need it. I then talk about why the issue is so important, and that the rhetoric of “choice” is deceptive. People don’t talk about “choice” in other areas when the taking of a human life is involved.
And, I like to point out that what makes abortion so particularly destructive is that it not only takes the life of a child, but scars the family, because the abortion occurs in the womb, the one place where life should be most protected.
I challenge people to become involved, to pray, to become more knowledgeable, and to have conversations with others one-on-one. And, we can vote and share our views with our legislators.
CWR: How do people respond to these homilies?
Archbishop Naumann: I’ve had a few walk out, but such people are few and far between. I pray for those who walk away, as I’ve obviously hit a difficult chord with them. But most people who hear me are supportive.
I’d also like to say to our priests: we can’t fail to talk to our people about these real sins that affect the lives of our people. If we talk about sins they don’t commit, of what good is that?
Certainly we want to preach about the topic in a sensitive way, and be supportive of those who chose abortion but now regret it. But if the Church is silent on the destruction of life, we’re being negligent, and leaving our young people vulnerable to making this tragic decision.
CWR: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities?
Archbishop Naumann: As I’ve said, I have a year before I assume that position, so I’ll have some time to think about it. But certainly I’ll want to advocate for the four dimensions of the pastoral plan I mentioned previously. Also, one area on which I’d like to focus is pastoral care of couples experiencing infertility. This is a growing problem, and I believe the Church can do more to minister to couples who find themselves in this difficult situation.
CWR: What are your thoughts on public policy and abortion? Have federal and state governments become more friendly to the pro-life position in recent years?
Archbishop Naumann: Some state governments certainly have. In Kansas, where I live, our state government has had a good history on adopting measures to protect life. However, there is a threat that our state supreme court may discover a “right” to abortion in our state constitution, which would invalidate the state laws we’ve been able to pass to protect life. But we’ve seen that in a majority of states legislators have pushed as far as they could to extend protections to unborn life that the federal courts will permit.
On a national level, we have a tougher road, particularly because of the U.S. Senate. We need 60 senators to agree to adopt legislation. We’ve had significant majorities in the House, but not the Senate.
But, it was really the U.S. Supreme Court that created the problem, usurping the role of the states to create public policy in these areas. I think that we have some hope that we can change the composition of the Supreme Court.
Also, when you look at the data since the time I was first involved in the pro-life fight, more Americans have become pro-life, particularly among the young. They’ve lived with the tragedy of abortion, and understand how bad it is. I’ve seen evidence of this myself; when I participate in the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, it’s become dominated by young people.
CWR: Will you again be participating in the March for Life in January of 2018?
Archbishop Naumann: God willing, I’ll be there. I try to go every year, along with a large group of people from Kansas. I marvel at the goodness of the young people I meet there; I’ve heard the March described as a mini-World Youth Day.
We go there as part of a prayerful pilgrimage. I love to celebrate Mass with our youth; we also have confession and adoration. Because of the time of year the weather can be harsh, but that makes our witness all the purer.
CWR: According to Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, Catholics have always been the “backbone” of the March for Life.
Archbishop Naumann: It’s a broad ecumenical movement today, with many of our Protestant brothers and sisters coming on strong, but most will admit in the beginning they were not there. Catholics have always been and will remain an important part of the pro-life movement.
CWR: When an elected official identifies as Catholic yet supports legalized abortion, how do you thing Church leaders ought to respond?
Archbishop Naumann: We have an obligation to dialogue with that individual as much as possible. We want to presume his or her good will and that he or she is misinformed, and to get him or her to think more carefully and honestly about the issue.
Where it is particularly problematic is when we have Catholic politicians who flaunt their Catholicity, but take positions that our inconsistent with our Catholic teaching. This was the case with Kathleen Sebelius, who was our Kansas governor previously. She would talk about how Catholic she was, but act totally contrary to Church teaching. It creates a problem for us as bishops when Catholic politicians do that. They teach our people that it is okay to be Catholic and support legalized abortion.
Tim Kaine, a US Senator and former vice presidential candidate, is another example of a politician who flaunted his Catholic background but spewed a lot of pro-choice rhetoric. When they do this they’re taking on a teaching role and misleading our people.
When you have a Catholic politician out there who is pro-choice but does not say it is in accordance with his Catholic faith, it is less problematic. We still need to dialogue, but he’s not saying, “I’m Catholic and pro-choice and you can be Catholic and pro-choice, too.”
CWR: How can the laity best help in the fight against abortion?
Archbishop Naumann: The most effective education happens one-on-one. I would encourage people to get knowledgeable on the issue and share their pro-life views within their families, in the workplace and with their neighbors. There are many opportunities to evangelize.
The Vitae Foundation is a wonderful resource of which people may wish to take advantage to help people learn how to talk and think more clearly about the pro-life issue. It started in Missouri, and I’ve been involved with it myself. Their material is highly researched, as we’ve learned a lot about how to most effectively communicate with people. I hope it will continue to help us improve our ability to change minds and hearts. It’s one of the best pro-life organizations out there; I would encourage people to look into it.
We can also support crisis pregnancy centers and post-abortive ministries, pointing people to resources that can help them or to aid them in experiencing healing and forgiveness. And, I would certainly encourage everyone to pray and fast that our country regain a respect for the sanctity of human life.