“We didn’t pick the time, nor did we pick the fight”

An exclusive interview with Archbishop Naumann about the HHS mandate, the Ryan budget, and what the Supreme Court ruling means for the religious freedom fight.

Most Reverend Joseph F. Naumann, D.D., archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, has been an important figure in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as a member of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and the Committee on Marriage and Family Life.

He spoke yesterday with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, a few hours after the much-anticipated Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, and shared his thoughts about that ruling, the HHS mandate, the national debt, the importance of the principle of subsidiarity, and the role of bishops in articulating and proclaiming Catholic social doctrine.

CWR: What is your initial impression of, or reaction to, the Supreme Court ruling about the health-care bill?

Abp. Naumann: I think it makes even more important now the court challenges that have been filed by many dioceses and Catholic institutions in terms of religious liberty and conscience-rights protections. I think that becomes even more important as it appears this law is going to go into effect. The American bishops as a body have always supported—and I think it is important to say—increased access to health-care for the poor. And so that’s always been a priority for us and if we can make that available to the poor in a way that is financially responsible, then I think we certainly support it.

But there was unified opposition by the bishops to this bill because of its refusal to put in language that would prohibit it from being used for abortion and the refusal to put in conscience-protection language. We’ve seen both of those to be valid concerns with the HHS mandate’s implementation of this bill.

CWR: There were reports from the USCCB meeting earlier this month that you had expressed concern about critical remarks made by certain USCCB committees about Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. You were quoted as saying that such remarks can create the perception of partisanship, and you made a point about how the principle of subsidiarity has been “neglected in past documents.” Why has the principle of subsidiarity been neglected so often from the pulpit, by bishops? Why do so few Catholics know of it and understand it?

Abp. Naumann: [Laughs] I’m not sure I know the answer to why it has not been emphasized to the degree it should. And I think, perhaps, in recent years more and more people—myself included—have come to appreciate how important that principle is. And part of that comes from our experience. I think one of the things counseled against in various Church documents is what Pope Benedict XVI has sometimes referred to as “statism,” that the state becomes the solution for everything, whereas in the past the family and other mediating institutions were really the vehicles for providing health-care, food, and shelter for the poor.

All of these things become more amalgamated, in our case, into the federal government, and that isn’t good for a couple of reasons. One, because there is a big bureaucracy and it is very inefficient. But it also gives too much power to a central authority, and that power is vulnerable to being abused. And I think we are now seeing an example of that with this health-care reform, by their putting into the implementation of that a real attack on conscience rights and on religious liberty, and actually making it a vehicle to redefine what it means to be “religious” in this country, and what qualifies for religious exemptions. So, I think more and more people within the Church are becoming aware of some of the consequences of giving too much power and authority over to any type of government entity as being the source for solving every social problem.

CWR: Otherwise you end up with what Pope Benedict has described as “the state that would be everything.”

Abp. Naumann: And I think we see the history of states that become more and more powerful is not good; the more power that is accumulated without checks and balances being in place, then there is the potential for a great abuse of power.

CWR: One striking aspect of Catholic social doctrine that is not often remarked upon is the emphasis on personal virtue. It seems to be overlooked. The term “social justice” is used a lot and criticized often; it is quite controversial. How do we as Catholics take back that term and regain it so we can say, “Authentic social justice is not a bad thing”?

Abp. Naumann: That’s a great question, and I think it’s important we try to reclaim that term because it is our vocabulary, but other people have taken it over. I think it has come to mean something that totally disregards some of the principles that are part of social justice, and subsidiarity is one of them. And I think, as you mention, that personal virtue is also one of those principles. Social justice doesn’t mean the state taking care of everybody, but empowering people so they can take care of themselves and their families. That’s the real dignity we want to help people achieve.

Part of my concern, which I expressed at the bishops’ meeting, is that people—who have good intentions and motivations—have too often looked to massive government programs to help the poor, yet we have a history now of almost 50 years with these programs and we don’t have fewer poor and we don’t have more people empowered. But we do have a weaker family life and weaker public morality. And so we have to look at it and ask, “Are these really the best ways to go about addressing the problem?” Not all of us, I think, agree with the way it has been addressed. Does the state have some role to play with the poor? Absolutely, I think, in terms of a safety net. But that doesn’t mean that we keep increasing the number of people who are dependent on the state in some way. That, to me, is the direction we’ve been going for the last 50 years.

CWR: The bishops agreed in Atlanta that a draft of the document “Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy” should be brought to the conference’s November meeting. What remarks can you make about it? What are some key points and principles that might be referenced in that text?

Abp. Naumann: First, I’m not sure who actually will be authoring that document because when we left the meeting, my understanding was that Cardinal Dolan, president of the Conference, would appoint a writing committee. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that the committee that proposed it is the one that actually writes. And in their description of what the document is, there are some good balancing points. For example, they talked about it emphasizing both the principle of subsidiarity and the principle of solidarity. They also talked about it emphasizing communal responsibility as well as individual responsibility. And it will talk about the importance of policies that support the family, which again, I think is so crucial because social science data overwhelming shows that if we have healthy families, a lot of social issues diminish greatly, so whatever we can do to empower marriage and family life has to be an important part of what we say.

One of the elements that wasn’t there that I think has to be there is the federal debt.  We cannot simply propose things that are going to increase the debt, and we need to be a responsible voice in the discussion. That was one of my concerns about the criticisms of Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. I don’t think his proposal is perfect and I think it can be criticized, but I was specifically upset because there were letters sent by the committee [the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development] that spoke about aspects of his proposal being immoral, and I think that was an overstating. We can be critical of aspects of it, but I think Ryan offered a legitimate proposal that was trying to respond to human needs that are there as well as to the national debt, which can also be a great injustice if we pass that on to our children and grandchildren.

And there is the fact that the Senate, on the other side, has offered nothing, hasn’t offered a budget. So here, at least, is a proposal, and I think that Representative Ryan makes a case as to how this proposal can be consistent with Catholic principles. Now, whether it is the right proposal or the best proposal, I don’t claim to know. But I think it is wrong to call it “immoral”—as opposed to saying how it is really irresponsible for the Senate to not even put a proposal out there while simply sitting back and criticizing the only viable proposal that has been put forward by the Congress at this point.

CWR: Many lay Catholics are frustrated there is little discussion about something you just touched on, which is the sort of moral responsibility that comes with dealing with the debt. There is a moral responsibility involved, as it is not right to continually rack up more debt for future generations.

Abp. Naumann: Yes, I think so. And because we haven’t the drastic consequences of this yet, I think it is easy for us to ignore. But eventually there are going to be consequences if we don’t address it, and they are going to be draconian for the poor and for everybody else in this country. Part of the problem with the committee’s letters is how they are interpreted in the general public, because they were reported as being from the bishops of the United States, when it is actually one committee from within the Conference. And I felt that committee had spoken in an infelicitous way at this particular moment. I think that every bishop has a right to teach in his diocese. But I think for a Conference committee to publish a letter like that wasn’t helpful and it wasn’t fair. So my comments were made in the context of the upcoming document, so that it will be more balanced. And what they were saying will be in the document was good, but we’ll have to see what the finished document is.

CWR: A lesbian couple from Westchester, New York is suing the Catholic hospital there for (according the New York Post), “for refusing to recognize New York’s gay-marriage law.” Do you think we will soon see lawsuits against the Church by same-sex couples demanding not only recognition of their “marital” status, but even demanding that Catholic Church perform “same-sex” wedding ceremonies? Is this the next big issue? Where is it headed?

Abp. Naumann: There is a lot at stake in this debate. But, unfortunately, I don’t think many of our people recognize what really is underneath all of this. I think many people in the Church have always advocated for love and compassion toward every individual, and that every person, no matter what their sexual orientation, is made in the image of God and has a great, inherent dignity that we must respect and value. So to make fun of people, or to ridicule people, because of sexual orientation, or to discriminate, is wrong. But there is a difference between that and homosexual advocates in this country saying, “We want to change what has for a millennia has been understood as marriage and family life.” And underneath that is a desire to see homosexuals—who are not just those with an orientation but are living an active homosexual lifestyle—be a protected class under the Constitution. If that happens, then it might well be that what the Church teaches about homosexual behavior and what the Bible clearly teaches about homosexual behavior, would be defined as “hate speech.” And so the Church would be forced in different ways to silence itself in teaching a moral code that has been handed on to us through Scripture and Tradition, or else suffer severe penalties.

There is a great deal at stake here; yes, we want to act with compassion to everyone and to treat everyone with respect, but that doesn’t mean saying so-called homosexual “unions” are marriages and redefining marriage and family life. That’s a very dangerous thing. And we’re seeing it now in states where it has happened: it becomes mandated in the curricula in public schools that same-sex unions be taught as equivalent to heterosexual marriage. And there is a danger that our own schools [will] be put under pressure, at some point—that we [will] not be allowed to teach our own teachings on this matter. We have a massive educational job to do, because I think many of our people are influenced by the culture. I don’t watch much television or media or movies, but the little I see, this theme of gay marriage and the promotion of homosexual activity as an alternative and an equal lifestyle is very prominent, and Catholics are affected by it. And a misplaced compassion sometimes makes them think they should support same-sex marriage.

CWR: Regarding the HHS mandate, do you think the Obama administration has acted in “good faith”; that is, has the administration shown a real concern for religious liberty and the way in which this mandate will affect religious institutions?

Abp. Naumann: I’m not capable of judging their motivation, but I think what we can see in their actions is that despite the incredible amount of negative reaction and the backlash that came when the mandate was announced in January, the administration has not budged in any meaningful way on maintaining these mandates.

What is incredible to me is that I don’t think anyone believes there is a crisis in the availability of contraception in this country. It’s not expensive; the federal government is already providing millions of dollars of free contraceptives, so there was no crisis being addressed here. But this was a conscious effort of the administration; it was willing to contaminate the health-care bill with this, to coerce the Catholic Church and others who share our belief on contraception and abortion and sterilization, to force us to be implicated with this provision. So it’s not enough that it’s available, and that it’s free to the poor; no, we’re going to make you, the Catholic Church, provide it! And there really was no reason to do that, other than, I think, the raw exercise of power to coerce the Church to do that. And risking many other things that might be of value within the health-care bill to do so.

I don’t understand the administration’s motivation on it. Some suggest the administration believed it was a way to divide the Catholic community, and perhaps it is. But I think it is something that is very dangerous, not just for Catholics, because it really is about religious freedom and liberty: if this can be done to Catholics today, it can be done to any group of people tomorrow; that they can be coerced to do things against their consciences by the government. It is a very, very dangerous precedent if it is allowed to stand.

CWR: Was has been the reaction so far to the Fortnight of Freedom? What sort of response have you seen?

Abp. Naumann: For many people, the things we’ve been discussing seem peripheral to their day-to-day lives. So I think it’s understandable that these issues aren’t given as high of priority as we would like. So the Fortnight of Freedom has been an effort to do that. I am encouraged by the response of the people. This past weekend, I had every parish play a message I had recorded about it. And tomorrow [Friday, June 29] all of the dioceses in Kansas will be having a rally in Topeka, the state capitol, and we’re expecting at least a couple thousand people for it. I think the Fortnight of Freedom has been effective in raising the consciousness of the importance of this issue. And the feedback I am receiving is positive.

There are always some people who feel that the Church is becoming partisan and political in this. But we try to point out to them that we didn’t pick the time, nor did we pick the fight. It’s something this administration chose to do, and chose to do in an election year. It really is the administration that has chosen to make this fight; we’re just trying to protect the status quo. We’re not trying to advance any agenda other than to protect what has been there. And the timing is also of their choosing; they chose to do in the context of an election year. And we’re trying to do the Fortnight far enough away from the election but at the same time raise our people’s consciousness about the issues and importance of this situation. We either have to be silent and acquiesce to the mandate or we have to make our voices heard at this point.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.