In this interview by Thomas J. McKenna, Archbishop Joseph Naumann explains why he is disappointed she was nominated to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Your Excellency: As you know the Governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, is a Catholic with a long record of supporting abortion and has been nominated by President Obama to be the director of Health and Human Services. Last year you wrote the governor a letter asking that she refrain from presenting herself to receive Holy Communion because she was not in communion with the Catholic Church and its teachings. Can you explain what prompted you to do this?
I had entered into a rather long dialogue with the governor over many months, trying as best as I could, to make her aware of the seriousness of her past actions as well as her present positions. Following our long conversations and additional actions on her part, such as vetoing a bill that was aimed at trying to regulate abortion clinics, I first asked her, privately in a letter, not to present herself for Communion for her own integrity and for her own spiritual welfare. My intention was not to make that public. It was only subsequent to that when in March of the following year she presented herself for communion at one of our parishes and the pastor informed me that I wrote her again renewing my request. I informed her that I would make the request public because, in addition to my concern for her spiritual wellbeing, I was also very concerned about others being misled by her presenting herself as a faithful Catholic while holding positions that were completely contrary to our teaching on the sanctity of human life.
In many circumstances the media has tried to politicize the issue saying that you are abusing your pastoral authority to influence politics. How would you respond to that?
My intention and my aim have not been to influence politics at all. In fact the timing on all of this was really dictated by the governor’s own actions. It was not, for example, juxtaposed to an election. My concern was, first of all, for her spiritual welfare and then secondly, and equally important, to protect the rest of my flock from being misled by her actions. Frequently I received letters from people who were outraged at how the governor continued to go to Communion and yet consistently over the years aggressively supported legalized abortion. I was not principally concerned with the people who were writing me letters because they understood the contradiction. My greater concern was the larger number of faithful who were not writing letters and who were subject to being confused and might be thinking that perhaps the Church did not really see this as all that serious of an issue. My motivation was primarily to protect the Church and her teaching, as well as to protect our people from being misled.
Some Catholics are saying that the faithful should be proud that the President has nominated a Catholic to such a high cabinet post and the faithful should focus on the positive things that the governor has achieved throughout her public life. What would you say to them?
I have said on many occasions that the governor does possess many gifts and talents of leadership, and that there are aspects of Catholic social teachings that she has embraced and actually represents well in her public life. However, on the fundamental moral issue of the sanctity of human life she has been consistently, throughout her political career, an opponent of what the Church teaches. Under normal circumstances I, as the metropolitan Archbishop of Kansas, would be rejoicing that a Catholic from Kansas had been chosen for a cabinet position. However, in actuality, this just elevates to the national level another Catholic who is inconsistent in the practice of her faith. Now she is joining Vice President Biden, Speaker Pelosi and a whole raft of others in the senate and congress which I think are sending very confusing messages. It certainly is not a reason to rejoice to have yet another Catholic, in a prominent national position, sending a very confusing message to her fellow Catholics by her position on abortion. What is also of great concern is that this is a very important position. Governor Sibelius will have influence in helping to shape policies regarding health care in the country particularly as they impact the life issues. Unfortunately, I think that anyone this president appoints is not going to be someone who is sensitive to the sanctity of human life. That is an unfortunate consequence of the choice of the American people in the last election.
Today many people do not seem to realize the seriousness of giving scandal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.” [CCC 2284] Given the seriousness of scandal is this not the reason you felt obligated to denounce Governor Sebelius’ long time public stance of supporting abortion and yet presenting herself as a practicing Catholic?
It absolutely is and it is absolutely the main reason I feel it is important for me to speak at this time as she is put on this national platform. I think this allows the scandal to spread even farther than the borders of Kansas. It is a very deadly message that she and others are communicating by this active support for legalized abortion.
As the pastor of a diocese entrusted with the responsibility of looking after the well-being of souls, how did you feel when you were put in the position of having to publicly reprimanding one entrusted to your care?
It is not a pleasant task. But it is part of my responsibility. As a priest and as a bishop we spend our lives trying to draw people to the Lord in the Eucharist. So to ask someone to refrain from receiving the Eucharist is a most serious matter and it is not something that I or any bishop would do lightly. However, on the other hand, part of our responsibility is to protect the integrity of the Eucharist, as well as to protect the integrity of our Faith and by preventing innocent people from being misled. While it was not a pleasant thing to do, and it certainly takes one’s time and attention away from other pastoral needs, I felt it was a very important matter and an obligation on my part. Though I would rather be doing other things than trying to clarify these issues for people, it is an essential part of my ministry as a teacher of the Faith.
What counsel would you offer to a Catholic who feels inspired to follow a career in public life today but above all wants to remain faithful to their Catholic Faith?
I would say that you have to be faithful to your Catholic principles. If to be faithful means you cannot advance, then so be it. We really need principled people in both parties that are trying to move their parties to embrace a position that respects the sanctity of all human life. We need people in the Democratic Party at the grass roots level who begin to change the party’s position on this fundamental human rights issue. We need people within the Republican Party who are dedicated to preserving the party’s pro-life plank in the platform. We need good people to go into public life. This requires great sacrifices on their part. Their ambition must not be just to get elected. The most important thing for a Catholic politician is to be able to know in their own conscience that they have maintained their integrity. There are many issues in public life, where Catholics and other people of good will may disagree but when it comes to the fundamental issues of the sanctity of human life or the dignity of the human person, there can be no compromise. For example, just as a Catholic could not support a racist position to get elected if that was a popular position, so they cannot compromise their integrity on the sanctity of the un-born child in order to get elected.