Issues of "Moral Weight"

Interview With Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City

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By David Hartline

KANSAS CITY, Kansas, NOV. 19, 2008 (Zenit.org).- While the Church is interested in a wide range of social issues, there are certain issues -- such as the protection of the unborn -- that carry a heavier "moral weight," says the archbishop of Kansas City.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann is one of the 70 heads of dioceses who spoke out this election year to urge voters to support pro-life candidates.

In this interview with ZENIT, the archbishop discusses the changes he has seen in society, and how he see in the youth a strong future for the Church.

Q: Your Excellency, could you tell us about your formative years and the Catholic culture you experienced growing up?

Archbishop Naumann: I grew up in the 50s and early 60s. Life in those years centered on the parish community. God was at the center of our family life and parish life. My father died before my birth and, perhaps, because of that our parish priests took a great interest in my brother and me. Priests were my heroes and role models, so it was natural that I would consider a priestly vocation.

Q: Were the changes you saw in the Church during 1960s and 1970s gradual, or did you notice them immediately?

Archbishop Naumann: The 1960s and 1970s were, in many ways, an exciting time in the Church and society. Like many young Catholics, I was inspired by John F. Kennedy and his challenge to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. I was inspired by the civil rights movement and the efforts to bring about in law and society, equality for people of all races.

The changes in the Church, resulting from the Second Vatican Council, were also exciting. I experienced the reform of the liturgy as an effort to make the Eucharist more accessible to God's people.

Yet, in time, I began to see another side to some of the cultural changes around me. The disastrous consequences of the drug culture and the sexual revolution became more and more apparent. At the time it was issued, I did not appreciate the courageous and prophetic nature of "Humanae Vitae."

In time, I began to appreciate the heroic leadership of Pope Paul VI in protecting the authentic meaning of our sexuality, as well as the meaning of marriage. In the liturgy, I also began to realize, for all of our good intentions with the renewal, some of the experience of the sacred had been diminished.

Q: How did Benedict XVI's visit to the United States in April affect you?

Archbishop Naumann: Pope Benedict's visit was an extraordinary experience. He exceeded in every way my hopes and expectations for the visit. It was beautiful to see firsthand the warm and positive response that the Pope received from not only Catholics, but from all Americans, in both Washington and New York.

Pope Benedict presented himself as a loving and gentle shepherd who spoke the truth with love, serenity and authority. The youth rally in New York was truly extraordinary. It was beautiful to see the young people's enthusiastic reaction to the Holy Father's presence, as well as his response to their affection by challenging them to live heroic lives of faith.

The last night of the visit, I was watching a panel discussion on one of the news stations evaluating the Holy Father's visit. A Jewish member of the panel said that you would have to give the College of Cardinals high marks in the selection of the last two Popes. He said that both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II were extraordinary leaders not just because of their remarkable intelligence and learning, but because of their integrity. They lived what they preached.

He suggested wryly maybe our country should look into this model for selecting leadership.

Q: Your Excellency, do you believe that the United States could be making a sharp turn toward secularism -- following the lead of Canada or Western Europe?

Archbishop Naumann: I do not believe that we have to take a fatalistic view and simply concede that we will inevitably go the same route as Western Europe or Canada. I think there are different dynamics in the make-up of the United States.

However, Europe and Canada are sober reminders of what could happen if the Church and all people of faith are not vigilant. Of course, the Church, in its beginning, found itself in a hostile society and throughout history and in some parts of the world today, the Church has to keep the light of truth burning in difficult cultural environments.

There are those who are constantly trying to write the obituary of the pro-life movement. I remember in the mid-1980's a television commentator reporting on the huge crowd at the annual March for Life as the "dying gasp" of the movement. It is 20 years later and the pro-life movement is growing stronger and younger.

Q: In this election cycle the clergy spoke out as never before for the rights of the unborn. More than one-third of all ordinaries issued statements on the importance of supporting pro-life candidates. Why do you think they spoke out like this?

Archbishop Naumann: Bishops and priests have had the example of Pope John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict XVI, both who have spoken the truth fearlessly with love. I also think that Archbishop [Raymond] Burke, in the last election cycle, calling Catholic politicians to accountability has had a significant impact.

Some Catholic politicians, for many years by their actions, have been contradicting Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, but now several are actually attempting to redefine what the Church teaches. This has compelled bishops to assert their role as the authentic teachers of the faith.

Q: Occasionally, we hear of some priests and even a few bishops who say we shouldn't be a one-issue Church. What should be the response to those critics?

Archbishop Naumann: Of course, the Church cares about a wide range of issues that pertain to the protection of human life and the promotion of the dignity of the human person. However, some issues have by their nature moral weight, particularly those that involve intrinsic evil, such as abortion or efforts to redefine the essence of marriage. These are actions that are by their nature are evil, no matter the circumstances. We have an obligation as Catholic to always oppose these grave evils.

There are other important moral issues, such as care for the poor or a just immigration policy. Catholics have an obligation to care about the plight of the poor or the immigrant, but we can disagree what policies best serve their needs. As priests, it is not our role to give our personal opinions about the best public policy solutions for international affairs or domestic economic issues. Our role is to help people understand the moral priorities and principles from Catholic teaching.

Q: One of the underreported aspects of the Church is the reverence of the young and their respect for the Church and the increase in vocations we are seeing. Is the tide turning in your archdiocese as well?

Archbishop Naumann: It is so encouraging for me, as a bishop, to see the enthusiasm for our Catholic faith among so many of our young adults. In the archdiocese, we have a wonderful Catholic college -- Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. I am edified by the number of students at Benedictine who go to Mass daily, receive the sacrament of penance regularly, and spend time in Eucharistic adoration.

However, it is just not at Benedictine. I witness a similar devotion and enthusiasm with the young men and women who participate in the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The Holy Spirit is doing something very powerful with our young people. We have some wonderful young men in the seminary. Currently, there are 21 men in seminary formation for our archdiocese and they are all high quality. Still, we need many more.

Q: I imagine being an archbishop must be somewhat surreal. What is it like?

Archbishop Naumann: Surreal is a good word for it. Becoming a bishop is not something I thought about for most of my priesthood. It is not something that I desired or wanted. My ambition was to be a parish priest and I still think that is the greatest ministry. As I look back, it is amazing to me how God prepares you gradually for what he asks of you. Being a bishop is an awesome responsibility. It is good for your prayer life, because you know that you cannot possibly do it on your own.

I find comfort in the example of Bishop Jean Baptiste Miege, the first bishop of what eventually became the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. When he was asked to be a bishop, he wrote his brother back in France, saying he would never have come to the United States if he thought they would do “this” to him. Bishop Miege wrote his brother that he could barely take care of his own soul; how could he be responsible for so many others. Bishop Miege was a great bishop.

He shows me what God can do if you humbly submit to his will and offer the little you have trusting, God will bless it and make it sufficient for the needs of his people.