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Column: Archbishop addresses questions that earlier column raised

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

My May 9 column, making public my request to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius not to present herself for reception of holy Communion until she had sought to repair the public scandal of her long-standing support for legalized abortion, not surprisingly has initiated quite a bit of discussion in secular newspapers, local talk radio shows and coffee-break conversations.

I have personally received a significant number of pro and con communications. While I attempt to acknowledge every letter I receive, it is not possible for me to make an in-depth response to each one. Similarly, it is not possible for me to respond to every newspaper editorial, letter to the editor or radio caller.

In this column, I want to provide you with my responses to some of the more common questions and misunderstandings regarding my pastoral action. I hope this is helpful for your own personal understanding. However, I also hope that it makes you feel more confident and better informed so that you can explain to others who have questions and concerns.

Q. Why was the governor singled out for this pastoral discipline? Are there not others in elective office who hold similar positions? 

A. Governor Sebelius holds the highest elective office in the state of Kansas, making her the most prominent Catholic in public life. It is a time-intensive process to enter into verbal and written dialogue, as is necessary, to insure a person is aware of the spiritual and moral consequences of their actions, as well as to understand the scandal their actions cause for others. It is my intention eventually, as much as the limitations of my own time permit, to have similar pastoral dialogues with other Catholics in elective office who support legalized abortion.

Q. When should a Catholic refrain from receiving holy Communion? 

A. In November 2006, the bishops of the United States issued a pastoral document entitled “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper” which addressed this question as follows: “In order to receive Holy Communion we must be in communion with God and with the Church. Mortal sin constitutes a rejection of communion with God and destroys the life of grace within us. Mortal sin is an act violating God’s law that involves grave matter and that is performed with both full knowledge and complete consent of the will. If we are no longer in the state of grace because of mortal sin, we are seriously obliged to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until we are reconciled with God and the Church” (no. 4).

Q. Is it not the responsibility of the individual Catholic to judge their worthiness to receive holy Communion? Why would a bishop ask someone to refrain from presenting himself for reception of holy Communion?

A. Normally, it is the responsibility of the individual Catholic to make the judgment of whether he or she is able to receive holy Communion. It is also the responsibility of the individual Catholic to have a well-formed conscience that is informed by the teachings of the church. However, if an individual persistently acts publicly in a manner that is inconsistent with fundamental moral teachings of the church and continues to receive holy Communion, a bishop may feel obliged to intervene for the good of the individual and to protect others from being misled. “Happy Are Those Called to His Supper” addresses this issue: “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teachings on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion, in such a situation, would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.” [4]

Q. Is a priest or another minister of Communion ever required to deny someone Communion? 

A. Canon 915 of the church’s law states: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.” In my request to Gov. Sebelius, I have made clear that it is her responsibility not to present herself for reception of holy Communion. I am hopeful that she will comply with this request.

Pastorally, it is certainly preferable not to burden ministers of the Eucharist with the responsibility to refuse Communion to someone. Ministers of Communion do have an obligation to protect the sacrament from misuse or abuse. I have, at this moment, not asked the ministers of the Eucharist not to give holy Communion to the governor.

Q. What is meant when it is said that Gov. Sebelius’ actions were scandalous? 

A. To answer this question, I again refer to “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper,” which references the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “To give scandal means more than to cause other people to be shocked or upset by what one does. Rather, one’s action leads someone else to sin. Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. To lead others into sin is indeed a very serious matter. Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged” (no. 4).

Governor Sebelius’ public support for legalized abortion, as a Catholic, naturally leads others to question the moral gravity of abortion. In effect, her actions and advocacy for legalized abortion, coupled with her reception of holy Communion, have said to other Catholics: “I am a good Catholic and I support legalized abortion. You can be a good Catholic and support legalized abortion.”

Q. How can the church require the governor to fail to uphold her oath of office to enforce the laws and court decisions of the state and federal government?

A. No one has asked the governor not to uphold her oath of office. However, the governor does have an obligation, as a Catholic, to express her opposition to laws and judicial decisions that fail to protect the lives of the innocent and to do all in her power to work to change the law. She has a responsibility to use her exceptional leadership abilities to extend the maximum protection possible under the current limitations imposed by the Supreme Court.

Q. The governor claims that the Comprehensive Abortion Reform Act that she vetoed was unconstitutional and would jeopardize the privacy rights of women. Is it fair for the church to attempt to force her to sign bad laws by requesting she not receive Communion?

A. My initial request for the governor not to present herself for Communion was before her veto of the Comprehensive Abortion Reform Act. I challenged the governor to produce a single instance in her legislative or executive career where she has supported any effort to limit abortions. In the 1980s and 1990s, as a state representative, she voted to weaken or eliminate even such modest measures as parental notification for teens, waiting periods, or informed consent protections for women before an abortion. When Gov. Sebelius was running for reelection in 2006, she was profiled on Emily’s List Web site and quoted as saying: “I have always led the fight to ensure that abortion is safe, legal and rare.” Emily’s List is a political action committee that only supports women candidates who support legalized abortion. On that same Web site it stated: “As governor she (Kathleen Sebelius) has vetoed legislation to severely limit women’s choices.” My request for the governor not to present herself for Communion, was not about any one action, but a 30-year history of advocating and acting in support of legalized abortion.

Q. Is it not wrong for the church to attempt to impose its religious beliefs on others? 

A. While one can be a faithful Catholic and support a wide diversity of strategies on the vast majority of issues, it is not possible to compromise on the sanctity of human life.

For the Catholic in public life, the unequivocal defense of such a fundamental human right is not imposing one’s Catholic faith upon others. The fact that the church addresses the morality of such a basic right does not make this an exclusively religious issue. Just as supporting public policies that prohibit stealing, racism, or murder — moral issues also very clearly addressed by the church — is not an imposition of Catholic doctrine, neither is advocating for policies that protect human life in its earliest stages.

Q. Governor Sebelius says that she is personally opposed to abortion, but she supports the law protecting the right of others to choose an abortion. Why is this not a morally acceptable position?

A. Freedom of choice is not an absolute value. All of our laws limit our choices. I am not free to drive while intoxicated or to take another’s property or to assault someone else. My freedom ends when I infringe on the more basic rights of another. On a similarly grave moral issue 150 years ago, Stephen Douglas, in his famous debates with the future President Abraham Lincoln, attempted to craft his position as not favoring slavery but of the right of people in new states and territories, such as Kansas, to choose to sanction slavery. Being pro-choice on a fundamental matter of human rights was not a morally coherent argument in the 1850s, nor is it today. No one has the right to choose to enslave another human being, just as no one has the right to kill another human being. No law or public policy has the authority to give legal protection to such an injustice.

Q. Is it not wrong for the church to deny Communion to someone because they support the law of the land?

A. First of all, it is important to recall our own history. We do not have permissive abortion public policies in our country because of a vote of the people. In fact, the 1973 Supreme Court decisions struck down all state laws prohibiting and/or restricting abortion. It is the court that has imposed its doctrine on the entire nation, prohibiting the people or their elective representatives from meaningfully limiting abortion. The recent decision of the California Supreme Court striking down the state ban on same-sex marriages is yet another illustration of the arrogance of the courts. Those who suggest that the church should alter its teaching and discipline on the issue of abortion because of our current public policy, in effect, want to extend the court’s authority to alter also the doctrine of church.

Q. The law does not force anyone to have an abortion. Why not just try to convince people not to have an abortion rather than work to change the law?

A. We must do both. We should do everything possible to persuade and influence others not to have an abortion. We must support crisis pregnancy centers that assist those experiencing an untimely pregnancy. However, the law does not just permit abortion, it “teaches” abortion. Our laws do not permit us, in any other instance, to take the life of an innocent person. The fact that the law permits abortion communicates, especially to the young, that abortion does not really destroy another human life. The number of abortions dramatically increased after the court struck down the state laws restricting abortions. One of the fundamental responsibilities of government is to protect the innocent and the vulnerable.

Q. Are not the actions of the church requesting Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion not to receive Communion really an attack on Democrats? 

A. No. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York has made a similar request of former Republican presidential candidate and former mayor Rudy Giuliani. I encourage Catholics who are Democrats to remain Democrats, but to change the extremist position of the party on abortion. If the majority of Catholic Democrats objected to the platform of the party supporting legalized abortion, it would change tomorrow. In the end, to create an enduring public policy that will protect the right to life of innocent unborn children, we need to build a consensus that includes both Democrats and Republicans.

Q. Why does the church allow for legitimate disagreement among Catholics on other public issues, but not abortion?

A. The bishops of Kansas addressed this issue in our August 2006 statement, “Moral Principles for Catholic Voters,” in which we said:

“A correct conscience recognizes that there are some choices that always involve doing evil and which can never be done even as a means to a good end. These choices include elective abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, the destruction of embryonic human beings in stem-cell research, human cloning and same-sex marriage. Such acts are judged to be intrinsically evil, that is, evil in and of themselves, regardless of our motives or the circumstances. They constitute an attack against innocent human life, as well as marriage and family. Pope John Paul II warned that concern for the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with the maximum determination (“Christifidelis Laici,” no. 38).

“Other examples of choices that always involve doing evil would be racial discrimination and the production and use of pornography. These actions offend the fundamental dignity of the human person.

“Concerning choices that are intrinsically evil, Catholics may not promote or even remain indifferent to them.”

Q. Are there other issues in American history when the church has taken similar pastoral actions?

A. Yes. In St. Louis, for example, in 1946, then-Archbishop Joseph Ritter ordered the desegregation of the Catholic schools. A group of laity attempted to organize in order to oppose his decision. Archbishop Ritter threatened excommunication, which resulted in this opposition group disbanding. The archbishop of New Orleans actually did excommunicate some Catholics for their opposition to racial integration.

Q. Does the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church discredit it from being able to address moral social issues like abortion?

A. In logic, this type of argument is termed “ad hominem.” It is an attempt to attack personally one’s opponent in a debate, rather than make substantive arguments about the issue being debated. It is usually an indication of a weak position by the person making the “ad hominem” argument. What is needed is a substantive discussion of this important social and moral issue, not personal attacks!


About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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