Archbishop Joseph Naumann is anxious about President Joe Biden’s soul. The two men are in some ways similar: cradle Catholics born in the 1940s who witnessed John F. Kennedy become America’s first Catholic president. Both found a natural home in the Democratic Party—in Naumann’s midwestern family, asking Catholics if they were Democrats was a redundancy. Naumann became a priest and Biden became a politician, but their paths really diverged over the issue of abortion. Now in his 70s, Naumann watched Biden—America’s second Catholic president—transform into a vocal supporter of abortion rights while competing for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Naumann runs the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and also leads what the Catholic bishops describe as their pro-life activities. He has suggested that Biden should no longer call himself a devout Catholic. At the very least, Naumann says, Biden should stop receiving Communion, a holy sacrament in Catholic life.
Part of Naumann’s concern is theological: When Catholics receive Communion, they must strive to do so “worthily,” meaning they have repented of their sins and desire to live in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church. In the Bible, the apostle Paul warns of grave consequences for those who take Communion unworthily. But Naumann is also worried about the message Biden communicates to other Catholics when he takes Communion while continuing to support abortion rights: “Whether he intends it or not, he’s basically saying to people, ‘You can be a good Catholic and do similar things,’” Naumann told me.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently convened a working group to discuss how the bishops should interact with Biden, and how they should deal with the challenge of having a visibly Catholic president who defies Church teachings on a central issue. Naumann was part of that group. Conflicts have already arisen: Naumann recently co-authored a statement expressing moral concerns about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was developed and tested using cell lines from aborted fetal tissue. He also joined a statement from a group of the country’s top bishops celebrating the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, but called it “unconscionable that Congress has passed the bill without critical protections needed to ensure that billions of taxpayer dollars are used for life-affirming health care and not for abortion.”
I spoke with the archbishop about why he sees Biden’s position on abortion as a problem, and what the bishops will do next. Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Emma Green: The second-ever Catholic president of the United States—a man who attends weekly Mass and quotes Augustine and carries a rosary—also supports the expansion of abortion rights. Do you think this presents a challenge to the witness of the Church?
Archbishop Joseph Naumann: Yes. To have a president who is an engaged Catholic, but who acts in contradiction to some of our most fundamental moral teachings—we haven’t really faced that kind of challenge before.
Green: So what is the exact challenge? Do you think the teachings of the Catholic Church will be misinterpreted or misunderstood by people who see President Biden talk about his faith?
Naumann: One of the issues is the extent to which he supports legalized abortion, even to the point of wanting all Americans to fund abortion. But the bigger issue, for us, is the one you alluded to, which is that he does these things, and then in reply to questions about them, he or his press secretary says, “Biden’s a devout Catholic.”
Whether he intends it or not, he’s basically saying to people, “You can be a good Catholic and do similar things.”
Green: You have said that the president should not offer himself up to receive Communion. Why is Communion the place in Catholic life where this conflict between President Biden’s Catholic identity and his support for abortion should be adjudicated?
Naumann: If a non-Catholic Christian wants to enter into full communion with the Church, they’re asked to make a profession where they say, “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” Each time we receive the Eucharist, we’re also saying that profession. That’s why it becomes a point of confusion. Obviously, the president doesn’t believe what we believe about the sacredness of human life, or he wouldn’t be taking the actions that he is. And yet, he continues to receive the Eucharist. We can’t judge his heart. But we consider the action itself a grave moral evil.
Green: When you’re saying there’s a “grave moral evil” there, you’re saying that if Joe Biden participated in any legislative attempts, for example, to end the Hyde Amendment and allow federal funding for abortions—that would be the same moral evil as if he were to perform an abortion or assist some member of his family in having an abortion?
Naumann: I would say there is a similar gravity. They’re obviously not identical things. But he’s formally cooperating in abortion by his actions. He intends to make abortion available and accessible, to promote it, even help pay for it. He wants to force everybody else to do this as well, even if it violates their consciences.
Green: When Kathleen Sebelius, who is Catholic, was the governor of Kansas, you asked her not to receive Communion. Is this something you have done with other public officials?
Naumann: I had several conversations with her over a couple-year period about this issue, wanting to make sure she understood its gravity. At some point, I said, “Governor, we have to bring some closure to this.” I said, “I don’t really want to publicly embarrass you, but I ask that you don’t do this, because it’s what we would call ‘scandal in the Church,’ which means she could lead others into error by her actions.” Obviously Governor Sebelius wasn’t happy with that. Some months later, one of our priests called me and said she had been at a Mass and had come to Communion. So I chose to make it public that I had made that request to her. I’ve talked to other legislators about this issue. We haven’t taken the same actions at this time with others.
President Biden is not my parishioner. Governor Sebelius was. But obviously the president impacts us all. I want to protect my people from being misled. His actions, right now, do mislead. They do create confusion for people in terms of what the Church believes and teaches.
Green: Do you believe the bishops should more widely discourage elected officials who support abortion from taking Communion, and should forbid priests from offering it to them?
Naumann: I do believe that we have an obligation as pastors to try to work for their spiritual good. If it’s a member of public life doing things that are moral evils, then I or their pastor need to help them be aware of the seriousness of what they’re doing.
I wonder whether a public effort to deny Communion to the most visible Catholic in the United States, Joe Biden, could be hurtful to those Catholics who don’t line up perfectly with the Catholic Church.
Naumann: Why is the abortion issue so morally important to us? The bishops of the United States recently ratified a statement in which we called it the preeminent issue of our time. It attacks innocent human life when it’s most vulnerable. It happens within the context of the family and attacks the most precious of human relationships: that between a mother and a child. And the sheer numbers of abortions—there’s no other issue in terms of the numbers of lives destroyed. So that’s why. It’s not the only issue for us, obviously, but it’s one that we consider preeminent.
Green: Something I’ve heard in my reporting, talking to Catholics who would describe themselves as pro-life, is a kind of grief around the way in which they perceive the pro-life cause to have become aligned with the Republican Party—and over the last four years, with President Trump. There’s this phrase that gets tossed around—that President Trump is the most pro-life president in history—signaling that he’s someone the pro-life movement fully gets behind.
Do you think there’s any damage in aligning the pro-life movement with one party, and particularly with President Trump?
Naumann: Well, first of all, I’d say I share their grief. I grew up in a family that thought that, if you asked a Catholic if they were a Democrat, they’d say that was a redundancy. I firmly believe we’ll never really build this culture of life we want until we have members of both parties. It can’t be a single-party issue.
But that’s not something people in the pro-life movement have chosen. The political parties have chosen their positions on this. It’s a great sadness to me that the Democratic Party has become so intolerant of anybody who has pro-life convictions. They’ve driven a lot of people out of their party.
Green: Do you think President Biden presents opportunities for the Church on other issues that matter for the family? For example: immigration and family separations at the border, which he has said he opposes.
Naumann: Yes. One of the things Biden has done that I feel is very positive is to increase the number of refugees that our country will welcome. Also, his aspirations to bring legalization to those who weren’t born in this country but were brought here as children. Hopefully, his Catholic formation has helped him to have compassion for the poor and compassion for those fleeing violence and economic poverty. So yes, I think those are positive things that the president can do and will do, for the good of some of the people that are on the margins.
Green: President Biden has forcefully come out in support of gay rights. And there are a lot of Catholics in America who feel strongly that it’s important to support LGBTQ Catholics. Several members of the hierarchy and many more priests have been part of that advocacy effort. Do you think there is a way for Catholics to extend greater welcome to LGBTQ people into the Church, and to make sure they are protected and honored as equal citizens?
Naumann: Yes. Every human being, we believe, is made in the image of God. Because of that, they need to be respected and treasured. Everybody’s dignity comes from God. There’s no question about that. But there is a question about what actions are moral or immoral. The moral teaching of Christianity has been clear on this issue for 2,000 years. There are many efforts within the Church to help those who are conflicted because of same-sex attractions—to know that they’re loved and respected. But we can’t support people making moral choices that are really harmful to themselves and to society in general.
I think there’s a difference between loving and respecting and honoring all people, but that doesn’t mean that all choices can be respected or honored.
Green: I know you’ve been part of the USCCB working group on the bishops’ relationship with the Biden administration. Was there any final conclusion about what priests should do if and when Biden presents himself to receive the Eucharist?
Naumann: No. That wasn’t our job or our mission.
Green: Got it. And do you expect there to be further writings along those lines?
Naumann: Each bishop is responsible to teach the faith in his diocese. So I think each bishop will do that, to the best of his ability. They will continue to teach and exercise their pastoral ministry in trying to form their people in the truth of the Catholic faith.