During this year's Holy Week, in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, Catholics find themselves in a fierce debate as some would try to cancel an archbishop for correctly stating Church teaching. This is specifically on abortion as it pertains to President Joe Biden, who is often showcasing his Catholic faith. Candidate as well as President Biden's staffers, surrogates, and supporters, are often reminding voters that Biden is a "devout" Catholic, despite how he publicly disagrees with the Church on abortion.
Jen Psaki spins out of Hyde Amdt. & Mexico City question by saying Pres. Biden is a "devout Catholic".— Cassie Smedile (@CMSmedile) January 21, 2021
Either Pres. Biden is about to be a very pro-Life President or Jen Psaki (and basically everyone else) needs to stop referring to him as a "devout Catholic"...! pic.twitter.com/Tvy9qVvUnW
On March 14, the Atlantic published an interview between Emma Green and Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, a position he was elected to by his fellow bishops. Green also referenced how Naumann has said Biden should not call himself "devout" and should not present himself for Communion. This is what the critics are all up in arms over, as referenced in a March 18 open letter sponsored by Faithful America and Faith in Public Life Action.
As of Thursday evening, the letter has collected 19,619 signatures, also indicating it is 5,981 signatures away from its goal of 25,600.
The preliminary text reads:
In the latest sign that some U.S. Catholic bishops are out of step with Pope Francis, the bishops' pro-life committee chair claims President Biden should stop calling himself a "devout" Catholic -- and even says the president should know better than to take Communion.
It's only a few months into Biden's term, yet Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, KS, is already far more critical of the new president than he ever was of Donald Trump. In a recent interview, Naumann even praised a South Carolina priest who bragged about denying Biden Communion on the campaign trail.
This focus on personal, single-issue, culture-war attacks might not be a surprise, but it is dangerous. From COVID-19 to climate change to family separation, Trump's policies were so deadly that Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, KY, correctly called the ex-president "anti-life."
It's time for top U.S. bishops to stop the attacks and join Pope Francis in finding common ground with President Biden. The bishops' conference must appoint a new pro-life chair -- a true pastoral leader who will pay equal attention to all life issues.
The letter in its entirety reads:
To: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
From: [Your Name]
President Biden regularly demonstrates how important faith is to his personal life and to his commitment to justice and the common good. Yet instead of following the pastoral model of Pope Francis and other bishops who are building bridges with only the second Catholic president in U.S. history, the chairman of the U.S. bishops' pro-life committee has questioned Biden's faith and even praised a priest who once denied Biden Communion.
As fellow Catholics, Christians, and other concerned people of faith, we urge conference leaders to remove Archbishop Joseph Naumann as chair of the pro-life committee. We encourage you to select a new leader who will refrain from attacking the president's personal faith, speak consistently about all life issues, work through sincere differences with respect, and join Pope Francis in seeking common ground with the administration.
While Archbishop Naumann accuses President Biden of "usurping the role of the bishops and confusing people," nobody is confused about the church's position on abortion. The real confusion comes when bishops like Joseph Naumann weaponize the Sacraments, malign the faith of sincere Catholics, and refuse to give equal attention to other pro-life issues. Pope Francis reminds us that "the lives of the poor" and "those already born" are "equally sacred."
In questioning President Biden's faith and even claiming he should not receive Communion, Archbishop Naumann is choosing the culture wars over pastoral leadership.
That the letter claims "Archbishop Naumann is choosing the culture wars," undermines how the Church's teaching on abortion is just that, the Church's teaching on abortion. Because Naumann was elected as Chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, it is especially relevant that he would speak the Truth on the abortion issue.
When it comes to Pope Francis, the letter fails to emphasize that the Holy Father has reaffirmed the Church teaching on abortion, on multiple occasions.
Every child who a woman expects in her womb is a gift that changes a family’s history: the life of fathers and mothers, grandparents and of brothers and sisters. That child needs to be welcomed, loved and nurtured. Always! #WorldDownSyndromeDay— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 21, 2021
Perhaps most concerning of all, though, is that the letter claims that "nobody is confused about the church's position on abortion." That is the entire point of concern here, that people would be.
In that interview with Green, Archbishop Naumann expands upon such points. "I spoke with the archbishop about why he sees Biden’s position on abortion as a problem, and what the bishops will do next," Green wrote.
Here is the beginning of the interview:
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.
The issue of whether or not to deny Communion to President Biden appears at the closing of the interview as well, with added emphasis:
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.
The issue of Communion comes up throughout the interview, because it is so crucial to properly understand as much as possible with this holy sacrament. The archbishop explains the role of bishops in reaching particular members of their flock:
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.
Referring back to Pope Francis and the accusations that Naumann is not and needs to "join Pope Francis in seeking common ground with the administration," Naumann does just that when asked by Green:
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.
The issue over whether to regard President Biden as a "devout" Catholic or not, and why, is furthered by pieces for secular outlets, including a December 9, 2020 post from Michelle Boorstein for the Washington Post, "Biden could redefine what it means to be a Catholic in good standing. Catholics are divided on whether that is a good thing;" a January 27 opinion column from EJ Dionne Jr., also for the Washington Post, "Joe Biden and the struggle for American Catholicism;" and a March 31 piece from Brian Bennett for Time, "Joe Biden’s Presidency Has Highlighted the Rifts in the American Catholic Church."
Bennett references the issue at hand facing Naumann, in writing:
Some church leaders are concerned that Biden may sow confusion over what it means to be devout. Conservative Catholics say Biden’s prominence legitimizes what is pejoratively referred to by some as “cafeteria Catholicism”—the idea that Catholics can choose which church teachings they adhere to. “We must pray and fast that the President will cease attempting to confuse people about Catholic teaching by trampling on the sanctity of human life while presenting himself as a devout Catholic,” said Kansas City Archbishop Naumann. “The presidency does not empower him to define Catholic doctrine and moral teaching.”
Other Catholics are coming to the Archbishop Naumann's defense. CatholicVote launched its own letter on March 25. One of the signatories, Kristan Hawkins, President, Students for Life of America and SFLAction, spoke to Townhall about the letter she signed. "The Catholic Church has always been opposed to the ending of preborn, innocent life, and I stand with those in my church working to protect the least of these because this is a fundamental issue," she told Townhall.
The text of the letter reads, with original emphasis:
We write to assure you of our deep gratitude for your ministry as a priest, a bishop, and an archbishop. With recent attacks on your good name and, by implication, your many years of service to Our Lord and His Church, we write today to thank you for speaking for the defenseless and to assure you of our prayers.
We are aware that an organization calling itself “Faithful America,” has demanded that you be removed from your role as Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities – despite being elected to this position by the majority of your brother bishops in the United States.
Ostensibly, the hard-left group who circulated this petition claims their call for your removal is based on what they erroneously believe to be an incompatibility with the priorities of our Holy Father. The letter’s author seems completely unaware that Pope Francis himself boldly compared having an abortion to “hiring a hitman.” The Holy Father said, “Is it right to hire a hitman to solve a problem? It is not right to kill a human being, regardless of how small it is, to solve a problem!” The letter likewise falsely accuses you of failing to “seek common ground” with a President who, on the one hand, talks about the importance of his Catholic faith, and with his other hand, personally signed Executive Orders that will directly lead to the deaths of thousands of unborn children.
Despite what the letter says, we know that you have dedicated your entire priesthood and episcopal ministry to consistently speaking for those with no voice. Although your own life was changed forever when your father was violently murdered, you nonetheless have consistently spoken out against the use of the death penalty. Further, at your request, your first decade as a priest was spent ministering in underserved communities of color in St. Louis.
When you were then asked to lead the pro-life office at the Archdiocese of St. Louis, you did not hesitate in your willingness to serve the Lord’s people in a new way. Your name became well-known in the pro-life movement as you helped to establish a strong Project Rachel ministry nationwide, assisting women and men adversely affected by an abortion experience. You are an annual presence at the March for Life in Washington each January. You have given countless hours of advice, support, and direction to pregnancy resource centers, striving to offer women humane and compassionate alternatives to abortion.
You have regularly visited nursing homes and facilities for the elderly, prisons, and social service agencies that care for the marginalized. Even a brief examination of your life would have made all of this evident, yet the writers of the letter seemed more interested in character assassination than in an authentic “commitment to justice.”
We, the undersigned Catholics, are proud to stand with you!
We understand that your admonition of President Joe Biden, whose campaign was both funded and endorsed by Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, did not make you popular in some quarters. In publicly noting that the President’s unequivocal advocacy for abortion on demand makes him ineligible to receive Holy Communion, you have followed St. Paul’s directive to Timothy: “Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine.” (2 Tim 4:2-3)
We thank you for your courage in transmitting “sound doctrine” and for your commitment to defending the most vulnerable among us.
Please be assured of our prayers; please keep us in your own prayers.
As of Thursday evening, the letter has 43,886 signatures, in addition to the over 40 signatories.