As the pro-life movement looks to the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a longtime veteran of its ranks has moved into a key leadership position, especially for pro-life Catholics. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, since 2005, began last November a three-year term as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. In that role, Archbishop Naumann will preside at the Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and play a leading role in the bishops’ national strategies around defense of unborn and vulnerable human life.
Last year, Archbishop Naumann spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about taking on this role, his hopes for it and how he sees the dynamism of the pro-life movement as a hopeful sign. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:
Our Sunday Visitor: Given all of your experience in the pro-life movement, what philosophy or practical wisdom do you have for bringing people together and fostering unity in a large, diverse movement?
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann: I think any major human rights movement or social movement — historically, if you look at the Civil Rights movement, for instance — there’s a wide diversity of approaches. And I think that in some ways reflects the vitality of movements, that you have many people who are passionate about restoring protections for unborn children and all of the constellation of issues that surround that.
Part of a movement that’s healthy and alive is that there’s going to be a certain amount of diversity in approaches and in strategies. You try to treat everybody with respect and to acknowledge contributions that they’re making. But the Church, I think we have a very comprehensive and holistic approach to the life issues, and that’s well articulated in the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities (see sidebar). For us, it’s a multipronged approach. ... And under those categories, I think most people in the pro-life movement can find their place of what they’re being specifically called to do.
OSV: When you speak of a constellation of issues, that raises the tendency to say “issue X is a life issue.” Can you talk about how you see all of that fitting together?
Archbishop Naumann: You have to make some distinction there. On the one hand, there’s a narrow focus there. Like the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the bishops’ conference, we have a very narrow focus of issues that we’re focused on, which are abortion and euthanasia.
But the conference itself has a broad constellation of issues, and they’re all part of that. They’re all part of that respect life ethic, the dignity of the human person. And I think people need to be focused on particular areas. None of us can do everything. But as a Church we need to be engaged with all of these issues. ...
If you look at Catholic Charities in the archdiocese here, it has a whole range of projects that they do to try to help people in various circumstances. So we run a shelter for homeless men. We have several emergency care centers. We have a program where we try to buy people out of payday loans and get them back on their feet. We have a whole department that works with the Hispanic population, which is a very important part of our population here, and tries to help, whether they’re documented or undocumented. ... When you look at what we do as a Church as a whole ... we certainly stand behind what we say in terms of that broad range of issues that have to do with the dignity of the human person.
OSV: As you dialogue with others on abortion, do you find the Church’s consistent witness bolsters our credibility with people who disagree with us, especially those who accuse us of being “pro-birth” as opposed to “pro-life”?
Archbishop Naumann: I think it’s important for us to enter into dialogue. ... But I think part of that conversation ... is to help educate others and make sure that they’re not taken in by the misrepresentation that, sometimes, people do make of the Church and the pro-life movement.
Our crisis pregnancy centers — they are committed to following women a couple years after the birth of the child, to bring support around them, to help make sure they don’t just bring this child to birth, but ... that the mother and child both thrive. ... To say that we’re only concerned about the unborn, or only about bringing the child to birth, is a ... polemic that people on the other side use to try to distract from what the primary issue is: Is this a human life? And if so, does this human life deserve the same protections as every other human life?
OSV: Which is an argument that some young people, even ones who aren’t religious, have embraced, that the science of embryology, for instance, supports the human rights of the unborn. Have you seen inroads in this area?
Archbishop Naumann: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that’s helped the current generation to be much more pro-life than my generation is the science and the technology. And I think the ultrasound imaging, for one thing, has really taken away the lies that try to deny the humanity of the unborn. And I think science is on our side in this issue, and the more people understand the science, I think, the more they’re drawn to the truth, that we have to protect every member of the human family, no matter what stage of development or what age they might be. So yeah, I think that has had a big impact. And I think it’s the other side that has to try to manipulate the science.
OSV: As you begin your term as chair of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, what are you excited about?
Archbishop Naumann: I feel I’ve been privileged because of the circumstances of my ministry ... to work on the pro-life issue in my priesthood, and have tried to carry over that experience into my work as a bishop. ... What I hope to do ... is to start with the members and with the consultants and just have a brainstorming session on each of those four pillars of the pastoral plan, just to kind of assess where we are with them, but [also] what can we do more? ... What I think we’ll need to do is put the best ideas on the table and then prioritize them and try to take it a step at a time. ... that we would find ways to strengthen, improve, grow the Church’s efforts.
OSV: Is there anything you would like to raise or add?
Archbishop Naumann: I think the devil is always trying to discourage us. And with something like the pro-life effort, which has gone on for so many years now, we can be prone to become discouraged and wonder if we’re ever really going to reach our goal — ultimately, to protect every human life and make sure every human being is treated with respect and dignity. I always have admired Mother Teresa, what she said, when asked how she set out to help these millions of people. She said she didn’t, but she just set out to help the one — one person in the street, and then the next one and the next one. And ... it’s important for us to get that perspective. I think we advance ourselves oftentimes by taking small steps. But cumulatively, over time, they have a very powerful impact.