Joseph Naumann was a seminarian in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in its Roe v. Wade decision.
He was firmly pro-life, but when, in 1984, as a young priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, he was asked if he would be willing to be considered for the position of archdiocesan pro-life coordinator, he was torn.
“I felt very passionate about the issue,” he said in a recent interview with the Register. “But I had never, even in my parish assignments, been in charge of the pro-life committee.”
He responded there were probably others more qualified for the job, but that he was certainly willing to be added to the list of people under consideration.
Now that seminarian who was so moved by Roe v. Wade is Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas — and in November, he will be installed as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
It is perhaps fitting: He has served as a member of the committee for six terms.
“That’s been a great privilege,” he said.
Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Archbishop Naumann speaks firmly on pro-life issues — and about public figures who profess to be Catholic yet support abortion.
He recalled Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in the 1984 election, speaking out in support of abortion.
“It really saddened me, after her selection for this high office, that immediately she started to basically contradict the clear teaching of the Church in terms of abortion,” said the archbishop. “That did motivate me at that point. I partially credit Geraldine Ferraro as providing negative inspiration for me!”
In 2008, he requested that Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius not present herself for reception of Communion because of the scandal caused by her public support for legal abortion. And in a 2016 article in the archdiocesan newspaper, he referred to “pro-choice” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, as a “cafeteria Catholic, picking and choosing the teachings of the Catholic Church that are politically convenient.”
Small wonder that Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said of the archbishop, “I would not be surprised to see [the archbishop] holding various people accountable — and not just politicians and legislators.”
There is a great deal of work to do on all fronts — something that Archbishop Naumann recognized very early on. While still serving in Missouri, he became a founding member of the Vitae Foundation, established when abortion advocates were working to get a referendum on the ballot that would have added the right to abortion to the Missouri Constitution.
“We realized we were going to have to raise a lot of money to fight this,” he recalled. “Fortunately for us, it didn’t happen.”
But such political action may not be too far into the future in Kansas.
The Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt court case, now before the Kansas Supreme Court, is arguing that the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights enshrines a woman’s right to abortion — even though the word “abortion” is used nowhere in the document.
That makes Archbishop Naumann’s passion for the rights of the unborn — and his position as the incoming chairman of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee — all the more important, said Mary Kay Culp, state executive director for Kansans for Life.
“He always steps up to the plate,” she explained. “He’s not going to be easy for people to miscategorize, which is good — because pro-life people have had to put up with that for years.” Michael Schuttloffel, the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, agreed.
“He cares about the unborn children; he cares about the mothers,” he said. “He just sees in its totality the magnitude of the evil that is abortion and has compassion for all of the victims of abortion — which include, of course, the unborn babies, but also very much the women who have been lied to about what abortion is.”
“I can’t think of anyone better to be in a pro-life leadership position than Archbishop Naumann. He was born to do this.”
Current committee chairman Cardinal Timothy Dolan concurs. “Archbishop Joseph Naumann is the Lou Gehrig of pro-life,” he told the Register.
“He’s been on the frontlines since he was a seminarian. We bishops will be lucky to have him!”
Forging a Pro-Life Passion
Several seminal events helped forge the archbishop’s passion for pro-life issues. One of them is his own birth, which occurred after the murder of his father — putting his mother in the challenging position of raising him and his older brother on her own.
“It gave me such respect for single parents and what they go through,” said the archbishop.
Now, when so many women in situations similar to his mother’s contemplate aborting their babies — or are bullied by others to do so — he feels great sympathy.
“So whatever we can do for women who are having an untimely pregnancy — how can we, as Church, surround them with love? I think my own experience gives me a lot of motivation in that area,” he said.
Another incident occurred at the first parish where he preached after being appointed the pro-life coordinator in St. Louis. A young woman asked if she could meet with him after Mass, and in their meeting, she told him that she had had an abortion a decade earlier — and that no one knew.
At family gatherings, she said, she would look at her nieces and nephews and think that her own child would have been around their age. Then she would go to the bathroom and cry, struggling to compose herself enough to return to the gathering.
“One of the deepest sufferings I ever accompanied people with was the death of the child.
“It’s one of the worst sorrows anyone can experience,” the archbishop said. “But when you put on top of that, ‘Not only is my child dead, but I authorized it, I took part in it’ — that is a terrible burden for women to carry.”
In an era when the abortion lobby argues that the pro-life movement cares nothing for women, but only for their unborn children, the archbishop’s sincere desire to help women and families shines through.
He would like to lead the Committee on Pro-Life Activities in work with couples struggling with infertility, he said, but he has already begun that work in the Archdiocese of Kansas City.
He was able to acquire a relic of St. Gianna Molla, the Italian wife and mother, to facilitate couples’ prayer for her intercession so that they might be able to conceive a child.
Inspiring Pro-Life Witness
“This generation is constantly looking for authentic leaders,” said Stephen Minnis, the president of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. “When you have a person who’s authentic and teaching the truth, they’re going to respond to that.
“[Archbishop Naumann] is a man of truth, and young people really respond to him because of the type of person he is.”
Each year, Archbishop Naumann leads a group of parishioners from the archdiocese to the March for Life in Washington, D.C.
Many of them are young people — and many of them are Benedictine students. (The college sends anywhere from five to 10 buses of students to the annual march, according to Minnis.)
A consistent presence on campus — the archbishop celebrates Mass for students a few times a year and also hosts a “Fireside Chat With the Archbishop” for senior philosophy and theology students — the archbishop’s passion for pro-life activity is well-known to the student body.
“No matter what talk he gives, what homily he gives, even during the fireside chats, there’s always a piece in there where he talks about the scourge of abortion in our country — his fight for the civil-rights issue of the day,” said Minnis.
“It gives our students an extra boost there. The archbishop is not just supporting them because that’s what the Church would want them to do, but encouraging them to do it.”
Encouragement, it seems, is one of his specialties. Jacki Ragan, director of state organizational development for National Right to Life, has known the archbishop for more than 25 years.
Also the convention director for National Right to Life, she has arranged for him to speak at the national convention at least a half-dozen times.
But more than any one of his presentations, she remembers watching him interact with a pro-life advocate who was feeling overwhelmed and discouraged.
“I just remember his words of wisdom: ‘We’re going to win this battle. We have to stay faithful and earnest,’” recalled Ragan.
“I can’t tell you that’s an exact quote, but it’s something along those lines — and it was a calming moment. We just have to continue. He’s exactly right: That’s what we have to do.”
More than just his reassuring words, his pro-life actions will encourage those who fight back in protest over the 45 years since Roe v. Wade — and for the millions of lives lost to abortion.
“Archbishop Naumann has a true heart for babies, born and unborn — and their mothers,” said Tobias.
“I know he is going to be encouraging people … to hold firm to the belief that unborn children are human beings and need to be protected.
“We know it’s going to make a difference.”
It is the archbishop’s prayer that the bishops’ committee will continue to make a difference — and make an impact in the effort to protect our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.
“Abortion has a special priority among the justice issues, which are all very important,” he said.
“I think the abortion issue is a premiere justice issue in our time.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.