In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Kathleen Sebelius reflected on her persecution by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City. Sebelius was publicly chastened by Naumann last May for her stance on abortion and prohibited from receiving Communion. Naumann recommended, among other things, that the then-Governor attend to the “amendment of her life.”
The recent trend of refusing Communion to pro-choice politicians is a prime example of how flawed leadership is weakening the Catholic Church. The Post’s "God in Government" blog mentions Sebelius’s “rift with the Catholic church.” Sebelius, I would argue, doesn’t have a rift with the Church—she has a history of disagreement with Joseph Naumann. Though it’s possible that members of Church hierarchy receive pressure from higher-ups in certain cases, Naumann’s stunt is all his own. He was undoubtedly incensed that in a state with so much anti-choice activism, a state in which Operation Rescue has its headquarters, a defender of reproductive rights sat in the Governor’s seat. She flouted him in her public, political life, and then she flouted him in her spiritual life, continuing to receive Communion after he asked her, privately, not to. When Naumann’s informants told him this, he wrote the column condemning her.
The picture we have from this is of a frustrated, angry man who is used to having his way. And I would argue that power, or the perceived threat to it, is behind the Communion police whenever they strike. Earlier this year, an Archbishop at the Vatican who formerly served in St. Louis had to apologize after making a comment that was perceived as a criticism of D.C.-area bishops (the offending Archbishop, Raymond Burke, claims that his remark was taken out of context). Burke was talking to Randall Terry about the question of denying or allowing Joe Biden Communion. At the time, the accused bishops, Donald Wuerl and Paul Loverde, defended their turf:
Wuerl and Loverde say such decisions are up to the bishop within the politician’s home diocese.
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So the din over whether Joe Biden or Kathleen Sebelius or John Kerry should receive Communion (or Ted Kennedy, now blissfully removed from the debate) is not only a struggle of Catholic hierarchs against politicians who displease them, but also a struggle within the hierarchy itself. It shows, very plainly, where the cracks are.
For now, at least, hierarchy rules: after their scolding last year, the bishops from D.C. and Arlington aren’t taking any chances with their new parishioner from Kansas. They’ve said they will “act in accord with Naumann’s wishes.” But so far, they’ve been much quieter than Naumann, doing their institution a great service.