Kansas archbishop renews criticism of Sebelius on abortion

Archbishop Joseph Naumann isn't backing down.

"There are many who disagreed with the teachings Jesus gave as well," the leader of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas said a week after publicly upbraiding Health and Human Services nominee Kathleen Sebelius for her record supporting abortion rights.

"I don't think I have any influence on who's going to be the next secretary of HHS," Naumann added, but "I felt I had to exercise my teaching authority for the good of the Catholic community."

Naumann's denunciation of Sebelius — and similar statements on hot-button social issues from other Roman Catholic Church officials such as Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph — rocketed through the blogosphere last week.

They reignited a debate as old as the nation: Is the clergy blurring the line between Caesar and God?

"Why is it that the leaders of some churches believe they ought to be making political judgments based on someone's adherence to dogma?" said Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "I'm very troubled by this trend, and it is a growing trend."

Most of the discussion has centered on the Catholic Church’s positions on abortion and a related issue, research on stem cells involving embryos.

But some local Catholics say their leadership should be equally vocal on other moral issues, such as the death penalty, as well as the economy and social justice — positions that may be perceived as more liberal than abortion.

"Stem cell, gay marriage and abortion, that's all they focus on,” said David Lipp, a Catholic living in Overland Park, Kan., a Kansas City suburb. "That's not what we're dealing with. They're out of touch with reality."

Naumann has spoken out about the death penalty. In a statement signed with other Kansas bishops in late February, he urged the Kansas Senate to abolish it, a proposal that could reach the floor as early as Monday.

But in a column written before last November's elections, he and Finn argued that while Catholics "may and do" disagree over the death penalty, war and other issues, abortion and gay marriage are always evil and therefore more politically important.

"Could a voter's preference for the candidate’s positions on the pursuit of peace, economic policies benefiting the poor, support for universal health care, a more just immigration policy, etc., overcome a candidate's support for legalized abortion?" they wrote. "In such a case, the Catholic voter must ask and answer the question: What could possibly be a proportionate reason for the more than 45 million children killed by abortion in the past 35 years? Personally, we cannot conceive of such a proportionate reason."

Some lay Catholics defend the statements — and the prelates' right to make them.

"I would have been tragically disappointed if the archbishop had said nothing. … He is speaking the truth," said Judie Brown of the American Life League, a Catholic anti-abortion group that strongly opposes the Sebelius nomination.

Brown and Lynn agreed that Naumann's recent column calling the Sebelius pick for HHS "particularly troubling" has further raised his national profile. The archbishop became well known in political and religious circles last year when he proclaimed that the Kansas governor should not "present herself" for Holy Communion until she changed her stance on abortion.

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