ORLANDO, Florida – Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City-Kansas has a reputation for being one of the most staunchly orthodox, doctrinally firm members of the American hierarchy, and he candidly concedes a maverick pontiff such as Pope Francis sometimes makes his life difficult.

“The pope’s given us a lot of teaching opportunities, I’ll say that!” Naumann said, laughing.

“He’s comfortable with more ambiguity than previous popes. He wants more of a dialogue on these issues, but he is also clear that he hasn’t changed any teaching.”

Naumann added in joking fashion, “I’ve heard individuals say that [Francis] shouldn’t give interviews above a certain altitude, because it seems like he creates teaching moments for us at that point!” referring to the pope’s in-flight news conferences at the end of foreign trips.

“For those of us who are charged with teaching and preserving the truth, which is part of his role and our role as bishops, I think he’s in some ways made it more complicated,” Naumann said.

Then, however, he delivered the money quote: “But maybe his job isn’t necessarily to make our life easy.”

Naumann spoke to Crux during the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: July 1-4” in Orlando, Florida, a gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity.

The 68-year-old Naumann said that worrying trend lines such as the rise of people with no religious affiliation and defections from the Church are symptoms of something deeper, which is a failure to foster a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“I think there is this longing to encounter Jesus Christ, but we need to facilitate that better within the Church. I think once people have that, it creates an openness to our teaching, our dogma, and people long to try and cultivate the virtues,” Naumann said.

The following are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Naumann, which took place July 2.

Crux: What are you hoping to get out of this convocation?

Naumann: I have been fortunate to be on the planning committee almost from the beginning. I’ve seen how it’s evolved. The heart of it, really, is the bishops bringing delegations from their diocese. We were encouraged to select individuals who could help us with the implementation of the new evangelization.

In our Archdiocese, that’s our super-priority: Trying to create a culture of evangelization in our parish communities, and in every aspect of the Church. This allowed me to bring 23 leaders, and it was actually hard to narrow it down. It was a hard decision. Some of that team of people are staff people at the archdiocesan level, but others not. For instance, we have a doctor who’s been evangelizing his fellow doctors to come once a month for ongoing formation. That’s the kind of thing that I hope we can multiply in many ways, and really help our Church be more ‘mission-oriented’ than ‘maintenance-oriented.’

Part of the research that led up to this is the realization, and it’s not anything that hasn’t been public before, is that one large target audience is disaffected Catholics, but there’s also this large group of people who identify themselves as ‘nones,’ having no spirituality. We have a responsibility to try and share the gift of our faith with them. Those of us who experience the joy of friendship with Jesus Christ, and community in the Church, have a responsibility to give this gift to a world that is really dispirited and cynical and sad right now.

The symptoms you just ticked off are easy to see. The rise of people with no religious affiliation, and the sometimes staggering number of ex-Catholics out there. The hard part is diagnosing the disease causing those symptoms. What do you see underlying these worrying trend lines?

Years ago at the University of Kansas there was this integrated humanities program run by John Senior and his colleagues, which diagnosed that one of the great problems is people were becoming disconnected from creation, from reality, from beauty first of all. They were talking about television and things like that, much more so today with young people who are so tied into the means of communication. They’re wonderful and can do great things, but there is, as I see it, a great loneliness amongst people, a great disconnectedness. I think we see this in the family life, which has become broken in so many ways.

What’s the cure to that? I think it’s Jesus, it’s friendship with Jesus, it’s knowing His love. John Senior, back then, this was in the 70s, felt the first thing to do was, first of all, to give people a sense of awe and wonder, to recognize there must be a creator to all of this, and then to open their hearts to encounter Him and experience Him. In one sense, it’s a perennial problem that’s always been there, but I think our technology and our urban life somewhat exaggerates it today.

Secularism, which can be very attractive – we are great at giving people opportunities for pleasure. Yet there is, I think, a very small group of people who really experience a consistent joy in their life. So, this is what we hope we can find – ways for those of us who know the joy of the Gospels, as Pope Francis talks about it, how do we share this gift with others? They are longing for it, but a lot of times they don’t know what we are longing for.

When you read Evangelii Gaudium, which is Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation after the Synod on the New Evangelization, what do you pull out of that that you think is especially relevant for this challenge of introducing people to the friendship with Jesus today?

Right at the beginning of Evangelii Gaudium, the pope says: We all must open our hearts to have an encounter with Jesus Christ. What I have found, even when I talk to people in our own pews and you ask them ‘Do you have a friendship with Jesus Christ? Have you had this encounter?’ many of them have difficulty articulating that.

It almost sounds like Evangelical language.

Yes, but it’s not Protestant. I mean, if you listen to the recent popes, they have all talked about this, with Paul VI and then with John Paul especially when he proposed the strategy for the new millennium, he said ‘Jesus Christ is a person.’ And Benedict often times would say that what it means to be a Catholic is not a doctrine, dogma – although he was the prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, so it’s not that he thought that those things were unimportant – and it’s not even living an ethical life, which he wasn’t trivializing either, but he said you won’t understand our dogma, you won’t be able to live a virtuous life, if you don’t have this encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.

What I have seen, especially amongst the young, is this real openness to Eucharistic adoration. Part of it is that people have so few times where it’s quiet, when it’s disconnected, where they can open our hearts really to meet with the Lord. And we see this in the camp that we run with young people, we see it at the college level, we see it at the Steubenville conferences. When we ask our young people at camp, which have evolved there, ‘what’s the most powerful thing that has happened to you here?’ it’s the Eucharistic adoration. The same thing at the Steubenville conferences, which have been so popular with the young.

I think there is this longing to encounter Jesus Christ, but we need to facilitate that better within the Church and I think once people have that it opens up an openness to our teaching, our dogma, and they long to try and cultivate the virtues.

There was a sense at the beginning of this project that the pro-life and social justice people maybe weren’t talking as much as they should. Do you think in the meantime that part of it has changed? Do you see a better working relationship, not only in the conference but also on the ground?

I think there have been some improvements there, but what makes that so neuralgic is the politics. Our politicians, if we allow them, will divide us. We have to see the whole vision of how it’s all one piece, our social justice teaching and what we do in the pro-life arena, and what we do for immigrants or the poor is all part of love for the dignity of the human person.

The genesis of this conference was our feeling as bishops that we need to build that bridge, and I think that still needs to be done. I will be part of a workshop that will be somewhat focused on the strategies going forward. But in our research in the pews, we found that most people weren’t even aware of [a pro-life/social justice divide.] I think it’s something that people who are very engaged in those issues might be more aware of, but that wasn’t the fundamental issue.

Francis really identified the solution without doing the research that we did. It’s this encounter with Jesus, and then, if we have that, we can’t just keep it to ourselves, but we have this obligation to share it with others. If we do that, then I think a lot of those divides go away, if we are focused on Jesus and we cultivate love for his Bride, which is the Church.

You mentioned that politicians will try and slice and dice, and often the same thing could be said of the media. Is it a source of frustration for you that those of us in the press often only pay attention to only half of what you’re saying?

Yeah, it is. It’s somewhat amazing that people found some of the things that Francis said so revolutionary. The popes have been saying these same things for decades, forever. But he’s got a particular gift in terms of being able to not just say them but to do actions that symbolize them as well.

It is frustrating, though. The media, they love conflict so they are always trying to portray conflict. What gets readership and viewership? Sometimes it’s controversy.

Speaking of controversy, for the past year or so we’ve seen a very active debate about the pope’s document Amoris Laetitia and its provisions for Communion for the remarried and the divorced. Has that been a subject of controversy in Kansas City?

I hear about it from our priests more so than our people, because they have to explain it. And the pope’s given us a lot of teaching opportunities I’ll say that! He’s comfortable with more ambiguity than previous popes. He wants more of a dialogue on these issues, but he is also clear that he hasn’t changed any teaching.

I think what’s different about him in some ways is the term he likes to use, ‘to go to the peripheries.’ He’s challenging us, at every level of the Church, to go out and to reach people. But how do you do that and remain faithful to the teachings? How do you not compromise the truth of what to believe, and instill in people who are not living in conformity with it a sense that we love them, we desire for them to have this joy of the Gospel as well? Even if everything is not resolved, how do we still build a relationship with them to help draw them closer to Jesus Christ?

Our moral teachings, a lot of times the world looks at them as negative as ‘say no.’ But we believe that God gave us those moral principles for our happiness, and when we go off the rails, there are consequences. I think our culture, if we were to open our eyes, we’re demonstrating daily that when you ignore those moral teachings, it leads toward disaster to our relationships, our families, our marriages. I think that’s the problem, but the pope wants us to do as he said, not try to give people all of the teaching initially, but first reflect to them that they’re beautiful, they are made in image of God, no matter how confused their lives are at any given moment, and to introduce them to this encounter with Jesus Christ.

Hopefully, that will lead them to the rest of the truth.

Suppose I did an opinion poll among the priest and laity of the archdiocese of Kansas City, and the question is, ‘Do you like Pope Francis, or are you worried about him?’ What number would you say I’d get for ‘like’?

I’d say you’d get a pretty high number on ‘like,’ with the people in the pews generally. I think most people have a very positive impression of this pope, and they see him as an authentic leader as someone who really walks his talk. They see him as able to get the media’s attention on what the Church has always taught, that we are a Church of love and compassion. So, I think it would be high.

For those of us who are charged with teaching and preserving the truth, which is part of his role and our role as bishops, I think he’s in some ways made it more complicated. But maybe his job isn’t necessarily to make our life easy.

Do you wake up in a cold sweat sometimes wondering what the next papal bombshell is going to be?

No. I won’t say that, though it is interesting. I have heard individuals say that he shouldn’t give interviews above a certain altitude, because it seems like he creates teaching moments for us at that point! But I think that fundamentally we believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge of the Church, and that the Holy Spirit isn’t going to allow the pope or anyone else to take us off the rails. It’s that confidence. I have enough to worry about in the archdiocese with my own work, rather than to worry too much about what the pope might do.

We live in a political culture in America that arguably has never been more acrimonious or polarized. How do we resist that tide?

It’s toxic, but I think we have the impetus in the Church. People are passionate about issues, as you mention. I have served in the pro-life movement for many years, but my real heart, at the beginning of my priesthood, was that I wanted to serve in the African-American community. I did both for a number of years in St. Louis, and I think everybody is longing for the same thing – to help people realize that it’s all about getting to know Jesus and His love, then all those polarizing aspects of our culture that are also in the Church [will be manageable.]

We’re all working in different parts of the vineyard, none of us can do everything. We need to see that what people are doing in immigration is really complimenting what we are doing in pro-life. It’s not opposition, it’s all about bringing the love of Christ to those that are most vulnerable and to not let the political agenda derail us. We see what happens in politics, we’re paralyzed in so many ways we can’t get anything accomplished. I think the Church needs a scenario where we bring these together. These are not opposing things, they are part of the same agenda.

If the Church truly owned that spirit, that we’re all in this together and that different ministries are complimentary rather than competitive, could the Catholic Church in America have the potential to be a game changer in the broader culture?

Absolutely. And if we could just get the large number of Catholics who are in Congress today, both in the Senate and in the House, if they took that whole agenda seriously, it would change.