WASHINGTON — For the U.S. bishops, the battle to overturn the Department of Health and Human Services contraception mandate is a religious-freedom fight — though partisan groups have sought to characterize it as a “war against women.”

Now, Georgetown University’s decision to invite HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to a prestigious graduation awards event suggests that the controversy has moved into a new phase, with an open attempt by the mandate’s supporters within a Catholic university to endorse the new federal rule over the objections of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Further, the ensuing controversy has revived all the issues that were hotly debated in the wake of the University of Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Barack Obama, a consistent supporter of abortion rights, as the speaker for its 2009 commencement exercise.

This week, protests immediately erupted following a May 4 announcement that Sebelius, who spearheaded the effort to secure the contraception mandate, would speak at an awards ceremony at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

Critics also expressed shock that Sebelius, a fervent abortion-rights supporter who headlined a 2011 NARAL Pro-Choice America fundraiser, would be given a forum at the oldest Catholic university in the United States. Some who protested the invitation have suggested that the action sought to directly challenge the U.S. bishops’ campaign to defend the free exercise of Catholic institutions by overturning the mandate through legal or legislative remedies.

Patrick Deneen, a Georgetown political science professor, has initiated a letter campaign that asks the university’s president, John DeGioia, to rescind the invitation to Sebelius.

The letter noted Sebelius’ role in securing the mandate and described the honor conferred on her by Georgetown as “a grave and serious mistake — indeed, a scandalous one.” It cited a 2004 document issued by the U.S. bishops that called on Catholic institutions to avoid providing any forums or honors for public figures who defy Catholic moral teaching.

The letter suggested that the decision to invite Sebelius could be viewed as an endorsement of her controversial policy: “In truth, it is difficult to believe that the according of this honor to Secretary Sebelius was motivated by anything other than a desire to send a message of endorsement.”

In an interview with the Register, Deneen confirmed that a small number of Georgetown faculty members had already signed the letter. He expresssed his hope that  many more would sign the letter in the coming weeks, including the 60 professors who had protested a speech on campus delivered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the chief architect of the GOP budget, because they believed that Ryan had violated Catholic social doctrine.


‘Still Catholic?’

In a May 6 post on the Mirror of Justice blog, Robert George, the Princeton scholar and Catholic public intellectual, offered more pointed comments regarding the political context for the invitation, asserting that “left-liberals” who dominate Georgetown's faculty sought to undermine the bishops’ credibility and "blunt the force of their witness as leaders of the Church.

“I get it. It’s a bold and clever move. Although I find its substance appalling, I can’t help but admire its shrewdness,” he wrote.

Jesuit Father James Schall, the noted political philosopher, author and longtime professor at Georgetown, echoed the letter’s concerns about the symbolic impact of the invitation.

Further, he argued that it was past time for the U.S. bishops to clarify the status of self-identified Catholic political figures like Sebelius and Catholic institutions that consistently depart from Catholic teaching.

The faithful, and the larger public, need authoritative guidance to answer two key questions raised by this invitation, Father Schall said: Is someone who opposes basic Catholic positions still Catholic? Are institutions that consistently honor such persons still Catholic?

For the present, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., declined to issue a statement responding to the news. But the record shows that Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., had already publicly barred Sebelius from receiving Communion. Though Kansas is generally viewed as a pro-life state, Sebelius, as governor, backed late-term abortions and vetoed pro-life legislation.

Archbishop Naumman also published a March 2009 column that expressed dismay about Sebelius’ appointment as the HHS secretary and offered a prescient warning of her likely impact on the crafting of a new health bill and the religious freedom of Catholic health care.

Today, Doug Johnson, the chief lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, describes Sebelius as “one of the most extreme abortion advocates who has ever served in any president’s cabinet.”

“As the secretary for Health and Human Services, she has relentlessly expanded government support for abortion,” said Johnson in an interview.

Sandra Fluke

But Sebelius’ supporters at Georgetown see things differently.

Judy Feder, the former dean who is now a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute (GPPI), responded to a request for comment from the Cardinal Newman Society with an enthusiastic endorsement of Sebelius as a “great inspiration to our students.”

Feder is a Democrat whose commitment to abortion rights earned an endorsement from the National Organization of Women when she ran for a seat in Congress in 2008. Last month, Feder moderated a university forum that featured a “Conversation With Sandra Fluke” but offered no opposing viewpoint or even a clarification of university policy.

The news that Sebelius had been invited as a commencement speaker first surfaced on May 4, posted on the university blog. It immediately spurred a petition drive by the Cardinal Newman Society to rescind the invitation, an effort that has already garnered more than 13,000 signatures.

On May 7, Rachel Pugh, director of media relations for the university, responded to the Register’s request for clarification regarding Sebelius’ role at the 2012 awards ceremony for Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute.

In an email message, Pugh suggested that Sebelius’ appearance on campus was of no special significance: “The GPPI ceremony is one event during commencement weekend, but it is not a commencement ceremony.”

She noted that the university would host a total of “28 ceremonies to honor the achievements of our graduates and our faculty … 10 official commencement ceremonies to award degrees … and 18 other awards ceremonies.”

Pugh did not respond to requests for an interview with President DeGioia or with administrators of the Public Policy Institute to outline the reasons for extending an invitation to Sebelius.

‘Time to Decide’

In the wake of media reports about Sebelius’ appearance at Georgetown, critics recalled Notre Dame’s controversial decision to invite President Obama to speak at its 2009 commencement exercise.

Pugh may have sought to discourage that comparison, but Patrick Deneen shrugged off the university’s explanation, arguing that it didn’t matter what activity Sebelius would be headlining.

He called Pugh’s statement a “sophistical effort to deny the import of this invitation. If you look at the university’s website on its commencement activities (entitled ‘Commencement 2012 to Feature a Wide Range of Speakers’), you will see Secretary Sebelius listed among those who will be delivering addresses as part of the commencement exercises.”

Deneen stated: “It is of no moment whatsoever that it is not a ‘commencement’ address — it is an invitation to address the graduating class of one of the university’s schools, and, hence, it is extended as both an honor to the invitee and as a commendation of the speaker’s words and actions to Georgetown’s graduates.”

Deneen noted that he will be leaving Georgetown to teach at Notre Dame and thus was more able to freely address the issues raised by the university’s decision.

When he accepted the faculty position at Notre Dame, he issued an open letter that cited Georgetown’s weakened sense of religious identity as one reason for his departure.

In recent months, Georgetown has been in the crosshairs of “reproductive rights” activists led by Sandra Fluke.

In testimony before Democratic lawmakers and then at an April 16 public university forum, Fluke, a Georgetown Law student, backed the HHS mandate and called for the university to rescind its policy of barring contraceptive services from its health plan.

Last month, after Catholic and pro-life student groups at Georgetown repeatedly pressed him to defend the policy that barred contraception from the student health plan, DeGioia emailed a statement to the university community that confirmed his intention to maintain the policy and noted that the new HHS mandate had not become law.

In his email message, he made a belated attempt to address the confusion prompted by Fluke’s original public charges against Georgetown’s health policy, which she raised at a February meeting with Democratic lawmakers.

DeGioia confirmed that students who needed contraception for therapeutic purposes could receive a prescription. And he noted that law students could purchase a health plan offered by a third party that covered contraception services.

Yesterday, Colin Cortes, a Georgetown undergraduate who has served as an officer in the Republican Club on campus and is now the president of Hoyas for Troops, suggested that the university administration was sending conflicting signals, thus sowing additional confusion.

“As a Catholic student, I’m wondering why Georgetown would comply with the Church’s teaching on contraception, yet give such an honor to Secretary Sebelius, who is leading the charge against our First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and religious conscience,” Cortes said.

“It is time,” he said, “for Georgetown to decide whether it wants to be a Catholic institution and be an advocate for the Church, or if it wants to be a secular university and not be held accountable by Church teachings.”