WASHINGTON — Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, spoke today at a graduation event at Georgetown Public Policy Institute, despite protests from Catholic groups, some Georgetown University faculty and alumni, and the Archdiocese of Washington, which issued a statement earlier this week that rejected the university’s attempt to downplay her appearance.

“Today, there are serious debates under way about the direction of our country — debates about the size and role of government, about America’s role as a global economic and military leader, about the moral and economic imperative of providing health care to all our citizens,” Secretary Sebelius told the graduating students, family members and faculty. “People have deeply held beliefs on all sides of these discussions, and you, as public-policy leaders, will be called on to help move these debates forward."

“These are not questions with quick-and-easy answers,” she added, and she referred to President John F. Kennedy’s groundbreaking 1960 speech that sought to tamp down concerns about a Catholic serving as the president of the United States. She did not explain precisely how Kennedy’s speech related to the controversy ignited by her scheduled speech.

The decision to invite Sebelius to the GPPI event was announced May 4 on the university’s official blog and immediately provoked protests and a petition drive from outraged Catholics. Yesterday, William Blatty, a Georgetown alumnus and the author of The Exorcist, joined a group of alumni to file "a canon law lawsuit to pressure the Jesuit university either to reclaim its Catholic identity or cease to call itself a Catholic institution," according to the Cardinal Newman Society.

Last weekend, The Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, published an editorial that called into question the university’s Catholicity.

“Georgetown University has, historically speaking, religious roots,” stated the editorial. “So, too, do Harvard, Princeton and Brown. Over time, though, as has happened with these Ivy League institutions, Georgetown has undergone a secularization, due in no small part to the fact that much of its leadership and faculty find their inspiration in sources other than the Gospel and Catholic teaching. Many are quite clear that they reflect the values of the secular culture of our age. Thus the selection of Secretary Sebelius for special recognition, while disappointing, is not surprising.”

UPDATE, MAY 22: The Catholic Standard posted an editorial online, following a Washington Post May 16 editorial criticizing the archdiocese's response to Sebelius at Georgetown: The editorial states: “Georgetown however, speaks of Mrs. Sebelius as an 'inspiration' to the students. She is not an inspiration and no Catholic university should speak of her in such a way. She is an unrepentant cheerleader for abortion. As Governor of Kansas she vetoed numerous bills passed by the legislature to secure reasonable limits to abortion, including parental notification, and even modest restrictions on late term abortions. Bishop Joseph Naumann in Kansas suggested she refrain from receiving communion.
“She had also been close to the infamous George Tiller, known as Tiller, the baby killer, since he probably killed more than 60,000 babies, most of them late term. She has accepted more than $12,000 in campaign contributions from him and had him as a guest at the Governor’s Mansion.
“Now as HHS Secretary, she has chosen to wage war against religious liberty, and is the architect of the HHS mandate currently being opposed by the Bishops and the Church, and credibly described as the greatest threat to religious liberty of our time.
“She is no inspiration to anyone, other than fellow enemies of the Church and the unborn. If she has made an impact it cannot be described as good in any Catholic or Christian sense. Georgetown’s boosterism of her is shameful.”


Several members of a small group of Georgetown faculty, led by Patrick Deneen, issued an open letter to President John DeGioia expressing strong disappointment with the decision.

Earlier this week, DeGioia issued a formal response, asserting that the “secretary’s presence on our campus should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views.”

“As a Catholic and Jesuit university, Georgetown disassociates itself from any positions which are in conflict with traditional Church teachings,” read DeGioia’s statement. “Some have interpreted the invitation to Secretary Sebelius as a challenge to the USCCB. It was not.”

Though Catholic leaders began speaking out on the HHS contraception mandate back in September, DeGioia suggested that the university was unaware of the brewing religious-freedom battle. “The invitation to Secretary Sebelius occurred prior to the Jan. 20 announcement of the Obama administration of the modified health-care regulations,” he stated.

The following day, the Archdiocese of Washington released a statement that challenged DeGioia's explanation: “It is especially distressing to think that the university’s Public Policy Institute would be unaware of this national debate, since the mandate was published last August. Such a radical redefining of ministry should prompt Georgetown, as a Catholic and Jesuit university, to do more to challenge the mandate and speak up for freedom of religion."

During today’s speech, briefly interrupted by a pro-life activist who drowned out her remarks, Sebelius, a Catholic, recalled Kennedy’s effort to address concerns about how his Catholic faith might influence his policies. And while she did not explicitly state her reasons for discussing the late president's struggle to overcome Catholic bigotry, the reference may have been designed as an explanation for her own departure from official Catholic teaching.

Sebelius is a strong abortion-rights supporter, though she did not raise this issue during her speech.

“When I was in junior high, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was running for president. … Some of then-Senator Kennedy’s opponents attacked him for his religion, suggesting that electing the first Catholic president would undermine the separation of church and state, a fundamental principle of our democracy. The furor grew so loud that Kennedy chose to deliver a speech about his beliefs just seven weeks before the election,” she recalled.

“Kennedy talked about his vision of religion and the public square and said he believed in an America, and I quote, ‘where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials — and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against us all.’”

She said that similar discussions on “the intersection of our nation’s long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions that affect the general public continues,” and she argued that they were a frustrating but essential element of American democracy.

“Our system … requires conversations that can be painful, and it almost always ends in compromise. But it’s through this process of conversation and compromise that we move forward, together, step by step, towards a ‘more perfect union,’” she suggested.


‘Hone Your Ethical Skills’

To prepare themselves for the challenge ahead, Georgetown graduates must “hone” their “ethical skills,” she said. She did not identify what those “ethical skills” might be or where they could be found. Rather, she advised her audience to “follow your own moral compass.”

Sebelius described herself as an “accidental feminist” who got started on her present path at an all-girls school where the female students “did everything.” She also attended Trinity College, a Catholic women’s college in Washington, which is also Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s alma mater. Sebelius’ recollections of her own college years noted the upheaval of the 1960s, when “neighborhoods in D.C. were burned to the ground.”

Looking back, she said that “what was striking at the time is how young people were driving these national debates. There was a feeling not just that young people could change the world — but that we had to.”

As she moved into public service, she said, “[o]ne of the issues I kept coming back to was health care, culminating in my current position. And now I have the extraordinary opportunity to help implement legislation that is finally, after seven decades of failed debate, ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health coverage.”

During her speech, Sebelius made no attempt to defend her decision to approve the HHS contraception mandate. And while her remarks today encouraged the graduates to approach such matters with prudent discernment, critics have suggested that she herself failed to do the same when she ultimately approved the  controversial federal rule.

In April, during sworn testimoney before the House Education and Workforce Committee, Sebelius acknowledged that she had not asked her legal counsel to provide a memo that addressed potential First Amendment issues. Previously, she had defended the contraception mandate, arguing that it stuck a "balance" between the free exercise of religious institutions and women's need for birth control, but during the hearing she admitted that she had little knowledge of key Supreme Court cases on religious-freedom issues.