Georgetown Defends Sebelius Invite as Church Leaders Lose Patience

President John DeGioia states that the invitation 'should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views,' but offered no plan to rescind it.

Georgetown University's president, John DeGioia
Georgetown University's president, John DeGioia (photo: Georgetown University website)

WASHINGTON — Georgetown University’s president sought to tamp down the firestorm ignited by the announcement that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, would appear at a university graduation event this month.

John DeGioia issued a statement yesterday that rejected suggestions that the honor constituted an “endorsement” of her controversial policies.

The May 14 statement served as a belated attempt to address criticism from Catholic groups, some faculty and, more recently, a handful of Church leaders who had waited almost two weeks for the university to either rescind the invitation or clarify its stance.

The following day, the Archdiocese of Washington posted a response on its website that challenged DeGioia's explanaiton:

"The Archdiocese of Washington reserved public comment to permit Georgetown University and its sponsor, the Society of Jesus, the opportunity to address the controversy.  While the explanation of how this unfortunate decision was made is appreciated, it does not address the real issue for concern – the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history and the apparent lack of unity with and disregard for the bishops and so many others across the nation who are committed to the defense of freedom of religion."

Over the past four days, in a series of breaking developments, an editorial in the Catholic Standard, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Washington, openly questioned Georgetown’s institutional commitment to the Catholic faith, while Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offered an implicit critique during a weekend commencement address at The Catholic University of America.

During a May 10 EWTN broadcast, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., also weighed in on the controversy, asserting that Georgetown’s actions promoted confusion, “teaching the people by what we do the opposite of what we say.”

DeGioia’s formal response, issued on May 14, acknowledged but dismissed the criticism. Yet his decision to break two weeks of silence on the matter may have signaled his awareness that Georgetown’s status as a Catholic university had already suffered damage.

“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,” the statement asserted.

“The invitation to Secretary Sebelius occurred prior to the Jan. 20 announcement of the Obama administration of the modified health-care regulations,” he added, suggesting that the university was caught by surprise when the U.S. bishops attacked the HHS contraception mandate as posing a direct threat to the free exercise of Catholic institutions, including Georgetown University.

However, Cardinal Dolan had expressed alarm about the HHS mandate four months earlier, issuing a September 2011 letter that reported on a series of First Amendment threats arising from recent federal and state laws. At that time, Cardinal Dolan quickly established a U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

Subsequently, the bishops’ conference led a well-publicized national campaign to register Catholic opposition to the contraception mandate — then described as an “interim final rule” by the Obama administration.

Today, in the Archdiocese of Washington's latest statement on the issue,  DeGioia's explanation was met with skepticism.

“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," read the May 15 post.

No Mention of Abortion Support

In his own statement released yesterday, DeGioia placed responsibility for the decision to invite Sebelius on the students at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute; the HHS secretary will speak at a May 18 graduation event at GPPI.

Students were impressed with Sebelius’ “role in crafting the landmark legislation that will make health care more accessible to 34 million Americans who are currently uninsured,” read the statement.

“Secretary Sebelius has a long and distinguished record of public service, including two terms as governor of Kansas before beginning her service in April 2009 as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. She is also the spouse and the mother of Georgetown graduates,” read DeGioia’s statement.

He excluded any mention of Sebelius’ well-established record as a fervent abortion-rights supporter. She headlined a 2011 NARAL Pro-Choice America fundraiser.

While Sebelius served as the governor of Kansas, her record of vetoing pro-life legislation and of supporting late-term abortions led Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., to publicly order her to refrain from presenting herself for holy Communion.

In 2009, after she was appointed the secretary of Health and Human Services, Archbishop Naumann wrote a column that expressed apprehension about her impact on the proposed new health bill.

Religious Roots

Though clearly designed to address the most serious charges raised in the Catholic Standard editorial, DeGioia’s statement seemed unlikely to satisfy critics in the chancery or the pews.

During his May 12 commencement address at The Catholic University of America, Cardinal Dolan reflected on the importance of unity between Church-affiliated universities and the U.S. bishops, and he offered an implicit critique of Georgetown’s actions.

“Some wonder if Pope Benedict’s description of a university is way too impractical; if a university can be really Catholic and American; if the genuine freedom a university demands can flourish on a campus whose very definition includes a loyalty to Holy Mother Church.”

The Catholic Standard editorial, which was circulated to all parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington over the past weekend, was especially striking because it pulled no punches and offered a broader, and potentially devastating, judgment of the university’s commitment to the Church’s educational apostolate.

“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.”

Several members of a small group of Georgetown faculty who had issued an open letter to DeGioia expressing strong disappointment with the decision to invite Sebelius declined to comment at this time.

However, Jesuit Father James Schall, the longtime Georgetown political philosopher who signed the faculty letter criticizing the invitation, addressed the controversy today in a May 15 post on The Catholic Thing. He dismissed the university’s efforts to downplay the significance of Sebelius’ presence as a routine effort to promote the free exchange of ideas: “The rule of thumb in these matters is, ‘Tell me who you honor and I will tell you what you are.’ Honors do not have to be given. They mean nothing unless they are freely given. When given, they signify agreement, distinction.”

Further, John Zmirak, the editor of the bestselling Choosing the Right College, which provides in-depth analysis of U.S. universities and charts cultural and academic developments at the top schools, said he was unimpressed with what he described as a “belated non-apology on the part of a nakedly secular university.”

The secularization of Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Catholic university, has been in progress for years, as noted in the Catholic Standard editorial. But the recent headlines underscored the intensity of U.S. Catholics' concerns regarding the unprecedented threat posed by the HHS contraception mandate.

Georgetown’s apparent indifference to this danger — or even worse, the appearance that the university actually “endorsed” the federal rule — has roiled the status quo. Today, in a parallel breaking news story,  Anthony Picarello, USCCB associate general secretary and general counsel, and Michael Moses, associate general counsel, released a formal response to the proposed changes to the HHS mandate and stated that the administraiton must reopen a review of the controversial federal rule.

Yet Zmirak cautioned against drawing any broader conclusions about whether Georgetown’s pronounced drift from its Catholic legacy signaled a broader trend for once storied Catholic universities.

“At one point it seemed as if Georgetown was leading an inexorable movement of Jesuit colleges away from fealty to the Holy See and out of the orbit of Catholic identity ... following the long slog into secularism first trod by onetime Protestant seminaries such as Harvard and Yale. 

“But recent years have seen a resurgence of Catholic identity at a number of Jesuit schools. Signs of renewal can be seen at Fordham, St. Louis and Creighton universities, among others. The allure of Kennedy-style — that is, merely ethnic or tribal — Catholicism has faded,” he suggested.

“Liberal Catholic institutions have been exposed as essentially parasitical — and the Church’s immune system is getting stronger year by year.”