Sebelius Gets a Forum at Georgetown

Controversy surrounded the invitation of the Health and Human Services secretary to speak at the Catholic university in light of the HHS mandate.

WASHINGTON — Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary for Health and Human Services, spoke at a May 18 graduation event at Georgetown Public Policy Institute despite protests from Catholic groups and some Georgetown University faculty and alumni.

The Archdiocese of Washington also weighed in on the controversy, issuing both an editorial in the archdiocesan newspaper and a subsequent statement that challenged the university’s attempt to downplay her appearance.

The ensuing controversy revived the passionate debate about the direction of self-identified Catholic universities that erupted when President Barack Obama addressed the 2009 commencement at the University of Notre Dame.

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.

Standing before a welcoming crowd of graduates, faculty and family members, Sebelius did not attempt to address her role in securing the new federal rule mandating coverage of contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization for private employee health plans. But her speech acknowledged that political debate in the United States continues to be shaped by religious and moral concerns.

“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,” 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 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, who called on Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington to publicly denounce her appearance and demand that Georgetown rescind its invitation.

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.”

Subsequently, the Catholic Standard posted a second editorial, following a Washington Post May 16 editorial criticizing the archdiocese’s response to Sebelius at Georgetown’s graduation. 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. Archbishop 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.

As protests mounted, 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 until the formal approval of the mandate in January.

The Archdiocese of Washington challenged DeGioia’s explanation in a statement released the following day: “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.”

Sebelius is a strong abortion-rights supporter, though her speech did not raise the issue of abortion rights or her role in securing the HHS contraception mandate.

At Georgetown, she appealed to an earlier Catholic in public life. “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,” Sebelius told her audience at GPPI. 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. 

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.”

While her speech advised the Georgetown graduates to prudently navigate the cultural and constitutional minefield of church-state issues, Sebelius’ critics have suggested that she failed to adhere to that advice before approving the HHS mandate.

In April, during sworn testimony before the House Education and Workforce Committee, Sebelius acknowledged that she did not ask her legal counsel to provide a memo that addressed potential First Amendment issues related to the HHS mandate.

Previously, she had defended the controversial federal rule, arguing that it struck 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.