Why Kathleen Sebelius Needs to Speak at Georgetown


(photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There is a reason “pro-choice” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hasn’t quietly bowed out of delivering a commencement-day address at Georgetown University May 18: Sebelius needs Georgetown more than Georgetown needs Sebelius.

Sometimes a controversial speaker will spare the embattled host institution embarrassment by suddenly discovering a “forgotten” engagement. A quiet announcement that overlooked scheduling issues preclude Sebelius from speaking at Georgetown might come in handy for the beleaguered Jesuit institution. Not likely to happen, though.

Former President Bill Clinton, a Georgetown alumnus, also recognized the usefulness of a Georgetown setting. Clinton visited Georgetown at least 17 times during his presidency, often to deliver major policy speeches.

Rather than being a grubby political event, a speech given at a famous university becomes something more elevated: Attention must be paid.

For Sebelius, the reward is even more desirable. She is invited to America’s oldest Catholic university on the heels of having promulgated an HHS mandate that requires Catholic and other faith-based institutions to pay for insurance coverage that includes contraception and abortifacients, regardless of their moral objections. It seeks to undercut the First Amendment’s freedom of religious rights and, moreover, dictates to the Church what activities can be defined as a religious mission.

But if a venerable Catholic institution has asked Sebelius to speak on campus on an important day, the HHS mandate can’t be all that bad, can it?

Sebelius will be speaking at Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute (GPPI). “The real issue is that this is a public-policy school. What I would say as a professor in the Public Policy Institute is that I value Georgetown’s commitment to exposing students to a wide array of ideas,” Judy Feder, former dean of GPPI and currently a professor there, told the Cardinal Newman Society in defending the choice.

This is horribly naive. Sebelius is there to — well, to simply be there.

Sebelius, who was so inept at answering questions at an April congressional hearing that comedian Jon Stewart pilloried her performance, will not, in all likelihood, dazzle the budding policy wonks of GPPI. Her talk will fall far short of Abelard jousting intellectually with the students of the University of Paris or Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg. Exposing students to a wide array of ideas? She is there to bask in Georgetown’s prestige as a Catholic institution. Her presence calms worried Catholics: What war on religion?

Catholic institutions should never fear ideas. But they should fear becoming pawns in the culture wars. Catholic institutions should fear giving the impression that Catholic teaching is negotiable. It shouldn’t have surprised us that President Barack Obama expected the Catholic Church to roll over and play dead when Caesar announced that he would force the Church to foot the bill for services the Church teaches are intrinsically evil.

After all, when Obama spoke at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall in 2009, the university obligingly covered the “IHS” monogram, which stands for Christ, behind the lectern. No wonder the president thought he could dictate to the Church.

Georgetown has become the beard for the promotion of ideas that would startle the early Jesuits who founded the university. But those who would impose a mandate for contraception coverage on a Catholic institution know nothing is quite as valuable as being a key speaker at a Catholic university. The Catholic cave-in comes inevitably, as presented under the rubric of a “wide array of ideas.”

Georgetown Law’s Sandra Fluke, the model student who thought that contraception was costing her female law-school friends $3,000 a year, springs readily to mind here. In April, Georgetown hosted an event billed as “A Conversation With Sandra Fluke on Contraception Access.”

Feder, who has been lauded by the National Organization for Women for her support of “a woman’s right” to abortion and contraception, moderated the “conversation.” I am going to hazard a wild and crazy guess that what the students who attended were exposed to was actually a very narrow array of ideas.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Georgetown has become a sort of theological Warren Buffett: Just as he undermines the security of his fellow billionaires, the university provides cover for ideas that run contrary to its own interests. It is unclear whether this has happened because Georgetown is naive or because the university has lost touch with Catholicism’s rich intellectual heritage and no longer regards passing it on as central to the university’s mission.

But here’s the thing: Georgetown may not know how valuable the Catholic cachet is, but Kathleen Sebelius does.

That’s why wild horses couldn’t keep her away from Commencement Day.

A rescinded invitation could.

Charlotte Hays is director of campus news and publications for The Cardinal Newman Society, which works to renew and strengthen Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities.