The news earlier this month that Georgetown University had invited HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to deliver a commencement speech resulted in an eruption of criticism for the school’s president, John J. DeGioia. The church has bitterly criticized the HHS mandate that would force Catholic institutions to fund contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients that violate the tenets of Catholic doctrine, and the invitation of the author of that mandate offended many of those who oppose the imposition of the mandate. DeGioia tried to defend his decision on Monday by claiming that the invitation was offered before the HHS mandate was announced, and that Georgetown wants to be open to dissenting opinions on issues such as contraception:
In early January, an invitation was extended to Secretary Sebelius and she accepted. In the weeks that followed, elements of the legislation, specifically terms covering contraception, dominated our public discourse and impacted our Georgetown community very directly.
In different contexts over the past three months, including a March 14 “Statement on Religious Freedom and HHS Mandate,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed strong opposition to the position put forward by the Obama Administration. Some have interpreted the invitation of Secretary Sebelius as a challenge to the USCCB. It was not. The invitation to Secretary Sebelius occurred prior to the January 20th announcement by the Obama Administration of the modified healthcare regulations.
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 that are in conflict with traditional church teachings.
We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas. We are a community that draws inspiration from a religious tradition that provides us with an intellectual, moral, and spiritual foundation. By engaging these values we become the University we are meant to be.
That explanation provoked a stronger response — and this time from the very top of the Catholic hierarchy in the region. Donald Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop to the Washington DC archdiocese, slammed DeGioia for missing the point:
The already-boiling debate about Georgetown University’s decision to invite Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak during graduation hit the highest levels of Catholic Washington on Tuesday, with the region’s archbishop slamming the school’s president for the “shocking” invitation and saying the real issue was being distorted. …
On Tuesday, the archdiocese of Washington, led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, criticized Georgetown President John J. DeGioia for remarks he issued a day earlier — apparently to address the controversy — saying DeGioia had mischaracterized the issue as being about birth control. As the region’s top Catholic official, Wuerl is responsible for making sure Catholic institutions, including Georgetown, follow church teachings.
DeGioia “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,” reads the statement from the archdiocese, which covers the District and suburban Maryland. …
“Contrary to what is indicated in the Georgetown University President’s statement, the fundamental issue with the HHS mandate is not about contraception,” the archdiocese’s statement read.
Indeed. No one in the church is proposing that the US criminalize the use of contraceptives. To my knowledge, the church hasn’t even pushed for an end to Title X funding for contraception through Medicaid. The USCCB certainly hasn’t opposed ObamaCare, at least not until now; they have been pushing for universal health-care coverage for almost a century, and supported Obama’s health-insurance overhaul.
The objection in this case is the use of that authority to determine what constitutes religious expression. The HHS mandate, at least so far, arrogates to itself the authority to define religious expression as limited to what happens in a church, temple, or synagogue. The efforts of faith communities in schools, charities, and ironically health-care facilities have been defined as unrelated to religious expression and therefore open to regulation and mandates by the federal government. That’s the issue that the bishops are fighting, and Kathleen Sebelius is one of the principal authors of that arrogant policy.
In fact, according to Sebelius, this part of DeGioia’s statement wouldn’t be true at all: “As a Catholic and Jesuit University…” Sebelius and the Obama administration consider it a secular institution that is just run by Catholics, and therefore subject to government mandates.
If DeGioia hasn’t figured out that much, one has to wonder whether he has the insight necessary to lead a Catholic institution. It sounds as though Cardinal Wuerl might be thinking the same thing — and he has the authority to fix that problem, if necessary. By going public, the odds of an intervention from the archdiocese on this invitation have gone up considerably.