Speaking to American bishops gathered in Rome recently, Pope Benedict XVI urged the renewal of Catholic identity in Catholic colleges and universities and lamented the occasional conflicts between academia and the bishops, even as Georgetown University whipped up just such a dispute.
With a plea for compliance with the mandatum—a requirement of the Catholic Church’s canon law that theology professors pledge to teach authentic Catholic doctrine—the pope said the “importance” of such obedience:
“…becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the church’s pastoral leadership: such discord harms the church’s witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom.”
Notably, the statement came just one day after Georgetown undermined the U.S. bishops by announcing that Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius—the chief architect of the federal mandate forcing many religious employers to cover sterilization and contraceptives—would be one of its graduation speakers.
No doubt the pope’s statement and Georgetown’s announcement were coincidental, but in the context of the Sebelius flap, it could appear that Pope Benedict was directly confronting Georgetown’s obstinacy and that of other Catholic universities that regularly embarrass the church, not least by violating the U.S. bishops’ 2004 ban on honors to individuals who publicly oppose Catholic moral teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues.
Sebelius is one of the last public figures a Catholic university should be honoring. In 2008, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City asked the former Kansas governor to stop receiving the Eucharist because of her “30-year history of advocating and acting in support of legalized abortion.” Sebelius recently told activists gathered at a NARAL Pro-Choice America event that “we are in a war” against pro-life Republicans in Congress.
But it is her role in the high-stakes battle between the Obama administration and the nation’s Catholic bishops that has generated much outrage over the Georgetown invitation, echoing the protests two years ago against the University of Notre Dame’s refusal to rescind its commencement invitation to President Barack Obama.
The Catholic bishops are in a high-stakes battle to preserve the church’s right to uphold Catholic teaching in Catholic employer-sponsored health plans. Although Sebelius has invited comments on a proposed “accommodation” for religious groups, there has been no substantial change to the HHS contraceptive mandate since August, and the bishops have said proposals on the table remain “unspecified and dubious.”
Moreover, Georgetown and other Catholic colleges and universities are doubly harmed by the HHS mandate. That’s because the mandate affects not only employee benefits but also student insurance plans offered by Catholic colleges. Soon college freshmen at Catholic institutions will be able to go on “The Pill” or get sterilized free of charge.
Nevertheless, Georgetown has not rallied to the side of the bishops with any sort of vigor, and until now it has maintained a low profile on the issue except when student activist Sandra Fluke and other pro-contraception students stir up media attention. Forced to respond to student requests for contraceptives under the university’s student health plan, University President John DeGioia declined to allow it, but the university willingly provides such coverage for employees without any government mandate.
Over the past few decades, Georgetown has welcomed numerous clashes with the church.
Unlike many other Catholic institutions compelled by state laws to cover contraceptives for employees, Georgetown does so without coercion. That’s because the university has repeatedly embraced people and programs that are contrary to church teaching.
Georgetown hosts annual performances of ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ funds law student internships with groups advocating abortion rights and same-sex marriage, and promulgates professors who have publicly opposed the bishops’ stand against the HHS mandate.
Across town, it’s a different story. The Catholic University of America has invited New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan to deliver its commencement address last weekend. Cardinal Dolan has been the church’s lead negotiator with Sebelius over the HHS mandate, and CUA President John Garvey testified before Congress in opposition to HHS—not long after taking a few lumps for his admirable decision to return to single-sex dorms.
CUA has done much to strengthen its Catholic identity in recent years. It is one of those institutions that gave Pope Benedict hope in his remarks last Saturday, recognizing “the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the church’s mission in service of the Gospel.”
Can Georgetown—the nation’s oldest Catholic university—follow the same path? It must begin with proper respect for the Catholic ideals upon which the university was founded and sustained until recently. It also requires respect for the Catholic bishops. That means rescinding the invitation to Secretary Sebelius.
Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, which works to renew and strengthen Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities.