It’s May. Graduation gowns are flowing. Families are flocking to campuses, digital cameras in hand, ready to document what has now become an annual ritual of higher education: It’s graduation speaker controversy season.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will be the speaker for Georgetown University’s Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s “Tropaia” awards ceremony on May 18, the university announced Friday. The Catholic former governor has a long list of credentials in the public policy world, detailed by the university below, but it’s her role at the heart of this year’s debate over religious liberty, contraception and Catholic institutions that has conservative activists animated in opposition.
Princeton University’s Robert George, who the New York Times called the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker, wrote of Georgetown’s choice of Sebelius:
“The left-liberals who run the show at Georgetown have found a way to signal to the world that the nation’s oldest Catholic, and most famous Jesuit, university stands with the Obama administration in its war (to use, if I recall correctly, Kathleen Sebelius’s own word) against the Catholic bishops and others who oppose the HHS mandate as a violation of religious freedom and the rights of conscience (you know, the enemies of women’s ’reproductive health’). By honoring Secretary Sebelius, they can help to undermine the bishops’ credibility and blunt the force of their witness as leaders of the Catholic church. I get it. It’s a bold and clever move. Although I find its substance appalling, I can’t help but admire its shrewdness.”
The Cardinal Newman Society, which advocates for greater orthodoxy on Catholic campuses, said the choice of Sebelius “can only be interpreted as a direct challenge to America’s Catholic bishops,” and invited opponents to petition Georgetown President Jack DeGioia.
For its part, the Catholic Jesuit university framed the choice of Sebelius as one emphasizing her work for the “nation’s most vulnerable populations” through Affordable Care Act:
“Sebelius was sworn in as the 21st secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2009. Since taking office, she has led efforts to improve America’s health and enhance the delivery of human services to some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, including young children, those with disabilities and the elderly. As part of the historic Affordable Care Act, she is implementing reforms she says have ended many of the insurance industry’s most discriminatory practices and will help 34 million uninsured Americans get health coverage. She is also working with doctors, nurses, hospital leaders, employers and patients to implement policies aimed at slowing the growth of health care costs.”
While the Catholic Church has long advocated for “health care for all,” it has continued to raise concerns about coverage of abortion services in the Affordable Care act and called the HHS regulations requiring Catholic institutions to cover birth control “unjust and illegal.”
Georgetown University has been in the midst of some of the largest culture war debates this year, with law student Sandra Fluke’s congressional committee testimony on contraception coverage, and more recently with a speech by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) where he argued that his budget upheld Catholic social teachings.
The university’s commencement controversy joins a growing list of speaker squabbles unfolding around the country.
— Massachusetts Bishop Robert McManus asked Anna Maria College “to rescind its invitation to Victoria Kennedy because of concerns over her position on some social issues that counter Catholic teachings,” according to the AP. The small Catholic school withdrew its invitation to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s widow, the Boston Globe reported.
— More than 700 people signed a petition condemning [Jesuit] Gonzaga University’s choice of South Africa’s anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its 2012 commencement speaker, based on Tutu’s support of abortion rights and gay rights.