May 16, 2012

THE ARCHBISHOP of Washington finds it “shocking” that Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia would defend the university’s decision to have Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius participate in a commencement event in the aftermath of the furor over the Obama administration’s rule on contraceptive coverage.

What we find shocking is Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s failure to credit the proper role of a university and the importance of vigorous, open debate, even — or perhaps especially — involving matters of intense controversy and religious disagreement. Mr. DeGioia was right to stand up for the selection of Ms. Sebelius to speak at a Public Policy Institute awards ceremony during commencement weekend and to cite the university’s role in promoting this sort of exchange of ideas. The cardinal’s public slap-down of what he termed Georgetown’s “unfortunate decision” fails to recognize that critical academic function.

The Georgetown episode is not the first controversy over speeches at Catholic universities by public figures who deviate from the church’s teachings. When Notre Dame invited President Obama to be its commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree in 2009, Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounced the move as an “extreme embarrassment” to “many, many Catholics” because of the president’s support for abortion rights and stem cell research.

The Sebelius invitation arrives at a moment when relations between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church have become even more frayed because of the dispute over the federal mandate for employers to provide contraceptive coverage. We believe the administration initially erred in crafting an exemption from the mandate that applied only to churches, not to such institutions as Catholic universities, hospitals and charities. The administration has since tried to finesse the issue by imposing the coverage requirement in such cases directly on insurance companies. That has not satisfied the bishops, and Cardinal Wuerl’s statement specifically complained of “the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history.”

We understand, although we do not share, the church’s continuing disagreement about the contraception mandate. But if anything, the invitation to Ms. Sebelius presents an even easier case for openness than does that of Mr. Obama’s honorary degree. Ms. Sebelius is not receiving a degree; the university cannot be understood to be putting an imprimatur on her views.

It is the essence of a university to be a place where students can hear from an array of thinkers — and doers. Georgetown’s role as a Jesuit institution need not conflict with that fundamental tenet. As Mr. DeGioia explained, “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.”

The Georgetown community, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, should be proud of its president’s defense of open-minded debate.