Correction: This article has been updated to more accurately state how the White House responded to Catholic protests over the birth control mandate. Also, the law was first announced in August, not in January as it originally stated.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdioces of Washington gives ashes to a patron during an Ash Wednesday mass in Washington in 2011. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The 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.

Since Sebelius was announced earlier this month as one of the speakers for this week’s Georgetown graduation ceremonies, about 27,000 people have signed a petition, circulated by a conservative Catholic think tank, urging the university to withdraw the invitation. Sebelius was a key architect of the 2010 health-care law, and she authored the requirement that employers, including most religious ones, provide employees with contraception coverage.

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.

The Catholic bishops have led opposition to the mandate, arguing that it violates religious freedom. Liberal and moderate Catholics and other religious advocates also opposed the mandate when it was announced in August but their opposition died down after the White House came up with an arrangement it said would effectively shift the requirement from employers to insurance companies.”

Addressing the controversy Monday, DeGioia noted that debate about the mandate “dominated public discourse” in the months after Sebelius was invited in January to speak at an awards ceremony for the school’s Public Policy Institute.

“The Secretary’s presence on our campus should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views,” DeGioia wrote. “As a Catholic and Jesuit University, Georgetown disassociates itself from any positions that are in conflict with traditional church teachings.”

But the statement from the archdiocese said DeGioia was avoiding the real issue.

“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.

The back and forth reflects the intense debates among American Catholics about the degree to which Catholic institutions should reflect the official teachings of the church on contraception and other things. Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have focused more on Catholic institutions — schools and hospitals, in particular — and how they hew to official church teachings.