“We recognize that the perspectives of some speakers run counter to the Catholic and Jesuit values that animate our university,” the school’s March 3 statement read. “We work very hard to ensure that these values maintain a privileged place in our community while at the same time providing a forum that does not limit speech either in the content of the view being expressed or the speaker expressing the view. Our Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger. Georgetown remains firmly committed to the sanctity and human dignity of every life at every stage.”
Richards, who will speak at Georgetown next month, was invited by the student-run Lecture Fund. The group declined in an email to comment on how it selects speakers or why Richards was invited. The group, which is undergraduate-run, says on its site that it seeks a “diverse array” of speakers. The group has hosted speakers including conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and investor Warren Buffett.
The first public criticism of the invitation appears to have come from a Northern Virginia-based advocacy group called the Cardinal Newman Society, which tracks Catholic educational institutions and how they communicate traditional teachings. The group in 2012 accumulated tens of thousands of signatures on a petition asking Georgetown to disinvite former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as one of the speakers at that spring’s graduation.
Sebelius was a key architect of the White House’s 2010 health-care law, and she authored its initial requirement that employers, including most religious ones, provide employees with contraception coverage. That requirement was challenged by multiple religious institutions, including many Catholic ones who said it violated their religious freedom.
Wuerl at the time called that invitation “shocking.” Georgetown President John DeGioia said the school was not endorsing Sebelius’ views, but the D.C. archdiocese said DeGioia wasn’t addressing its concerns about religious freedom. Sebelius went on to speak at the university.
The Cardinal Newman Society Web site also slams the University of Notre Dame, another major Catholic university, for last weekend announcing it would give its highest honor jointly to former House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Biden. “Honor for Pro-Abortion Joe Biden Betrays the University’s Catholic Mission,” the conservative group says.
Wuerl will receive an honorary doctorate that day from Notre Dame, a move understood as an acceptance of the high honor to the two politicians.
Wuerl is seen as one of the closest members of the U.S. clergy to Pope Francis, one who reflects the pope’s public approach of trying to gently and non-judgmentally bring Catholics back to traditional church teachings, rather than working to penalize and exclude those who disagree. The question of how open Catholic schools — especially colleges and universities — can and should be to debate about Catholic teachings has been hotly contested for years.
Addressing U.S. bishops in 2012, Pope Benedict said “it is no exaggeration to say that providing young people with a sound education in the faith represents the most urgent internal challenge facing the Catholic community in your country.”
While the unsigned archdiocese statement takes a strong tone against Georgetown, Wuerl on his own blog Tuesday took a less direct tact. In a piece called “The Identity of Catholic Universities,” Wuerl doesn’t mention Georgetown or Richards by name and starts by connecting the persecution of Christians in the Middle East with the need for Catholic institutions “to offer this testimony of their Catholic identity.”
“If the moral climate and ethical texture of a Catholic university is no different than any secular institution of higher education, it loses its claim to distinctiveness and the label ‘Catholic’ becomes simply a reference to an earlier era,” he wrote. Whatever “is opposed to life itself…is neither authentically Catholic nor within the Catholic tradition for a university to provide a special platform to those voices that promote or support such counter values.”
American Catholics are increasingly open to disagreement with church teachings about human sexuality. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that about half or more of U.S. Catholics say that using contraceptives, living with a romantic partner outside of marriage and remarrying after a divorce without an annulment are not sins. One-third said opposing abortion is “not important” to what being Catholic means to them. While six in 10 said in that poll that abortion is sinful, Catholics are less opposed to access to the procedure. Polls from 2011 to 2013, Pew says, show 53 percent of white Catholics and 43 percent of Latino Catholics say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.