Conservative Catholic groups rebuke Georgetown for tapping Sebelius as graduation speaker

As the University recently announced, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will be speaking at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute Tropaia awards ceremony next Friday. Although the awards event is not technically a “commencement” ceremony (since degrees will not be conferred), Sebelius was listed with the other commencement speakers in the University press-release. Sebelius is a staunch pro-choice advocate and championed reproductive rights issues in her term as governor of Kansas and, later, as HHS Secretary.

Prominent Catholics and conservative Catholic groups immediately criticized the University for its choice in Sebelius for graduation speaker. The Cardinal Newman Society has called the move a “direct challenge” to America’s Catholic bishops, and has created a website with a petition calling for Georgetown to revoke its invitation to the former governor. The petition has reportedly gathered 12,500 signatures.

One of the harshest challenges came from Princeton University’s Robert George, a man the New York Times called the United States’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker.” This past Sunday, on the Catholic Mirror of Justice blog, he wrote:

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.

Possibly in response to Georgetown’s decision, Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement last Saturday via Vatican Radio calling for the reaffirmation of orthodoxy at Catholic universities, saying “Many of you have pointed to a growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel.”

For his part, D.C.’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl declined to publicly comment on the matter to the Catholic News Service.

Since the announcement last Friday, the University representatives have backtracked, emphasizing that Sebelius is a speaker at an awards ceremony and will not be receiving an honorary degree. The controversy, however, rests with the question of whether Sebelius is a commencement speaker or not. As the Cardinal Newman Society has noted, the original version of the press-release did list Sebelius under the heading “speakers at other commencement ceremonies.” The post, however, has since been changed (as the Yahoo cached version illustrates). Sebelius is now listed under the heading “Speakers at other events,” and the “other event” listed now reads “Georgetown Public Policy Institute Tropaia,” where previously the word “Tropaia” was not listed.

GPPI graduates will have their degrees conferred at the larger Graduate School of Arts and Sciences ceremony, and the diplomas will be distributed immediately following at the GPPI Tropaia ceremony. According to the GPPI Tropaia FAQ page, “The Graduate School Commencement and GPPI’s Tropaia are actually one ceremony and you should definitely go to both parts.”

This is not the first time Kathleen Sebelius, a self-described Catholic, has been singled out for criticism by the Catholic church. In early 2009, as she was being vetted for HHS Secretary, Archbishop Raymond F. Burke declared that Sebelius should not approach the altar for communion in the United States until she went to confession and publicly recanted her stance on abortion. As governor, she vetoed legislation that would limit abortions in Kansas at least four times, although she did support adoption incentives and greater health benefits for pregnant women. Abortions declined 8.5 percent in her tenure as governor, at a rate higher than the national average.

This controversy mirrors that when Notre Dame invited President Obama to speak in 2009. Notre Dame did not concede then and Georgetown shows no signs of conceding now.

Photo: US Mission Geneva (via Flickr)

7 Comments on “Conservative Catholic groups rebuke Georgetown for tapping Sebelius as graduation speaker

  1. In the words of Timothy O’Meara, Provost at Notre Dame in 1992 when they awarded the Laetare Medal to pro-choice Catholic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan (who already had an honorary degree from ND): “We don’t have any litmus test. Laetare Medals are not the same as the first step toward canonization.”

    So it is here. Giving a speech, or even receiving an honorary degree, are not the same as the first step toward canonization.

  2. If Pope Benedict feels strongly against Sebelius speaking, I’m sure Georgetown would gladly accept him as a replacement speaker. I can’t speak for my classmates but I would love to have the Pope speak here, and Sebelius wouldn’t speak making critics (and supposedly the Pope) happy, everyone wins.

  3. Dear Catholic Bishops:

    Get. Over. It. And go clean up your own house before you start criticizing others. I believe you have plenty of issues that demand attention.

  4. Hmmm when the Catholic Church goes a decade without a child molestation scandal maybe I’ll listen to what they say…

  5. Can we do more things that get the CNS angry with us? As a non-reactionary Catholic, nothing would make me happier.

  6. This is ridiculous, but we could be worse off. The Bishop in my family’s diocese forced a Catholic university to rescind it’s invitation to Vicki Kennedy to give a commencement speech.

    Cheers to Dizzy’s comment referencing the Notre Dame Provost. The entire point of a university is flushing out opposing viewpoints in search of some greater truth and excellence.

  7. Judging from the comments above, Georgetown has done a pretty poor job on teaching Catholic values to its alumni.

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