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)