In a provocative move, Georgetown University announced Friday that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would address honorees at the school's Public Policy Institute awards ceremony on May 18. The invitation by the nation's oldest Catholic university drew the ire of some and spurred a national Catholic organization to launch a petition drive demanding the university rescind the honor.
Sebelius' long history as an abortion-rights advocate and, most recently, her work championing the government mandate requiring religious organizations and schools to provide health insurance coverage for birth control, abortifacients, and sterilization puts her at odds with church doctrine and, some argue, the U.S. Constitution. At least seven lawsuits bearing her name (i.e. Geneva vs. Sebelius) have been filed in federal court in an effort to thwart the initiation of the mandate, which plaintiffs argue infringes on their religious liberty.
As part of its defense of the Obamacare mandate, the U.S. Justice Department asked the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh on May 2 to dismiss the suit filed by Geneva College. The court has not yet ruled on the request.
The latest lawsuit, Newland vs. Sebelius, is the first filed on behalf of a private company and one that could put a stop to the mandate before it goes into effect Nov. 1. Religious institutions have until August 2013 to comply. But Hercules Industries, a family-owned business in Denver, seeks immediate relief from the requirement. The Alliance Defense Fund represents the family, whose members said their Catholic beliefs will be violated if they are forced to provide health coverage that pays for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilization.
The suit was filed is in the U.S. District Court in Colorado on April 30.
In an email response to questions about Sebelius's involvement in the GPPI student and faculty awards ceremony, Georgetown Director of Media Relations Rachel Pugh said a poll of prospective graduates taken last fall prompted the invitation.
"As a cabinet secretary, Kathleen Sebelius was among the top public officials these students put forward," Pugh said.
Pugh did not answer questions about the university's vetting process and the apparent conflict between the Sebelius invitation and the denunciation of the mandate by Washington D.C. Archbishop Donald Wuerl. Along with Catholic and Protestant leaders across the country, Wuerl has called for the mandate's repeal.
Wuerl's spokesman, Chieko Noguchi, said Monday the bishop would "make no public comment at this time."
But the Cardinal Newman Society, founded in 1993 in an effort to "renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education," called Sebelius' address "scandalous" and "outrageous." The organization posted a petition on its website demanding the invitation be withdrawn. In a brief statement about the university's decision, CNS President Patrick Reilly said the school's invitation to Sebelius insulted all Americans: "The selection is especially insulting to faithful Catholics and their bishops, who are engaged in the fight for religious liberty and against abortion."
School officials posted the list of Georgetown commencement and special ceremonies speakers on the university's website on Friday. Commenters left a few sarcastic responses, complaining about the prospective line up. But the thread soon turned to the Sebelius invitation.
A commenter who identified himself only as "Steve" wrote: "How typical and boorish of Georgetown to pick a provocative speaker like Sebelius to stick it in the eye of practicing Catholics. Georgetown is lacking in adult supervision as evidenced by all the student-led clubs that directly contradict Church teaching and a college president who would rather please the pundits of MSNBC than the bishops who ordained him."
Others supported the school's decision. One student posting anonymously wrote: "While academics should be informed by Catholic teachings, ultimately, schools need to be independent from church doctrine in their academic decision making."
This controversy is only the latest for the catholic institution regarding its relationship with the church and modern cultural demands. At the behest of the Obama administration, school officials in 2009 covered the Christian symbol representative of the name of Christ prior to an address President Obama gave in Gaston Hall. Though other icons in the hall were left visible, the IHS symbol, which rose up behind the podium's backdrop was shrouded during the president's speech.
One day after the school announced Sebelius' appearance, Region XIII of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome for a previously scheduled, unrelated meeting. The pontiff admonished the bishops to reclaim and preserve the teachings of the church in their institutions of higher education.
According to the Vatican News Agency, the Pope called on American universities to comply with canonical mandates in order to avoid "dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church's pastoral leadership."
"On the level of higher education, 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," he said. "Faith's recognition of the essential unity of all knowledge provides a bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue; in this sense, Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today."