Georgetown University is drawing strong criticism for inviting U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at a ceremony during its commencement weekend.
“Georgetown insults all Americans by this honor,” said Cardinal Newman Society president Patrick J. Reilly.
In a letter to Georgetown President John DeGioia, Reilly called it “scandalous and outrageous” that America’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university would provide such a “prestigious platform” to a Catholic who supports abortion and has played a key role in launching the controversial contraception mandate that threatens the continued existence of many Catholic institutions.
On May 4, Georgetown announced Sebelius as one of several speakers chosen for this year. She will address Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute at an award ceremony on May 18.
Georgetown holds individual graduation ceremonies for each of its undergraduate and professional schools, as well as several other award ceremonies.
The announcement came one day before Pope Benedict XVI met with a group of U.S. bishops and emphasized the need for Catholic colleges to remain faithful to Church teaching.
In 2004, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a document entitled “Catholics in Political Life,” in which they stated that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
Sebelius has come under fire after announcing a federal mandate that will require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
Catholic bishops from every diocese in the United States have spoken out against the mandate and the threat that it poses to religious freedom. They have warned that the regulation could force Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies to cease their services.
Sebelius also has a long history of support for abortion, both in her current position and as governor of Kansas, where she opposed restrictions on abortion and vetoed pro-life legislation.
In a May 2008 column in the Kansas City Catholic newspaper The Leaven, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said that he had met with Sebelius several times about her support for abortion and had asked her to refrain from receiving the Eucharist until she had “made a worthy sacramental confession and taken the necessary steps for amendment of her life.”
In announcing Sebelius as a speaker, Georgetown said that “she has led efforts to improve America’s health and enhance the delivery of human services to some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations.”
It also described the changes that she is implementing under the health care reform law, which “she says have ended many of the insurance industry’s most discriminatory practices and will help 34 million uninsured Americans get health coverage.”
President DeGioia described the chosen commencement speakers as “exceptional individuals who represent the highest levels of excellence.” He said that they will “provide inspiration for our students as they envision more clearly the impact they can make in the world.”
Asked to respond to the concerns voiced by Reilly and others, a Georgetown spokesperson told CNA that the ceremony at which Sebelius is speaking “is one event during commencement weekend, but it is not a commencement ceremony.”
“We do not have one main commencement speaker,” she said.
Organizers of protest groups who demonstrated at Notre Dame when President Barack Obama was invited as commencement speaker in 2009 have already announced that they will be present to protest Sebelius as well.
In addition, the Cardinal Newman Society is encouraging people to sign on to Reilly’s letter in order to petition DeGioia to withdraw the invitation.
The letter says that the choice of Sebelius “is especially insulting to faithful Catholics and their bishops, who are engaged in the fight for religious liberty and against abortion.”
It highlights the contrast “between Georgetown University and those faithful Catholic colleges and universities that have stood for faith and freedom.”
Both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of Washington told CNA that they do not have a response to the invitation at this time.