Over 15,000 protest Georgetown’s invitation to Sebelius

Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before the Senate Finance Committee Credit HHS Chris Smith CNA US Catholic News 2 6 12 Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before the Senate Finance Committee. | HHS-Chris Smith.

More than 15,000 people have signed an open letter protesting Georgetown University’s decision to invite U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at an award ceremony during its commencement weekend.

“Our courageous bishops have been vigilant against this threat and they deserve, at a minimum, the respect and support of prominent institutions that claim to be in communion with the Church,” said CatholicVote.org president Brian Burch, who organized the letter.

In a May 8 e-mail to CNA, Burch explained that Georgetown’s decision to invite Sebelius is surprising because her defense of the Obama administration’s contraception mandate “threatens the very freedom of institutions like Georgetown University.”

Hospitals, universities and other institutions threatened by the mandate “represent what it means to be Catholic,” Burch said. “They're inseparable from who we are as a Church.”

The open letter warns of the danger of Catholic institutions honoring people who “demonstrate a hostility and clear opposition to the freedoms” for which the bishops have been fighting, and asks the Jesuit university to reconsider the invitation. 

The letter, which was launched on May 7, had gained more than 15,500 signatures by May 8.

It was addressed to Georgetown president John J. DeGioia and the school’s Public Policy Institute dean Edward Montgomery, as well as Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and Archbishop-designate William E. Lori of Baltimore.

Citing the “present conflict” between the Church and the Obama administration, the signatories voiced “distress” over the decision to welcome Sebelius as a speaker at Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute award ceremony on May 18.

This conflict raises “issues of fundamental concern” that are “wholly different from those issues that permit Catholics in good conscience to prudentially disagree as to how to best resolve them,” they said.

Georgetown has drawn heavy criticism since announcing on May 4 that it had invited Sebelius to speak on commencement weekend.

The criticism largely stems from the fact that Sebelius recently issued a controversial 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 U.S. have spoken out against the mandate and the threat that it poses to religious freedom. They have warned that the rule could force Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies to end their work.

A Georgetown spokesperson responded to the criticism by saying that that university does not have “one main commencement speaker” because each of its undergraduate and professional schools holds an individual graduation ceremony.

Sebelius is not speaking at a commencement ceremony, but at an awards ceremony, the spokesperson said.

Sebelius was originally listed on the Georgetown website under the heading, “Speakers at Other Commencement Ceremonies.” As opposition grew, this heading was changed to “Speakers at Other Ceremonies.”

The signatories warned that Georgetown’s decision “will only inflame this conflict, invite justified protests, cause great harm and detract from the necessary dialogue required to resolve the issues surrounding this mandate.”

In addition, they said, it is “fundamentally an act of disunity” that represents “an insult” to the work of the bishops and other faithful Americans seeking to prayerfully resolve the conflict with the administration, and it should therefore be reconsidered.

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Burch told CNA that faced with an assault on our “most fundamental freedom,” the unity of the Church is critical now “more than ever.”

“Instead, Georgetown has invited discord and disunity by inviting the very person who could shut down their school with an avalanche of fines,” he said.

"Even on a most basic self-interested level, one wonders why Georgetown would invite the fox into the henhouse."

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