May 15th, 2012
07:39 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) - The Archdiocese of Washington, the Catholic Church’s authority in the nation’s capital, is rebuking another Catholic icon, Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic college in the United States.
The conflict is over the university’s Public Policy Institute’s invitation to Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, to be its 2012 award ceremony speaker this weekend. The decision drew immediate ire from Catholic groups who see Sebelius, a Catholic, as someone who is using her office to violate religious liberty.
In a statement Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Washington called the decision unfortunate and even charged that the Public Policy Institute was supporting a “radical redefining of ministry.”
“Given the dramatic impact this mandate will have on Georgetown and all Catholic institutions, it is understandable that Catholics across the country would find shocking the choice of Secretary Sebelius, the architect of the mandate, to receive such special recognition at a Catholic university,” reads the statement. “It is also understandable that Catholics would view this as a challenge to the bishops.”
According to the archdiocese, the heart of the issue is that “the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history.”
Catholics groups have taken particular issue with the HHS mandate that religious employers offer health insurance coverage that includes access to contraceptives and birth control services. The Catholic Church teaches that use of contraception and abortion are morally wrong.
Seven states, along with a handful of religious organizations, have filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the issue.
Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia had issued a statement attempting to create some distance between the university and the contraception issue.
“The invitation to Secretary Sebelius occurred prior to the January 20th announcement by the Obama Administration of the modified healthcare regulations,” reads the statement. “The Secretary’s presence on our campus should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views. As a Catholic and Jesuit University, Georgetown disassociates itself from any positions that are in conflict with traditional church teachings.”
However, DeGioia did support her invitation to campus.
“We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas,” read that statement. “We are a community that draws inspiration from a religious tradition that provides us with an intellectual, moral, and spiritual foundation. By engaging these values we become the University we are meant to be.”
The archdiocese shot back. “Contrary to what is indicated in the Georgetown University President’s statement, the fundamental issue with the HHS mandate is not about contraception. As the United States Bishops have repeatedly pointed out, the issue is religious freedom,” its statement said.
“ Secretary Sebelius’ mandate defines religious ministry so narrowly that our Catholic schools and universities, hospitals and social service ministries do not qualify as “religious enough” to be exempt,” the statement continued. “This redefinition of religion penalizes Catholic organizations because they welcome and serve all people regardless of their faith. Ironically, because of Georgetown’s commitment to open its doors to Catholic and non-Catholic students alike, the university fails to qualify as a religious institution under the HHS mandate.”
After the uproar over the Sebelius selection first unfolded, HHS spokesman Keith Maley highlighted the former Kansas governor’s credentials as the reason she was selected.
"As a state legislator, insurance commissioner, governor and now cabinet secretary, Secretary Sebelius’ message will be about honoring the achievements of these students who are devoting their careers to public policy," said HHS spokesman Keith Maley.
Georgetown’s Washington, D.C. location has made it the location of a number of high-profile political speeches in the last year. Many of these have led to protests from both conservative and liberal wings of the politically diverse Catholic Church.
Just last month, a budget speech by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), a Catholic, led vocal criticism from 90 members of the Georgetown staff. The group sent a letter that questioned the budgets Catholic principles and its emphasis on cutting social safety net program.
“We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few,” read the letter.
This is not the first time that a Catholic university’s decision to invite an Obama White House representative to speak has elicited a negative reaction from Catholic groups. In 2009, after President Obama was selected to speak at the University of Notre Dame commencement, Catholic organizations protested the selection.
During the speech, Obama addressed the abortion issue.
"Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction," the president told the Fighting Irish graduates. "But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."
– CNN’s Sally Holland contributed to this report.
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