May 18th, 2012
08:49 AM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – In the latest round of culture wars over contraception and religious liberty, most Americans would probably identify places like the White House and Congress as key battlefields. But another nearby locale has emerged as a national platform for such skirmishes: the stately campus of Georgetown University, the country's oldest Roman Catholic college.
On Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, spoke at a relatively low-profile graduation ceremony for one of Georgetown's individual schools, an appearance that attracted criticism from the Catholic archdiocese of Washington.
The archdiocese and conservative Catholic groups blasted Sebelius' appearance after the role she played in crafting the new contraception mandate for insurance companies that says they must provide such coverage even to employees at Catholic institutions and because of her support for abortion rights.
It's hardly the only political controversy to erupt on Georgetown's campus this year and to grab national attention.
A few weeks earlier, a speech by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, a Catholic, attracted opposition from dozens of campus progressives, who said his proposed federal budget violates Catholic teachings about helping the poor.
A few weeks before that, Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke became a household name after radio personality Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" and a "prostitute" for testifying to Congress about what she said was the importance of providing contraception coverage to college students.
The controversies have made Georgetown a political football in a national debate that divides not only Democrats and Republicans but also liberal and conservative Catholics. That's especially true in an election year, when the huge Catholic vote is seen as perhaps the key swing vote in the nation.
“I always like to say that there is no Catholic vote and it is important,” jokes E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post who is also a professor at Georgetown. “Within the church, you clearly have Catholics for whom abortion and gay marriage trump every other issue.
"You have other Catholics who deeply honor the Catholic social teaching and the church’s emphasis on social justice.”
Dionne is in the latter group. He was one of 90 Georgetown faculty and staff to sign an open letter to Rep. Paul Ryan, questioning his statements about his proposed budget being grounded in Catholic teaching before he spoke at the university this month.
When Ryan did speak, a liberal Catholic group called Catholics United protested the event.
“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,” the group wrote in a letter to the lawmaker.
Dionne notes that the letter started by welcoming Ryan to campus, not telling him that he shouldn't come.
That was not the case with Sebelius. Many conservative Catholic groups protested her very appearance on campus.
“Given the dramatic impact this (contraception) 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,” said the Washington Archdiocese's statement.
"It is also understandable that Catholics would view this as a challenge to the bishops,” the statement continued.
Leading the charge against Sebelius is the conservative Cardinal Newman Society, which goes a big step further than the archdiocese in criticizing Georgetown.
“It is very anti-Catholic,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Society, describing Georgetown. “The positions that are primarily expressed there through their various speakers and even through the faculty is very often not consistent with the Catholic Church.”
Catholic groups have taken particular issue with the Health and Human Services mandate that religious employers offer health insurance coverage that includes free coverage of contraceptives and birth control services. The Catholic Church teaches that use of contraception is morally wrong.
Reilly points to a June 2004 document by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops titled “Catholics in Public Life” to make his point.
“The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” reads the statement. “They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
Says Reilly: "I would say that a commencement address falls into the category of an honor."
Georgetown has historically been politically active, with the list of government officials and politicians who have spoken there reading like a who’s who list of American public figures through history.
In the last year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and liberal filmmaker Michael Moore have spoken at Georgetown.
Many at the school want to preserve that tradition.
“The progressive Catholic vision is a tolerant, introspective vision, and personally I see it as offering nothing but positive outcomes for the learning experience,” said Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown professor who writes about religion and politics.
“I would hope that Georgetown would own that," he said. "I hope that they would own it because it is a particularly Catholic vision – inclusion, toleration, listening to views you don’t agree with. It is profoundly Catholic.”
Many high-profile Georgetown personalities, from University President John J. DeGioia to progressive priest Tom Reese to Fluke, declined comment for this story, suggesting a sensitivity to the risk of further polarizing the campus.
DeGioia has weighed in on recent campus political controversies, defending the decision to invite Sebelius - saying “we are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas” - and defending Fluke against attacks from Limbaugh, which the college president described as "as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student."
As the school prepared for graduation this week, many students standing in the parks and archways that dot campus expressed support for inviting Sebelius and for the idea of welcoming guests who don't always agree with Catholic teaching.
“What bothers me most is the response from some groups about how non-Catholic speakers come to campus,” said Ceyda Erten, a 20-year old junior and member of the lecture fund that helps bring speakers to campus. “This campus has a lot of diversity, and it is often proud that it fosters diversity.”
Joshua Phillips, a first year medical student at Georgetown, is looking forward to the graduation speeches. He said he appreciates the Catholic foundation of Georgetown – “it is nice to have another foundation to stand upon,” he said – but that the general atmosphere around campus is at odds with the church.
“I think the student body, if anything, is in conflict with the Catholicism on campus,” Phillips said. “I think (the administration) is trying to do their best to play that middle man role between the two and I think Georgetown is doing a very good job of it.”
Phillips sees the administration as “more conservative,” and students as “more liberal,” pushing the administration on issues like contraceptives and gay rights.
But others say the school has strayed too far from its Catholic identity. Professor Patrick Deneen is leaving Georgetown this summer to teach at another icon in Catholic education, the University of Notre Dame.
“I have felt isolated from the heart of the institution where I have devoted so many of my hours and my passion," Deneen wrote in an op-ed for Front Porch Republic. "Over time, I discovered that I was lonely at Georgetown.
“Notre Dame has recruited me explicitly because they regard me as someone who can be a significant contributor to its mission and identity, particularly the Catholic identity of the institution.”
The departure, according to a number of professors, is seen as Deneen leaving the more liberal Georgetown to teach at the more conservative Notre Dame. Deneen was a vocal opponent of the White House's contraceptive mandate, joining other academics in signing a protest letter against it.
Rod Dreher, a colleague of Deneen’s at The American Conservative magazine has written that the professor's departure should be a wake-up call.
“This news doesn’t come exactly as a shock, but it ought to be shocking to the world of Catholic higher education,” Dreher wrote. “Georgetown just lost one of its brightest young academic stars because it wasn’t Catholic enough.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.