Prodded by an ultraconservative Catholic group, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has criticized Friday’s scheduled speech at Georgetown University by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Although Sebelius favors abortion rights, the “sin” that incurred the archdiocese’s displeasure was the Obama administration’s proposed rule requiring insurance coverage for contraception for employees of religious hospitals and educational institutions. Because Sebelius’ actions “present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history,” the archdiocese suggested, students at the Jesuit-affiliated university shouldn’t be able to hear her speak at an awards ceremony for its Public Policy Institute.
That sort of censorship would violate a great university’s responsibility to expose its students to a variety of viewpoints. Last month, Rep. Paul D. Ryan(R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, addressed students at Georgetown, seeking to counter complaints that his fiscal policies are incompatible with the solicitude for the poor shown in the Gospels. Ryan’s appearance contributed to the “free exchange of ideas” to which Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, has committed himself; so will Sebelius’ speech.
To some extent, the controversy over Sebelius’ appearance is a replay of the debate over President Obama’s commencement speech three years ago at another iconic Catholic university, Notre Dame. The Cardinal Newman Society, which opposed Obama’s appearance there, is also the group that has circulated petitions against Sebelius, describing her as “a publicly ‘pro-choice’ Catholic who is most responsible for the Obama administration’s effort to restrict the Constitution’s first freedom.”
Both episodes reflect the rift between many Catholic universities and church conservatives who claim (with support from the Vatican) that those institutions have compromised their Catholic character. But the archdiocese’s complaint about the Sebelius invitation ratchets up the church’s opposition to providing a forum for unwelcome views. Her appearance is being criticized not because of her opinions about the morality of contraception or abortion, but because the administration’s contraceptive mandate (in the archdiocese’s view) undermines the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. If Sebelius’ disagreement with the hierarchy on this legal question makes her persona non grata, will the church also complain about law professors at Georgetown who share her view?
Georgetown insists that it is “deeply rooted in the Catholic faith,” but also boasts that it provides students with a world-class education “focused on educating the whole person through exposure to different faiths, cultures and beliefs.” For some conservative Catholics, the two propositions are irreconcilable. It’s disappointing that the archdiocese of Washington seems to agree.