(Photo: White House / Pete Souza)
The Archdiocese of Washington, led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, slammed Georgetown University on Tuesday for not withdrawing its invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at an awards ceremony.
In particular, the archdiocese rejected Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia's defense, issued Monday, for inviting Sebelius, who helped craft the controversial birth control mandate. The mandate, which will require employers, including many Catholic schools and hospitals, to provide health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs, has been criticized by Catholic institutions as well as pro-life and religious freedom advocates.
"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," the archdiocese said in a statement. "It is also understandable that Catholics would view this as a challenge to the bishops."
DeGioia defended the decision to have the HHS secretary participate in a Public Policy Institute awards ceremony this weekend, saying the invitation was extended prior to the Jan. 20 announcement by the Obama administration to reaffirm the mandate. He also said her presence on campus "should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views."
"Secretary Sebelius has a long and distinguished record of public service, including two terms as governor of Kansas before beginning her service in April, 2009, as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. She is also the spouse and the mother of Georgetown graduates," DeGioia stated, adding that the invitation was not a challenge to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the most ardent critics of the contraception mandate.
"As a Catholic and Jesuit University, Georgetown disassociates itself from any positions that are in conflict with traditional church teachings," he added. "We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas. 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 of Washington fired back, saying DeGioia misses the issue of the entire controversy.
"The real issue for concern," the archdiocese said, is "the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history and the apparent lack of unity with and disregard for the bishops and so many others across the nation who are committed to the defense of freedom of religion.
"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. 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.
"This redefinition of religion penalizes Catholic organizations because they welcome and serve all people regardless of their faith."
Additionally, the archdiocese called it "especially distressing" that the university was apparently "unaware of this national debate since the mandate was published last August."
"Such a radical redefining of ministry should prompt Georgetown, as a Catholic and Jesuit university, to do more to challenge the mandate and speak up for freedom of religion."
Catholics and evangelicals alike have been speaking out against the health care mandate since last year, expressing concerns over what they view as an egregious religious freedom violation. Though the Obama administration offered a "compromise" in February, where insurance companies, rather than the religious institutions, would be required to pay for contraceptive services, religious groups have stated that the offer resolves nothing.
On Tuesday, the USCCB officially rejected the proposed "compromise," saying in a statement to HHS that religious employers and other stakeholders would still have their employee health insurance plans and premiums "used for services they find morally objectionable."
Since Sebelius was announced earlier this month as one of the speakers during Georgetown's commencement weekend, about 27,000 people have signed a petition, circulated by a conservative Catholic think tank, urging the university to withdraw the invitation.