WASHINGTON-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius delivered a commencement address Friday morning at Georgetown University, after days of debate about a Cabinet secretary who has clashed so publicly with the Catholic Church speaking at the nation's oldest Jesuit school. In her speech, Sebelius avoided points of controversy, but she brought up protecting religious freedom-of which her religious critics have accused her of doing the opposite.
The controversy mirrored the outcry when President Obama delivered a commencement address at Notre Dame, another Catholic university, in 2009. Sebelius is herself Catholic, but is pro-abortion and has been the face of the debate this year with U.S. Catholic bishops as well as Protestant leaders after she instituted the contraceptive and abortifacient mandate as a part of the implementation of Obama's healthcare law.
Religious leaders object to the mandate as an imposition on religious freedom, because only churches are exempt from the requirement to provide free contraceptives and abortifacients to employees. The administration has sought to nuance the mandate in the months since it was announced, but religious groups remain unconvinced that the new regulations will protect them from paying for drugs-like the morning after pill-that violate their consciences.
Sebelius is also implementing Obama's executive order allowing federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells, though that is being challenged in court even now.
Georgetown President John DeGioia defended the invitation to Sebelius, saying it was not an endorsement of her policies but part of the university's openness to academic conversations with people from all viewpoints.
"As a Catholic and Jesuit University, Georgetown disassociates itself from any positions that are in conflict with traditional church teachings," he said.
But the Archdiocese of Washington, headed by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, said DeGioia's explanation "does not address the real issue for concern-the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history."
The cardinal said because of the dramatic impact the contraceptive 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. It is also understandable that Catholics would view this as a challenge to the bishops."
More words were spilled about Sebelius speaking at Georgetown than were in her speech itself. The brief, low-key address to a few hundred graduates of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute avoided controversial topics, but Sebelius did reference the ongoing debate over religious freedom.
She recalled witnessing attacks on John F. Kennedy's Catholicism when he was running for president in 1960, and brought up his speech on religion in the public square: "He believed in an America, and I quote, 'Where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials-and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against us all.'"
Sebelius added, "And more than 50 years later, that conversation, about the intersection of our nation's long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions that affect the general public, continues."
She noted that the U.S. government does not have the power of issuing an "edict," unlike in some other parts of the world. "Our system is messier, slower, more frustrating, and far better. It requires conversations that can be painful and it almost always ends in compromise. But it's through this process of conversation and compromise that we move forward, together, step by step, towards a 'more perfect union.'"
Religious groups won't know the Department of Health and Human Services' final "compromise" in regard to the contraceptive mandate for a while. HHS released an "Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" in March to modify the contraceptive mandate, inviting comment until June 19 of this year. After the administration evaluates the comments, it will determine how it will modify the contraceptive requirement-if at all-which goes into effect for most groups in August 2013.