By Greg Erlandson - OSV Newsweekly, 5/27/2012
What has now become yet another ritual for Catholics are the springtime expressions of horror as yet another controversial choice is made for commencement speaker at yet another Catholic institution of higher learning.
It happens with such regularity that it almost feels like a bit of staged naughtiness: rebellious college kids “sticking it to the man” by inviting someone who will shock their elders and set them to giggling behind the bleachers. Unfortunately, the instigators are usually not students, but faculty, administrators and trustees.
I apologize in advance to readers for rising to the bait once again, but the latest example is an invitation by Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute to Kathleen Sebelius, the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services secretary. Sebelius, a Catholic, has set off the worst Church-state constitutional clash in a generation by attempting to define what constitutes an appropriate Catholic enterprise and is therefore exempt from HHS regulations requiring employers to provide contraception, sterilization and abortifacient services. It turns out that a whole host of Catholic entities, including universities, hospitals and Our Sunday Visitor, would not meet the criteria.
She acknowledges she did this without consulting legal counsel on the First Amendment implications of the regulations. This oversight is itself somewhat ironic since Sebelius, while governor of Kansas, made a point of citing the Constitution for repeated vetoes of legislation restricting abortions.
All of which is to say that Georgetown scored a bull’s-eye in terms of poking the U.S. bishops in the eye on the sensitive issue of religious liberty.
An editorial in the Washington archdiocesan newspaper protested the honor being extended to the HHS official:
“As is well known, Secretary Sebelius is the architect of the ‘HHS mandate,’ now federal law, which requires all employers — including religious institutions — to provide health insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraceptives for its employees and redefines religious ministry to exclude Catholic social services, hospitals and universities if they serve or employ non-Catholics. Given her position, it is disappointing that she would be the person that Georgetown University would choose to honor.”
The editorial said that “Secretary Sebelius’ vision on what constitutes faith-based institutions presents the most direct challenge to religious freedom in recent history,” and went on to question the judgment of the university itself:
“With all of the people struggling so hard to preserve freedom of religion, and with all that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said in defense of this important value, Georgetown’s choice of the architect of the radical challenge of such freedom for special recognition can only be seen as a statement of where the university stands — certainly not with the Catholic bishops.”
It seems tiresome to continue to make the same point each commencement season, but one must distinguish between the university as a battleground of ideas where many voices are heard and debated and the honors that are awarded by a university in a setting that is neither a debate nor a classroom.
This particular case is more egregious because the leadership of the Church is engaged in a very serious constitutional struggle with the Obama administration over the far-reaching constitutional implications of the HHS regulations and the precedent they represent. Such a public display of disunity has more than theoretical implications as the matter is contested in the court of both civil law and public opinion.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.
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