As you likely know, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been invited by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute (GPPI), a highly-ranked graduate program offering master’s degrees in public policy, to be one of many speakers at Georgetown’s multiple commencement awards ceremonies (she is not “the commencement speaker” for Georgetown University and she is not being given an “honorary degree”). GPPI is the same program that hosted Rep. Paul Ryan for the Whittington Lecture a few weeks ago.
Outside of theology (...within theology Ex Corde Ecclesiae is the essential framework through the authority of the local bishop and Church hierarchy), I think it is acceptable and even important to have (...but not necessarily honor) speakers on campus who are approaching their fields of expertise from a variety of perspectives—especially in forums where faculty and students can exchange ideas, praise, and/or criticism (…and frankly there are Catholic politicians from both parties, including Rep. Paul and Sec. Sebelius, who could use an earful of criticism at times). I don’t think anyone becomes “less” Catholic by hearing or participating in these exchanges just as cardinals and popes have not lost their faith when atheist Stephen Hawking has presented at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (…it is also clear that reading a lot of atheist Ayn Rand did not damage Rep. Ryan’s Catholic faith). It would be silly to think that the Catholic identity of the Vatican needs to be “strengthened” after years of Prof. Hawking explaining his physics research to the Church hierarchy just as I don’t think a single student who heard Rep. Ryan or who may hear Sec. Sebelius will become “less” Catholic by doing so.
Before Rep. Ryan’s talk, 90 Georgetown faculty members signed a letter protesting his statement that Catholic social teaching had inspired his budget. I do not recall seeing letters of “outrage” from any groups outside of Georgetown even though U.S. Bishops have been clear that his budget is incompatible with Church teachings (1, 2). The Georgetown faculty members were not protesting his appearance at Georgetown and as I understand it, Sec. Sebelius has never similarly claimed that her faith inspired her policy-making at HHS (although it would be interesting to hear her try to make this case!... e.g., she is vocal supporter of abortion and has been asked by her bishop to not receive Communion). I believe that a much smaller number of Georgetown faculty members have signed a new letter critical of the Sebelius choice (I have not seen it yet). Also as I understand it, Sec. Sebelius was selected by GPPI students and not by faculty to speak at the commencement event.
As a member of the Georgetown community I am in no position to tell Sec. Sebelius or Rep. Ryan how to be a “better Catholic” (that is up to their bishops). I am not a theologian and certainly have no teaching authority on matters of faith. But I am a political scientist and on the basis of likely policy outcomes alone I do have to say I personally disagree with both Rep. Ryan’s budget and many of the policies Sec. Sebelius crafted at HHS (even as I, like the U.S. Bishops, strongly support the principle of “healthcare for all”). I did not oppose Rep. Ryan’s lecture appearance but I do oppose the invitation offered to Sec. Sebelius for a GPPI commencement event and would similarly not think it fitting for Rep. Ryan to speak on such an occasion.
My criticisms of Sec. Sebelius are consistent with those voiced by a Georgetown faculty member at GPPI who has expressed serious concerns about HHS policy-making under her leadership (he also signed the Ryan letter). In his own words, he has argued that the Obama administration “utterly botched the admittedly difficult question of how contraceptive services should be treated under the new health-care law.” This GPPI faculty member argues further that “religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.” If Sec. Sebelius indeed botched decisions as described above on the mandate (and there is reporting to indicate that she was a essential to these decisions) and failed to consider basic constitutional issues to the point where her policy could be (...some say likely to be) declared unconstitutional (arguably the worst failure a policy could face) I think it is fair to say she might be a bit out of place as a speaker during commencement week at a school of public policy!
The GPPI faculty member I quoted above is of course the well-respected E.J. Dionne and these comments were part of an op-ed you can and should read here. Much has changed since Prof. Dionne wrote this piece. I don’t know him personally nor his current evaluations of the HHS mandate or its follow-up accommodation. It is very possible that his evaluations have changed. However, I do know that Sec. Sebelius has double-downed on the aspects of policy-making that Prof. Dionne was so critical of in that op-ed. You can see her speak to these issues herself below in congressional testimony in ways that are certainly less than encouraging. In the first clip she details her attempts to gain input from religious leaders regarding these potential constitutional issues and in the second clip she explains her need of the Constitution during the policy-making process.
I think Sec. Sebelius, like Rep. Paul Ryan, would perhaps be an appropriate speaker for something like the Whittington Lecture in the future but her appearance on the graduation slate for public policy students in 2012 just doesn’t feel right for a variety or reasons. In my opinion, as a political scientist, she is certainly an important national policy maker (and perhaps that is the selection standard being used)—just not an exceptionally good one so far. I think it is the responsibility of faculty to only hold up excellent examples of the professions we prepare students for at their graduations. The matter of whether she is someone who should be speaking at a Catholic university commencement event given matters of faith (e.g., her stance on abortion) is for others to decide (I am not an administrator) and sadly that very debate has taken the focus entirely off of what Georgetown’s commencement should be about—the students (including the vast majority who are not a part of GPPI). Georgetown was able to put clock hands back on Healy Hall. I wish there was a way to also “fix” what feels kind of like a “senior prank” by the 2012 graduates of GPPI. Even if she was the students’ desired pick, again as a political scientist, I think the students deserve a better example of policy-making as the last speaker they will hear on campus. They might not realize it now but the Constitution and its protections for religion really are essentials for policy-making (Atlas Shrugged less so, even if you get it as a Christmas present from a member of Congress).