In what has become an annual tradition, another Catholic university has come under fire for its choice of commencement speaker.
Georgetown University, the oldest Jesuit institution in the nation, is taking heat for inviting Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, to address the school’s Public Policy Institute graduates on May 18. Prominent Catholic groups, including the Cardinal Newman Society and the Catholic League, have assailed the university in recent days for giving a platform to the pro-choice Cabinet official.
Mrs. Sebelius has also played a central role in implementing President Obama’s health care reform law, which has angered many Catholics officials because of its contraception mandates, even for faith-related employers. Georgetown found itself caught up in that debate earlier this year when one of its law students, Sandra Fluke, testified before Congress in favor of mandating contraception coverage.
“It is scandalous and outrageous that America’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university has elected to provide this prestigious platform to a publicly pro-choice Catholic who is most responsible for the Obama administration’s effort to restrict the Constitution’s first freedom, the right to free exercise of religion,” said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which advocates for a stronger Catholic identity at schools such as Georgetown.
A petition asking the school to pull Mrs. Sebelius from the event has received more than 14,000 signatures.
“They wouldn’t bring in an anti-Semite, nor should they. They wouldn’t bring in a racist, nor should they. But they’re bringing in a pro-abortion champion, and they shouldn’t,” Mr. Donohue said.
Notre Dame faced similar criticism in 2009 when it invited President Obama to address its graduating class. Pro-life students and activists protested the event, while the president in his speech called for “common ground.” D.C.’s Catholic University took some heat for hosting House Speaker John A. Boehner last year, drawing the ire of some faculty members and others who felt the Ohio Republican’s views neglected the church’s mission to care for the poor and the sick.
The dust-ups highlight a difficult balancing act for Catholic institutions, one that requires them to remain true to their religious and moral beliefs while at the same time promoting healthy debate.
“In one sense, no one is ever going to be happy,” said Joseph Grieboski, founder and chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. “There will always be someone who has some opposition to the positions that [the speakers] have. Georgetown has to walk a very fine line between being a school that encourages open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity, but at the same time maintaining its religious values.”
While Mrs. Sebelius and other guests can cause temporary headaches for universities, Mr. Grieboski said, religious institutions should avoid the easy route of only inviting speakers who fully agree with their dogma.
“That’s not a challenge to students,” he said.
The campus clashes aren’t just confined to Catholic institutions, or to graduation ceremonies.
Last month, religious leaders in Alabama unsuccessfully tried to stop Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s address to Alabama A&M students. In 2007, Columbia University drew the ire of Jewish groups and many others for allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak.
And 500 employees and students at Atlanta’s Emory University have signed a letter criticizing the fact that commencement speaker Dr. Ben Carson, the renowned Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon and humanitarian, does not believe in evolution.
In most cases, problems arise only when the speaker is a controversial political figure, Mr. Grieboski said. Other high-profile guests, such as business titans, entertainers or professional athletes, rarely rock the boat.
“Nobody was going to say we don’t want Steve Jobs, the most successful businessman in America, to come speak because of his company’s practices in Vietnam or China,” Mr. Grieboski said.
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Ben Wolfgang is a national reporter for The Washington Times. Before coming to the Times, he spent four years as a political reporter in Pennsylvania. His focus is on education and science policy. Ben lives in southeast D.C. and has played guitar in several bands while still in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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