The Politics Of Catholic Schools' Graduation Speakers

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is up in arms over Georgetown University's invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak during commencement weekend. Church officials are upset about Sebelius' role in the creation of the contraception mandate in the federal health reform law. It's one of several controversies surrounding graduation speakers that have cropped up this spring.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, will address students at Georgetown University tomorrow.

As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, that has created one of several controversies this season over commencement speakers.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Sebelius is Catholic. She's also liberal and pro-choice. And the fact that she's speaking to Georgetown's Public Policy Institute makes conservative Catholics, like Patrick Reilly, see red.

PATRICK REILLY: Well, this is clearly a betrayal of the bishops.

HAGERTY: Riley is president of the Cardinal Newman Society. He notes that Sebelius is the architect of the Obama administration's requirement that Catholic universities and hospitals offer birth control coverage.

REILLY: This is not someone who the Catholic Church, or Catholic institutions, should be honoring.

HAGERTY: The Archdiocese of Washington asked the Jesuit university to rescind the invitation. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Archdiocese of Washington did not ask Georgetown to withdraw its invitation.] Georgetown spokeswoman Stacy Kerr says it will not.

STACY KERR: Her visit does not mean that the university endorses her positions. In fact, those who speak at Georgetown do not speak for Georgetown.

HAGERTY: It's the season of commencement protests. Some liberal students demanded that Emory University revoke its invitation to neurosurgeon Ben Carson because he does not subscribe to evolution. It did not. But this year, protests have been more visible at Catholic institutions. Social conservatives demanded that Gonzaga University disinvite Archbishop Desmond Tutu because of his support for gay marriage and abortion. It did not.

Conservatives had more luck at Anna Maria College, which did rescind its invitation to Victoria Kennedy, widow of Edward Kennedy.

Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at Catholic University of America, says Catholic schools have two missions. One is to convey the teachings of the Catholic faith. The other is to be a university.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: That is a place that's open for intellectual discourse and pursuit of the truth. And those two things occasionally run into tension with one another.

HAGERTY: Especially in this election year.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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Correction May 21, 2012

We incorrectly reported that the Archdiocese of Washington asked Georgetown University to withdraw an invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at a commencement weekend event. The Archdiocese did not ask the university to withdraw its invitation.

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