In yesterday’s Washington Post, in anticipation of today’s address by Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at Georgetown University as part of its graduation exercises, the editorial staff pronounced that “Georgetown Gets it Right.” Like many defenders of the invitation to Secretary Sebelius, the editorial at once denied that the invitation constituted an honor—since the event is not officially a “commencement” and an honorary degree is not being conferred—and asserted that the invitation constituted an opportunity for the legitimate “exchange of ideas.” The editorial archly stated that Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington—who, in an extraordinary step, publicly criticized the invitation—“fails to recognize” the “critical academic function” of “open-minded debate.”
These two reasons—that the invitation did not constitute an honor for Secretary Sebelius, and that her presence on campus is an opportunity for “open-minded debate”—have been the main responses of defenders of the invitation amid the intense controversy that has arisen in the wake of last Friday’s public announcement of the invitation. They have been invoked by spokespersons of the university, and even suggested by Georgetown’s President John J. DeGioia in an open letter published on May 14, and cited in the Washington Post editorial.
What the first defense appears to concede is that, were an honor in fact being conferred, there might indeed be something untoward about the invitation (however, this concession was not on display when President Obama was awarded an Honorary Degree in 2009 by the University of Notre Dame). This defense implies that, in particular, the bestowal of an honor upon Secretary Sebelius at this time would in fact be inappropriate. After all, Secretary Sebelius is the architect of the HHS mandate that would require Catholic institutions such as Georgetown to provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception to its students and employees, and which in turn has provoked strong and unanimous opposition from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This justification seems to concede that if an honor were being conferred, that those who have opposed the invitation might in fact be justified in their belief that this invitation constitutes an offense to the Bishops and a scandal for the Church.
The second justification depends on the first: if the invitation does not constitute an honor, then it ought legitimately be understood to be nothing more than a regular university event, the opportunity to exchange ideas and debate views. This second justification thus depends upon the legitimacy and correctness of the first claim. If, however, the event does in fact constitute an honor to Secretary Sebelius because of the inherent honorific nature of an invitation to appear as a commencement event speaker, then this raises significant doubts about the legitimacy of the second claim that such an appearance can be understood as part of a University’s ordinary activity of debate and exchange.
In fact, neither of these conditions apply—and the editorial writers at the Post, other defenders of this decision, and even the official explanation of the leadership at Georgetown “gets it wrong” to suggest otherwise. For this reason, I was one of ten faculty of Georgetown to publicly state opposition to the invitation and, in a public letter, asked for Georgetown President DeGioia to withdraw the invitation.
Each spring, members of the Georgetown faculty receive a letter from the university’s Provost and from their Dean and Chairman reminding them that they are contractually obligated, and strongly encouraged, to attend two of the university’s Commencement exercises. These include the university-wide Convocation, presided over by the President and Provost; the conferral of diplomas, presided over by the Deans of the various schools; and each school’s “Tropaia” (Greek for “trophy”), also presided over by the school’s Dean (The event to which Secretary Sebelius has been invited combines these latter two events). At each event, faculty and administrators are to don their academic regalia and march in procession at the beginning and conclusion of the ceremony. For the duration of the event itself, they are to sit in array upon a raised podium or stage during the ceremony and addresses, a highly visible presence, separate from and facing the students and the audience.
The presence and display of faculty in this manner at these events—with all attendant academic “pomp and circumstance”—is intended to send a strong signal of approval, blessing, and witness upon such events. We pay honor and respect to our students who have successfully completed their course of education, conferring upon them our collective blessing and congratulation by our presence. Our presence denotes the university’s blessing (indeed, on these occasions we take out the colored robes that reflect that once we were actually “professors”—of the faith). In seven years teaching at Georgetown, it has never been suggested that any one of these Commencement events is any less deserving of our serious regard or constitutes less of an honor to our students or invited guests than any other—at least until several days ago, when the GPPI’s Tropaia was suddenly portrayed as less than a full commencement event. In fact, after the announcement of Secretary Sebelius as one of the many Commencement speakers, the university’s website was changed to reflect a kind of demotion of Secretary Sebelius to one of Commencement weekend’s “Other Speakers.”
The fact that the University’s first, and correct, impulse was to acknowledge that the event was centrally part of the Commencement exercises belies the notion that the appearance of Secretary Sebelius should be understood to be part of the regular “exchange of ideas” and “open-minded debate” that takes place on a university campus. Every week during Georgetown’s regular 28-week academic year, a newsletter of invited speakers, guests and events is circulated to all members of the Georgetown community. Each week there are dozens of planned events of every possible kind. Attendance at these events is wholly voluntary—they are not part of the faculty’s “contractual obligation”—and faculty show up in their regular garb, not in the full Technicolor array of academic regalia. They do not sit on a raised dais or stage at the front of the room, but—if they attend any of these events at all—they join and are part of the audience. At most of these events, an opportunity is given to attendees to pose questions and challenges to the invited speaker, thereby permitting the opportunity to engage in the “exchange of ideas.” At any point during these 28-weeks, Secretary Sebelius would have been an appropriate invitee, and—speaking for myself, a view I think that would be shared by those few other faculty who protested the decision of Commencement invitation—there would have been no protest by faculty and no request for withdrawal in such a circumstance. Assuredly there would have been a vigorous “exchange of ideas” at such a regular university event—something that will not take place this morning during Secretary Sebelius’s address during Commencement Exercises, when the arrayed faculty and administration of Georgetown will sit largely in silent approval and endorsement of the proceedings. There will be no question and answer period, no exchange of ideas—only the most magnificent, colorful, and stately display of approval, honor, endorsement and beneficence that a University is capable of mustering.
The claims of the Post, and those who have defended this decision, are altogether specious and disingenuous. They also finally confuse and mistake the purpose of a Catholic university.
The Post’s editorial states that “it is the essence of a university to be a place where students can hear from an array of thinkers—and doers.” While it is assuredly the case that the editorial staff of the Post, no less than the administration of a university, would in fact regard some speakers and topics as out-of-bounds (and assuredly there are some people or views even the Post would regard as inappropriate as the recipient of an invitation to speak at a Commencement event, with or without the conferral of an honorary degree), it is nevertheless certainly the case that the life-blood of any university is the exchange of ideas. However, the Post rests content to posit that the “open-minded” exchange of ideas is the sole end or purpose of a university. However, a Catholic university in particular engages (or ought to engage) in the “exchange of ideas” with a specific and constant goal in view—attainment of knowledge of the truth in the service and worship of God with an ultimate aspiration to join him, his Son, his Mother and the Communion of Saints in Heaven.
Perhaps the most magnificent room at Georgetown University—where many events of Commencement will take place—is Gaston Hall, named for William Gaston, one of Georgetown’s first students, who successfully lobbied Congress to grant to Georgetown the right to confer degrees. At the front of that room, amid many frescoes, paintings, insignia, and symbols, is a single phrase that stretches from one side of the Hall to the other in ornate gilded letters: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam Inque Hominum Salutem: “For the Greater Glory of God and the Salvation of Humanity.” The phrase is the motto of the Society of Jesus and is attributed to its founder, Ignatius of Loyola. In founding the myriad of schools and universities—many of the seals of which are on display high above Gaston Hall—the Society of Jesus sought not merely to ensure the “exchange of ideas,” but to promote the dogged search for truth in the service of the Church for the salvation of souls. Georgetown is thus not “merely” a modern university, aimed at producing research (although it does that, and proclaims this activity widely and loudly); rather, it is most fundamentally a part of the Church’s ministry—no less so than its churches, as well as its schools, hospitals, and charities—aimed above all at the “salvation of humanity.”
The scandal of the invitation to Secretary Sebelius lies in her central role in attacking that ministry—indeed, in her words, of being “at war” with those who disagree with her positions. The HHS mandate as currently promulgated will force institutions like Georgetown—as an entity of the Church—into an impossible position. In requiring the Church (in this case, its schools, hospitals and other institutions) to act against its own conscience and faith commitments, it requires the Church to cease to be itself.
Georgetown can elect to provide services that Georgetown’s own President recently declared it does not provide based upon its adherence to the Church’s teachings. It can elect to cease providing service altogether, as in the case of Franciscan University, or to cease admitting and hiring non-Catholics in order to meet the narrow qualification for an exemption. Or, in extremis, it can elect either to secularize or to shut down, given that these other options all constitute a betrayal of faith. While many dismiss this latter option, no less a figure than Francis Cardinal George of Chicago has stated that the HHS mandate, if left unchanged, within two years will result in the shuttering of the schools, hospitals and universities in his Diocese and perhaps beyond. What Cardinal George has concluded is that left the option to be the Church as established by Jesus Christ, or to cease to be the Church on terms set by a mandate by Caesar, the Church will not act against itself; yet, in ceasing to provide ministry to Catholic and non-Catholic alike, it will in fact be forced to do just that.
What is so scandalous about Georgetown’s invitation to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is that it incontrovertibly honors the architect of a Mandate that demands that the Church cease to be itself. Georgetown is under an obligation to invite the exchange of ideas to promote an understanding of God’s Creation with an aim of the “salvation of mankind”; it is under no obligation to honor its persecutor or to engage in self-immolation. Indeed, as an institution of the Church—the oldest Catholic university in the United States—it ought to be in the forefront with the Bishops, the successors of St. Peter and the apostles, in standing against this latest persecution of the Church by the State. I think I again can speak for my nine faculty colleagues who publicly opposed this decision in stating that my reaction was less anger and outrage—of which I felt some—than sadness and hurt.
Since learning of this decision by the University I have served for seven years, and which I leave with sadness and pain to join the University of Notre Dame in the belief that it has the possibility of retaining its Catholic identity—I have mostly felt sharp pain over an institution of the Church honoring one whose policy would force—in some form—the Church to cease to be itself. Of course, if Georgetown were truly and irrefutably acting as the Church, categorically and by definition it could not act in this manner. It is only in its own internal confusion about itself and its mission, a confusion that it sows among Catholics and non-Catholics alike—not, finally, the “open-minded exchange of ideas,” but Ad majorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salute—that it could have issued and followed through on this invitation. I leave the Hilltop with even greater sadness than I felt making the decision to depart earlier in the year—apparently at the very time the decision was made to issue this invitation to Kathleen Sebelius—and will pray for Georgetown and for the Church to be true to itself, and not to be snared by the temptations of Caesar and the world.
Patrick J. Deneen is, until May 30, 2012, the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair of Hellenic Studies and Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University. In 2006 he founded the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy. On July 1, 2012, he will begin an appointment as Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.
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