“For the Salvation of Souls”: A Farewell to Georgetown


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ABSTRACT“For the Salvation of Souls”: A Farewell to Georgetown | First Things Home Visit the Home Page Print Edition Current Edition Previous Edition Archive Subscribe On the Square Latest Feature Archive Blogs Evangel Secondhand Smoke First Thoughts Postmodern Conservative Events Coming Events Recent Events Advertising Advertise on First Things Donate Support First Things About Us Masthead ROFTERS Contact Us Submissions Store Shop First Things Affiliate Books Subscribe Subscribe Customer Service Search First Things 2012 Jan Feb Mar Apr May 2011 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2010 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2009 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2008 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2007 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2006 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2005 Sep Oct Nov Dec “For the Salvation of Souls”: A Farewell to Georgetown May 18, 2012 Patrick J. Deneen 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 var.......