Sebelius's Rebuttal to Catholic Bishops? JFK Believed in an America 'Where No Religious Body Seeks to Impose Its Will'

By Edwin Mora | May 18, 2012 | 3:23pm EDT

( -- Speaking at a graduation ceremony for Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute on Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius quoted President John F. Kennedy in what may have been a rebuttal to the Catholic bishops of the United States who have criticized Sebelius for issuing a health-care regulation that the bishops have described as "an unprecedented attack on religious liberty" and an "unjust law" that Catholics in good conscience cannot obey. 

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Towards the end of her speech, Sebelius talked about the “very serious debates underway” in America on many issues, including “health care,” and that public policy leaders are needed to move the debates forward.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

She then noted that John F. Kennedy had been criticized by some people in his 1960 campaign for president because he was a Catholic.

“Some of then-Senator Kennedy’s opponents attacked him for his religion, suggesting that electing the first Catholic president would undermine the separation of church and state, a fundamental principle in our unique democracy," Sebelius said. "Now the furor over the course of the campaign grew so loud that Senator Kennedy chose to deliver a speech about his beliefs just seven weeks before that November election.”

Kennedy delivered the speech on Sept. 12, 1960.

“In his talk to Protestant ministers,” Sebelius said, “Kennedy talked about his vision of religion and the public square, and he said he believed in an America, and I quote, ‘where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against us all.’”

“And here we are more than 50 years later and that conversation, about the intersection of our nation’s long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions in the public square continues,” said Sebelius.

Sebelius told the students that to engage in debates, such as ones dealing with religion and public policy, will require them to follow their “own moral compass.”

“Contributing to these debates will require more than just the quantitative skills you’ve learned at Georgetown,” she said. “It will also require the ethical skills you have honed--the ability to weigh different views, to see issues from others points of view, and in the end, to be true to your own moral compass.”

Georgetown University President John DeGioia. (AP Photo)

“These debates can also be contentious. But that’s a strength of our country, not a weakness,” she said, adding, “The conversations can be painful, But it’s through this process of conversation and compromise that we actually move forward, together, step by step, towards that ‘more perfect union.’”

The regulation issued by Sebelius will require virtually all health-care plans in the United States to cover, without any fees or co-pay, sterilizations for women as well as all FDA-approved contraceptives, including those that cause abortion. This regulation will force Catholics individuals to purchase health care plans that violate the teachings of their faith and Catholic institutions and business owners to either violate church teachings of drop health-care coverage for their employees. 

Some Catholic institutions--including EWTN and Ave Maria University--have already sued the federal government saying that the regulation violates their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religions.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest judicial authority, has said that Catholic employers cannot obey the regulation because doing so would constitute "formal cooperation" in evil. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked Sebelius to rescind the regulation but she has refused. Both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have boasted about the regulation in campaign speeches.

The bishops have argued that the amendment is a straightforward violation of the basic constitutionally protected right of the individual not to be ordered by the government to act against his or her conscience or religious beliefs. Advocates of the regulation have depicted the bishops' opposition to it as an effort by the bishops to impose on American women their views on sterlization and contraception.

This week, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where Georgetown is located, criticized the university, which describes itself as a Catholic school, for honoring Sebelius by inviting her to give a graduation address.

In a May 15 statement, the office of the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., said, “Given the dramatic impact this [health care] mandate will have on Georgetown and all Catholic institutions, it is understandable that Catholics across the country would find shocking the choice of Secretary Sebelius, the architect of the mandate, to receive such special recognition at a Catholic university. It is also understandable that Catholics would view this as a challenge to the bishops.” (Note: the statement from the archdiocese was not signed by Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who oversees the diocese.)

In its May 10 editorial, the The Catholic Standard (Archdiocese of Washington) said,  “As is well known, Secretary Sebelius is the architect of the ‘HHS mandate,’ now federal law, which requires all employers -- including religious institutions -- to provide health insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraceptives for its employees and redefines religious ministry to exclude Catholic social services, hospitals and universities if they serve or employ non-Catholics. Given her position, it is disappointing that she would be the person that Georgetown University would choose to honor.”

“… Georgetown has undergone secularization, due in no small part to the fact that much of its leadership and faculty find their inspiration in sources other than the Gospel and Catholic teaching,” stated the editorial. “Many are quite clear that they reflect the values of the secular culture of our age. Thus the selection of Secretary Sebelius for special recognition, while disappointing, is not surprising.”

The editorial in The Catholic Standard, which was unsigned, accused Georgetown of not standing with the Catholic bishops.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and President Barack Obama at the White House on Feb. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

It read: “With all of the people struggling so hard to preserve freedom of religion, and with all that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said in defense of this important value, Georgetown's choice of the architect of the radical challenge of such freedom for special recognition can only be seen as a statement of where the university stands -- certainly not with the Catholic bishops.”

“One can only wonder how the selection of Secretary Sebelius for such a prominent role as a featured speaker can be reconciled with the stated Catholic mission and identity of Georgetown University,” said the editorial.  “Secretary Sebelius' vision on what constitutes faith-based institutions presents the most direct challenge to religious freedom in recent history.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has said the HHS contraceptive mandate is an “unprecedented” attack on religious freedom and therefore it should be rescinded. In a Mar. 2 letter, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the USCCB, wrote: “religious freedom is under attack, and we will not cease our struggle to protect it. … We have made it clear in no uncertain terms to the government that we are not at peace with its invasive attempt to curtail the religious freedom we cherish as Catholics and Americans. We did not ask for this fight, but we will not run from it.”

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop for the archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

In a May 14 statement, Georgetown President John DeGioia said, “Some have interpreted the invitation of Secretary Sebelius as a challenge to the USCCB. It was not.”

“The Secretary’s presence on our campus should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views,” he added.

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