Today, the Washington Post criticized the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington for finding it "shocking" that Georgetown University would invite HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at the awards ceremony of its Public Policy Institute.
What we find shocking is Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s failure to credit the proper role of a university and the importance of vigorous, open debate, even--or perhaps especially--involving matters of intense controversy and religious disagreement... The cardinal’s public slap-down of what he termed Georgetown’s “unfortunate decision” fails to recognize that critical academic function.
What the Post fails to recognize, however, is that its idea of a university and that of those protesting Georgetown's invitation are not the same. The protest is being spearheaded by the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic outfit dedicated to "studying and promoting the work of our patron, John Henry Cardinal Newman, especially as it relates to Catholic higher education and the unity of faith and reason." That refers to Newman's well-known work, The Idea of a University, a series of nine lectures published in 1858 after Newman had served as rector of the newly established Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin).
Here's a taste of what Newman had to say, from lecture 5:
The medieval schools were the arena of as critical a struggle between truth and error as Christianity has ever endured; and the philosophy which bears their name carried its supremacy by means of a succession of victories in the cause of the Church. Scarcely had Universities risen into popularity, when they were found to be infected with the most subtle and fatal forms of unbelief; and the heresies of the East germinated in the West of Europe and in Catholic lecture-rooms, with a mysterious vigour upon which history throws little light...
In this day, on the contrary, Truth and Error lie over against each other with a valley between them, and David goes forward in the sight of all men, and from his own camp, to engage with the Philistine. Such is the providential overruling of that principle of toleration, which was conceived in the spirit of unbelief, in order to the destruction of Catholicity. The sway of the Church is contracted; but she gains in intensity what she loses in extent. She has now a direct command and a reliable influence over her own institutions, which was wanting in the middle ages. A University is her possession in these times, as well as her creation: nor has she the need, which once was so urgent, to expel heresies from her pale, which have now their own centres of attraction elsewhere, and spontaneously take their departure.
In other words, Newman did not like the idea of the medieval university (much less the contemporary one), where all subjects were to be taught and where there was (for the most part) free and open discussion of even heretical ideas. (OK, so in 1277 the bishop of Paris condemned a bunch of propositions, including some of Thomas Aquinas', at the University of Paris.) Newman's idea of a (Catholic) university was an institution that overruled the principle of toleration, and where the Church had the power to insist that only its truths be taught, and to keep the heretical outside the gates.
I'm not saying that the Archdiocese of Washington claims to be on the same page as the Newman Society. After all, it based its condemnation of the Georgetown invitation on "the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history and the apparent lack of unity with and disregard for the bishops and so many others across the nation who are committed to the defense of freedom of religion."
But when it comes to direct challenges to religious liberty in recent history, the HHS contraception mandate doesn't hold a candle to Employment Division v. Smith, the 1990 Supreme Court decision that disallowed free exercise challenges to neutral laws of general applicability. That decision happened to be the work of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Georgetown '57. However, you didn't find the Archdiocese of Washington protesting when Scalia was invited to give the keynote address at the university's Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy a few years ago.
The problem with Sebelius, I'd say, is not that she has acted against religious liberty per se, but that her contraception decision specifically put Catholic institutions in a position they didn't want to be in. Oh, and that she's a pro-choice Catholic to boot. Defending her selection as a speaker, Georgetown president John J. DeGioia said, “We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas." To the Archdiocese of Washington, she's a heretic whose ideas on health care should not be given a platform in a Catholic university. Which is pretty much Newman's idea.