Shannen, I think this is a bit of a “dog bites man” story in our current context. It’s basically a face-saving ploy by the church liberals, who have been thoroughly whipped on the HHS-mandate policy. Let me put it this way: If you had told me this time last year that a) a pro-choice Obama cabinet member would give a commencement speech at Georgetown and b) the entire U.S. conference of Catholic bishops (a notoriously Democratic-leaning bunch) would be thoroughly and vocally united against an Obama contraceptive-funding mandate, it’s b) and not a) that would have surprised me. Now the liberal bishops can say to their liberal-Democratic buddies, “Look, we’re letting Sebelius speak even though the conservatives are outraged! We’re not in the tank for those nasty Republicans! Please like us again?”
Another thing non-Catholics should understand about this controversy is that Catholic higher education in this country is generally behind the curve of the conservative shift in U.S. Catholicism. One recent example that quite tickled me was the fact that political-science professor Patrick Deneen announced he would be leaving Georgetown because he felt he wanted to work at a school with more of a Catholic identity . . . so he would be going to Notre Dame! In other words, he went from the school that honors the pro-choice Catholic HHS secretary to the school that honored her pro-choice non-Catholic boss. (I don’t mean to suggest that Deneen’s choice is risible — Notre Dame is famous, in fact, for having quite a solid Catholic identity when you get away from politics — but merely to underscore the problems conservatives still face in mainstream Catholic academia.)
(NB also: Deneen did a terrific review of Ross Douthat’s book in the print NR a couple of issues ago. Well worth checking out!)
UPDATE: A conservative Jesuit priest e-mails with a view somewhat more pessimistic than mine: “As a Jesuit, I am truly disturbed at the direction of Georgetown. . . . I am old school, thank you, which says, say what you mean and mean what you say. The USCCB is nothing but a Church group fronting for the Obama Administration. They yelled and screamed over the mandate, but, you almost had to bring them yelling and screaming to say anything about it. Georgetown is showing a semblance of this right now.” Now, even if his characterization of the struggle within the USCCB were literally accurate — a question on which I have no inside information — I think it would merely underscore the historic conservative shift taking place. The story would be that the bishops did stand up against the Obama administration, despite the reluctance of a number of them to do so: a sure sign that the conservative view is gaining strength. It’s the exact opposite of the dynamic that Catholic conservatives are used to, in which a bishop may have some conservative sympathies but has to keep them on the down-low, because the preponderance of the USCCB and its bureaucrats are liberal and he doesn’t want to rock the boat. The united stand against the HHS mandate was a big deal: Now it’s the liberals who are anxious to avoid rocking the boat.
I wouldn’t bet on Georgetown’s somehow being forced to disinvite Secretary Sebelius, but if that does happen, it would be an even more monumental signal of just how much the times have changed.