Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius addressed the graduates of Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute today. She said that public service is “the most challenging, frustrating, exciting, consequential, and rewarding career there is” and stated that “my first hope for you today is that you always hold on to your commitment to work for the common good. If you let that focus guide you, you will never go off course.”
The “common good” was not defined in any particular way, nor was there any mention of specific Catholic principles, doctrines, or thinkers—with the exception of Robert and John F. Kennedy, who were both quoted with requisite admiration and implied semi-infallible authority. Regarding health care, Sebelius said:
One of the issues I kept coming back to was health care, culminating in my current position. And now, I have the extraordinary opportunity to help implement legislation that is finally, after seven decades of failed debate, ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health coverage.
Ultimately, public policy is about making difficult choices. Today, there are serious debates underway about the direction of our country – debates about the size and role of government, about America’s role as a global economic and military leader, about the moral and economic imperative of providing health care to all our citizens. People have deeply-held beliefs on all sides of these discussions, and you, as public policy leaders, will be called on to help move these debates forward.
These are not questions with quick and easy answers. When I was in junior high, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was running for president. I wasn’t old enough to vote, but it was the first national campaign I really remember. 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 of our democracy. The furor grew so loud that Kennedy chose to deliver a speech about his beliefs just seven weeks before the election.
In that talk to Protestant ministers, Kennedy talked about his vision of religion and the public square, and 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.”
Kennedy was elected president on November 8, 1960. And more than 50 years later, that conversation, about the intersection of our nation’s long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions that affect the general public, continues.
The appeal to Kennedy is not surprising, of course, but it does suggest how Kennedy’s famous speech in Houston continues to have a powerful influence—a far too strong and very negative influence, in my opinion, especially when you consider how often it has been trotted out and used by a number of pro-abortion Catholic politicians over the years, including Cuomo and Kerry. (See “The Enduring Costs of John F. Kennedy’s Compromise”, by Colleen Carroll Campbell [Catholic World Report, Dec. 2008]).
Finally, Sebelius also said:
Contributing to these debates will require more than just the quantitative skills you have learned at Georgetown. It will also require the ethical skills you have honed – the ability to weigh different views, see issues from other points of view, and in the end, follow your own moral compass.
At least President Obama, who is not Catholic, in attempting to explain his Darwinian journey to the evolved place of public support of “gay marriage”, made an appeal (outrageous and illogical, yes) to the sacrifice of Christ and the Golden Rule. Sebelius, a self-described Catholic, simply urges graduates to follow their “own moral compass”, which might be a poor way of saying “follow your fully formed conscience”, but has more than a big whiff of relativism clinging to it. But what else would we expect? At one point, Sebelius referred to herself as “an accidental feminist”; that may well be, but she surely must know that there is no such thing as an accidental Catholic, or a Catholic who believes one thing in private and says something else in public.