Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer

Since I am sucker for celebrity commencement addresses, mid- to late-May is like my own, personal Christmas. I’m slightly biased toward addresses given by journalists and authors — see Atul Gawande’s or David Foster Wallace‘s speeches — but comedians give the best ones. Give me Conan O’Brien or Jane Lynch  over the president any day. Sorry, Mr. President. Listen, watch and read them. At the very least, you’ll be entertained, possibly enlightened and get some solid, free advice.

So as an aficionado of ye olde commencement speech, it was hard to miss the hubbub that followed when Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute invited Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to deliver a commencement speech to graduating master’s degreed students.

Loyal readers of McKnight’s no doubt understand why it’s controversial for this particular Catholic university to invite this particular Catholic cabinet member to give a speech. But just in case it’s needed, here’s the quick version: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the implementation of which Sebelius plays an enormous role — requires employer health insurance plans to include contraceptive services to any female employee who needs them. Houses of worship and faith-based universities and health systems (including Catholic nursing homes, of which there are nearly 500) have achieved a special accommodation, but several prominent U.S. bishops, dissatisfied with the administration’s exemption, have filed suit.

Several Catholic student groups demanded that Sebelius’ invitation be rescinded, much hand-wringing ensued, but the school’s leadership stood by its invitation. Sebelius delivered her address last weekend, with much grace and aplomb, despite audible heckling by activists who were escorted out of the auditorium.

As a Catholic woman who just started the PreCana process with my (non-Catholic) husband-to-be, the thorny nature of this piece of healthcare policy is not lost on me.

I have a hard enough time reconciling my personal opinions with my own church’s teaching. Not to mention the landmine that is articulating my overwrought position to my betrothed — or well-intentioned busybodies who feel the need to inquire. And when you’re getting married, you get plenty of unsolicited advice and questions in this area, too.  Needless to say, I have an appreciation for any anxiety Sebelius had to overcome to deliver her speech.

And, because I’m having to interpret what’s reported in the news to a Protestant partner (and you, dear readers), I feel for the non-Catholic healthcare workers whose coverage is at stake because they work for a religious employer. But, as those opposed to this legislation point out, they knew what they were signing up for when they proposed/agreed to work for a Catholic fiancé/employer.

If you work in a nursing home that is affiliated with the Catholic Church, I bet you’ve been fielding questions about how this policy will affect the women (and men) who work with you. Your Catholic colleagues — especially the older ones — probably aren’t surprised by the controversy.  There’s probably some eye rolling. Contraceptive debates are hardly new to anyone who’s spent time in a confession booth.

But how should you respond to your non-Catholic employees? It’s asking a lot to expect someone with a different religious background to understand the intricacies of Catholicism, as even the faithful grapple. But this is an area all religious employers have to cope with — from Lutheran Church-owned facilities to Seventh Day Adventist communities, and everything in between.

I think Sebelius herself had a pretty good answer to that question. Our country — like our workplaces — is a mixed bag in terms of religious and political opinions and those dynamics are always at work

If you listen to the address, pay attention to the end of the speech when she sums up the American approach to public policy and debate. According to Sebelius:

“… contributing to these debates will require more than the quantitative skills you have learned at Georgetown. It requires 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. These debates can also be contentious. But that’s a strength of our country, not a weakness … our system is messier, slower, more frustrating and far better. And it almost always ends in compromise. The conversations can be painful. But it’s through this process of conversation and compromise that we move forward …”

If you are an administrator or a nursing director, you’ve probably had to deal with institutional policies much like a politician does. You’ve had to search for consensus, and hone your analytical and ethical skills. And you’ve probably accepted that you can’t please every employee.

Or, you can take the advice my priest gave me when I asked him how to explain the church’s teaching to non-Catholics who ask what I think. I wanted to be able to share my views — and the church’s — honestly.

His response was not unlike Sebelius.’

“Listen to your conscience, as it will seldom lead you astray. Have difficult discussions with the parties immediately affected by your decision. Express your opinion and don’t be afraid to disagree. Compromise is almost always a part of the equation.”

I told you commencement speeches could be instructive.