Why Harvard Refused to Ban the Black Mass

Despite opposition from the Catholic Church, President Drew Faust used the opportunity to commit to free academic expression.

Drew Faust

Associated Press

There’s a lot that’s telling about the relationship between universities and religions in the way the Harvard administration reacted to the uproar over the planned reenactment of a Satanic “Black Mass” on campus.

Members of the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Club, which sponsored the event, had said that their intention in hosting the ritual had been to provide historical context to their study of world religions, not to offend the Catholic community. (The Black Mass is a Satanic parody of the Catholic Mass.) The group decided to cancel the event Monday, but not before Harvard’s President Drew Faust weighed in.

Faust had a tough line to walk between the group’s claims of academic inquiry on the one hand and the deep offense taken by Harvard’s Catholics on the other. She clearly feels that conflict:

The reenactment of a ‘black mass’ planned by a student group affiliated with the Harvard Extension School challenges us to reconcile the dedication to free expression at the heart of a university with our commitment to foster a community based on civility and mutual understanding.

Faust ultimately decided that the university would not prevent the group from hosting the Black Mass. She argued that “… the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent.” That, of course, is not the strategy the Catholic Church has always employed in the face of academic inquiry with which they disagreed. (Just ask Galileo.)

It’s not even the strategy universities use when they judge some speech so offensive to religious groups as to go outside the bounds of free expression. In 2009, for instance, Yale University Press printed a book about the Danish cartoons that incited worldwide violence because of their depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, but decided to remove the cartoons themselves from the work. The fear that reprinting the cartoons might reignite violence led the university to alter its publications to bow to the rules of a major religion. The school wasn’t without critics. Scholar Reza Aslan called it “frankly, idiotic,” in The New York Times.

Though Faust decided the Black Mass fell within the bounds of free expression, she did emphasize that she thought of the decision to host the ceremony. She called it “abhorrent” and “flagrantly disrespectful,” and noted that she would attend the Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction at St. Paul’s Church planned to coincide with the Mass.

But that was itself an exemplifying way of demonstrating the university’s commitment to permitting academic inquiry even when the president of the university finds it offensive. In the end, the event was moved off campus, reportedly to the Hong Kong restaurant, and the university got what seems like a best case scenario for them: a chance to affirm their commitment to freedom of inquiry without actually having to host that inquiry.

  • Laurence J. Gillis

    Good call, President Faust.

    I think that Harvard should not ordinarily muzzle any expression. Doing so is presumptively not a good idea (a major exception being, of course, shouting “Fire !” in a crowded theater) .

    FYI, I suspect that your faculty is less committed to freedom of expression than you are, and that they would cheerfully shove Pro-Lifers off the stage, for example, if they could get away with it.

    (Usually they limit themselves to denial of tenure, that sort of thing, because it has a higher level of “deniability”)

    Anyway, carry on.

    Larry Gillis ’64

    • 127guy

      Yeah, those Ivy League schools are such bastions of free speech. Dope.

  • Jorge23

    I am Catholic. I am also a sinner. I love my Church. I will have no other. I love my Lord.

    Having said that, I have to obey what the Lord said and NOT judge these sinners. I do not think we do enough to obey our Lord in this respect – by that I mean that we often conflate the sin with the sinner. We probably as a result and often fail to thus recognize the sinner within either.

    I also do think that we Catholics have lost the fine art of calling a spade a spade :-) We have become cowards, lily-livered, yellow bellied cowards.

    Let us start by calling a sin a sin. Let us not back down from that one step in the name of “free speech”, “education”, “freedom of religion” and other popular euphemisms that Satan encourages so we dumb down our words to secular meaninglessness.

    My dear brothers and sisters, When Jesus spoke to the woman who was about to the stoned, he didn’t tell her that she is well within her rights of free speech or that she had a right to be free or that she had rights over her own body or that it was okay to commit adultery for an educational experience. His words were direct and simple – “Go and sin no more”.

    When St. Peter spoke to the Jews after Pentecost and told them that they had crucified the Lord – he did not mince his words. He told them to “repent and to be baptized”.

    It is true that we ought to pray for these that have undertaken to perform this vile act. It is true that we ought to still welcome them to experience the Lord who alone is Truth and Light. It is true that we still ought to invite them to repent and be baptized. But, that does NOT for a second imply that we ought not to call what they are doing a terrible sin. It isn’t education, it isn’t free speech, it isn’t an experiment. It is what it is – consorting with the Devil and listening to him. The Lord himself said, you are either for him or against him. You are on the side of light or of darkness. What fine line are you folks trying to walk?

    Start now by calling this what it is. Repeat after me – This is a sinful act. Repent and be baptized. Seek the Lord’s forgiveness for his mercy is infinite.

    Dean Faust, like her literary namesake, made a pact with the Devil. There is no excuse for it. Period. I am sorry, but she should have resigned rather than permit this event happening on Campus.

    In Christ
    G

    • OH no this won’t do

      your comment: ” It isn’t education, it isn’t free speech, it isn’t an experiment.”

      I think they are trying to troll the church and it is in poor taste. I’m glad 60,000 students signed the signature.

  • OH no this won’t do

    “In 2009, for instance, Yale University Press printed a book about the Danish cartoons that incited worldwide violence because of their depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, but decided to remove the cartoons themselves from the work. The fear that reprinting the cartoons might reignite violence led the university to alter its publications to bow to the rules of a major religion. ”

    This said it all. Good work Yale. I’m all for freedom of expression. I’m not at all for trolling. It doesn’t help the discussion. I believe it actually cause the discussion to end. I bet people think it is freedom of expression to use four letter words as well or to use the N word. We expect these students to get ready for the international market. They are not going to do to well if they decide to troll others based on gender, religion or race.