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.