Monday, May 12, 2014

Harvard's "Black Mass"

It seems almost everyone is talking about Harvard University's "black mass." Well, that's certainly an exaggeration. Most people, most of the time, probably pay no attention at all to Harvard and its activities. But, for those who do, the proposed reenactment of a "black mass" planned by a Harvard Extension School student group has certainly garnered lots of attention.

The idea of a "black mass," as it has been transmitted in literature and legend over the centuries, is a ritual parody of the central sacramental ritual of the Catholic Church. Parodies only make sense, of course, in a cultural context where what is being mocked is widely recognized as sacred. The "black mass" has its origins not in some supposedly modern secular society, but in a sacral world, where the only plausible alternative to divine worship would be demonic worship. 

Negotiating the relationship between truth (which ironically is Harvard's motto, veritas) and freedom has always been something of a challenge. Prioritizing truth necessarily makes freedom instrumental at best. Prioritizing freedom inevitably relativizes the value of truth. As a result of our history and for some obvious and serious reasons, contemporary western societies have for the most part prioritized freedom. The manifest benefit of a free society is that the pursuit of truth - in religion, philosophy, science, etc. - is protected from coercion, even if only as one competing opinion among many in the resulting culture of relativism.  

Thus, in his statement on the "black mass," Harvard's President cites Justice Holmes argument that freedom of expression "protects not only free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate." 

Truth is not the only value relativized by freedom of expression, of course. While post-modern secular societies have become increasingly uncomfortable with truth claims, a more contemporary form of absolute claim is that of "inclusion." Recognizing the evident evil in the proposed satanic ritual, Harvard's President properly condemns it - invoking the value of "inclusion," the cultural language presumably most acceptable to a contemporary audience. That said, her condemnation seems clear and unambiguous: "The decision by a student club to sponsor an enactment of this ritual is abhorrent; it represents a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community. It is deeply regrettable that the organizers of this event, well aware of the offense they are causing so many others, have chosen to proceed with a form of expression that is so flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory."

In a truly free society, "disrespectful and inflammatory" speech and expression have to be lived with as part of the price of the freedom which we value for the personal and social goods freedom makes possible. But freedom from coercion does not equal or mandate passive approval. Indeed, such "disrespectful and inflammatory" speech and expression can and should be responded to - and in a way which recognizes both the responsibility that goes with living in a free society and the fundamental human responsibility to use freedom to promote a good society.

I think the Harvard President's statement captured that complex commitment in her conclusion: "I plan to attend a Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction at St. Paul's Church on our campus on Monday evening in order to join others in reaffirming our respect for the Catholic faith at Harvard and to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent."

Meanwhile, how many times in his little more than one year as Pope has Pope Francis warned us about Satan’s persistence? “Look out because the devil is present! The devil is here,” the Holy Father reminded us again in one of his recent Lenten morning homilies.

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