Memorial Hall is the ugliest building on the campus of Harvard University, in my view. Built in the 1870s, this Victorian monstrosity is situated between the stately columns of Harvard Yard on the one hand and the Science Center with its modern design on the other. Students frequently gather in the Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub in the basement of Memorial Hall. It was here, on Monday evening, May 12, that the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Studies Club had planned to reenact a “black mass.” A black mass is a grotesque, sacrilegious ceremony in which the most sacred rite of the Catholic Church is deliberately mocked. Satan and his pomp are invoked, often in Latin, and a consecrated Eucharistic host is desecrated, often in vulgar, revolting ways. That Harvard would host such a bigoted event was a surprise to many.

At the last minute, however, Harvard’s campus was spared such a spectacle when the planners of the event decided to relocate to the second floor of a nearby Chinese restaurant. This was after Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, called on Harvard to disallow the event which he described as “repugnant.” “There’s a great fascination with evil in the world, but you know, it doesn’t lead to anything good,” he said. It was also after 60,000 Harvard students, faculty, and alumni had signed a petition to stop the black mass. This petition was organized by the Catholic Student Association, but drew support from a wide array of sympathizers including various religious groups and even some atheists.

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust issued a principled statement on the same day the black mass was to take place. She called the satanic ritual “abhorrent” and expressed her personal regret that the sponsoring student group had decided to move forward, knowing full well how offensive this event would be to so many others. Nonetheless, she supported their right to conduct the ceremony at Harvard on the basis of the school’s commitment to free expression: “Vigorous and open discussion and debate are essential to the pursuit of knowledge, and we must uphold these values even in the face of controversy.” How a Catholic-baiting black mass would contribute to such “open discussion and debate” she did not say.

One of the most salient responses to the flap over the black mass came from Francis X. Clooney, a Catholic priest and the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard. He challenged the notion that the parody of the mass with its demonic invocations was really about “education” not denigration. And then he asked the telling question: “And what’s next?” What happens next year when a university-approved group wants to hold a black seder instead of a black mass? Or a group of neo-Nazis proposes to summon the spirit of Adolf Hitler from the dead? Or haters of Islam plan a public burning of the Qu’ran? Or another group organizes a ceremony mocking legalized gay marriage? Would Harvard University countenance such offensive and divisive acts as part of its educational mission in the name of uninhibited free expression? How free is free? Would they incorporate such co-curricular activities under the rubric of “cultural studies”? The answer is: Almost certainly not.

Nor should they. Such happenings, and others of similar ilk, might well be staged on Cambridge Common or at Speakers’ Corner in London, where many offensive things are said and done, including those soaked with sacrilege and blasphemy. In the public square, freedom of speech should be given an almost unlimited berth. But a university has another responsibility: to be true to its historic mission and identity, which at Harvard is succinctly expressed on one of its first seals, Veritas: Christo et Ecclesiae. Christus and Ecclesia have been less recognized at Harvard in recent times, but Veritas is still prominent on all the school’s insignia, from t-shirts to diplomas.

Whatever else Truth might mean in a secularized academic community today, it surely connotes—or at least it ought to—a community of learning marked by humaneness, respect, humility, charity, civility, and commitment to the common good. Anyone familiar with the history of higher education in this country, including the history of Harvard, will know that such virtues have been hard-won through long and difficult struggles. We should not forfeit them now in order to foster a kind of bigotry masquerading as academic freedom. Liberty does not equal license, nor freedom licentiousness.

The fact is that anti-Catholicism remains “the last acceptable prejudice” in America, as Philip Jenkins dubbed it back in 2003. Once confined to reactionaries and backwater nativists, the animus toward the Catholic Church now prevails among opinion-shapers of the left in both the media and in the academic world. Why is this? Could it be that the Catholic Church, by its very existence, is a sign of contradiction to the reigning myths of ultramodernity—the utopian myth of human self-sufficiency, the illusion that we can be good without God, and the fantasy that it is possible for the human community to flourish without respecting the life of every single person, including the elderly, the weak, and the children still waiting to be born. In such a culture, it is not surprising that Catholics and other Christians, and indeed serious believers in all religious traditions, are increasingly denied the kind of protections that apply to other more accommodated communities of thought and belief.

And so, on a balmy Monday evening in May, two events took place near Harvard Square—both involving the Devil. A group of Satan-devotees and their friends assembled in a Chinese restaurant for a little diablerie along with their egg rolls and lo mein. A few yards away, at St. Paul Church, more than 1500 people turned out for a holy hour in order to pray, as one of the organizers of the event said, “for those who seek to persecute the Church and a university that has allowed it.” One of those in attendance at the Eucharistic holy hour at St. Paul Church was President Faust. She was there, she said, “in order to join others in reaffirming our respect for the Catholic faith at Harvard.” Meanwhile, at the Vatican, Pope Francis was hosting a conference on exorcism. “The Devil is present!” he said. “The Devil is here, even in the twenty-first century! And we musn’t be naïve, right? We must learn from the Gospel how to fight against Satan.”

Timothy George, the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, is an alumnus of Harvard University (M.Div. ’75; Th.D. ’79). His email address is tfgeorge@samford.edu.

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Articles by Timothy George

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