In response to my complaint, I received the same computer-produced form letter from Harvard President Faust’s office as everyone else (addressed to “Mr. Pakaluk”), which did no more than direct me to Dr. Faust’s online statement about the Black Mass.
So let’s look at that statement. Should a thoughtful person be satisfied with it?
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.
This opening line shows that arguments that were presented ad hominem by many Catholics were successful, at least in the sense that they got the attention of the Harvard President.
It was obvious that the argument of the Archdiocese would have little force– “to sponsor a Black Mass is to cooperate with evil and open the door to evil influences”– as Faust would deny that permitting an event on campus was cooperating with it, and either Faust would deny the reality of evil influences, or, even if she entertained a belief in their reality, she would not allow herself to act on that belief.
Thus, to achieve the desired result–the cancellation of the re-enactment–an argument was presented on premises that, it seemed, she might accept, namely, that because a Black Mass is a parody of some other religion’s worship, and not an autonomous rite, then, regarded merely as speech, it becomes hate speech, and like other hate speech it may, in some circumstances at least, appropriately be banned.
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. Freedom of expression, as Justice Holmes famously said long ago, protects not only free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.
The second line is interesting here because it in effect declares a policy of President Faust that no expression at Harvard will be banned on the grounds, or allegation, that it constitutes hate speech. Christians should actually welcome that policy, and insist that it be consistently observed, because (as we know) some have aimed to suppress the articulation of historical Christian positions (such as the defense of marriage as between only a man and a woman), on the grounds that such expression is hate speech.
But the first line shows the weakness in Faust’s position. There she presumes not that free speech in a university community is an absolute, but rather that it is ordered to, and in the service of, the pursuit of knowledge. But the only objectionable limitations on that particular form of free speech which is “at the heart of a university community” would be those that interfered with the pursuit and (presumably too) dissemination of knowledge. (Obviously so: students, scholars, and scientists suffer thousands of limitations on their “speech”, such as forms of argument and presentation of evidence, which are accepted as contributing to the acquisition of truth.)
So it would have been open to Dr. Faust to resolve the problem in this way: “Free expression in the university is protected insofar as it contributes to the pursuit of truth. The Harvard Library contains 3,051 books on Satanism, which students are free to consult any time they wish. [Yes it does; I checked.] Moreover, any club on campus is free to sponsor lectures on Satanism by qualified and responsible speakers. Therefore, I hereby cancel the re-enactment, with no prejudice to the pursuit and dissemination of truth.” [No further grounds would be necessary; the mere risk of damage to Harvard’s reputation, which could be assumed, would be sufficient.]
But even as we permit expression of the widest range of ideas, we must also take responsibility for debating and challenging expression with which we profoundly disagree. The ‘black mass’ had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church; it mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the Church and beyond. 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.
What is objectionable about this paragraph is President Faust’s tin ear, which comes from her assimilating everything to speech, and from her refusal to made a judgment on the merits.
As to the first: the Mass is a liturgy, that is, a public act of the people (leit–ergos). Yes, because it is a sacrament–and a sacrament, as Catholics believe, is a sign which does what it signifies– a Mass must contain an aspect of signification and therefore expression. But if it were merely an expression, it would not be worth doing (“do this in memory of me”), because there simply would not be anything in a Mass that could be done or accomplished. The Black Mass, whatever it is, is the same kind of thing. It is an act which answers to an act, not an expression answering to an expression, or an expression answering to an act.
As to the second: Can we not say, simply, that God is good and Satan bad? That to honor God is good but to honor Satan is evil? What keeps Dr. Faust from making this more fundamental and correct judgment? Why, as if changing the subject, must the abhorrence of the Black Mass be explained solely in terms of some persons’ subjective feelings? And even if one considers merely feelings, it surely misrepresents Catholics to say that they object to a re-enactment of the Black Mass because it makes them feel excluded!
Nevertheless, consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs. At the same time, we will vigorously protect the right of others to respond—and to address offensive expression with expression of their own.
Yet what after all is the nature of the “University’s commitment to free expression”? Dr. Faust has explained that commitment in two divergent ways, as an absolute right of free expression, and as an ordered right. The President’s cancellation of the re-enactment would be perfectly consistent with the latter.
But note that the phrase “address offensive expression with expression of their own” is fundamentally false, for reasons explained above. So, paradoxically, in order to champion the one form of freedom of expression as absolute over the other form of freedom of expression as ordered, Dr. Faust, tellingly, must use language which is fundamentally inaccurate and false!
Note too that by these lines and this decision, what happened last night as a result of the planning of a re-enactment (namely, that apparently a Black Mass was re-enacted by members of the Harvard student club and others, on an off-campus site next to the university) becomes imputable to Dr. Faust and to the university. The imputability and the blame remain.
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.
More falsehood in this paragraph. First, St. Paul’s Church is not on the Harvard campus! (This is such a bizarre mistake, and so obviously wrong, that one wonders if the phrase “on our campus” was placed in the letter deliberately, to make it seem as though Harvard was displaying parity toward both events, which would both be “on campus.”) Second, a Holy Hour is an act of worship; a Benediction is a liturgical blessing. It is just as absurd to say these are part of “reasoned discourse” and “robust dissent” as would be, for example, a hearty feast or the marital embrace.
But I close with a (believing) friend’s description of that event:
I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that the Holy Hour at St. Paul’s was amazing. We arrived right at 8:00, and the church seemed pretty full. At 8:05, it was packed. And then… the procession from MIT arrived. There was no room! People were standing in all the aisles, and the vestibule was full.
Harvard President Faust (you couldn’t make that up!) saw the Catholic community in force, in all its “diversity.” I believe that a large contingent from St. Anthony’s (Portuguese-speaking) parish in East Cambridge were there, together with people from well beyond Cambridge. I recognized Mother Olga Yaqub and Ambassador Flynn, and I think I saw Father Hehir (!) and Marianne Luthin. We saw homeschool friends and people we knew from Needham. The music was impressive, but most impressive was the huge crowd of faithful, all there to pray at this modern Gethsemane.
My son, who was confirmed yesterday, said he had never seen such a packed church. I guess we have to bring him back to the Mass before the March for Life.
We were blessed to be among this company.