May 10, 2014—submitted to The Harvard Crimson
As Harvard Chaplains, we write to express our concern about the plans of a student group at Harvard’s Extension School to host a re-enactment of a “Black Mass” on campus this coming Monday evening. The students, who call themselves the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, are partnering with a New York-based organization known as the “Satanic Temple” to put on the event. Although the students have not released details of the performance they intend to stage, a “Black Mass” by its very nature typically involves the mockery and ridicule of the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion.
For many Christians, the practice of sharing the bread and the wine of Communion embodies some of their deepest beliefs about humanity’s relationship to the transcendent as reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus. It is for them a sacred rite to be treated with the utmost respect and love. For this reason, many in our community—including especially our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, who appear to be the target of this event—are understandably distraught and hurt when they learn that some of our students believe that an appropriate way to engage in learning about the religious beliefs and practices of others is to denigrate them through a mock performance like a “Black Mass.”
The Harvard Chaplains represent a wide diversity of religious and philosophical perspective—including most of the major Western and Eastern religious traditions, as well as the perspectives of atheists, agnostics, and those genuinely uncertain about what they believe. One value that we share, however, is a commitment to engaging in discourse about life’s “big questions” in a manner that is open and honest, but also respectful. Our aim is to support the wider Harvard community in framing a thoughtful conversation about issues of meaning and value without the need to vilify or parody those with whom we differ. As chaplains we desire to help the wider community seek mutual understanding about religious matters; but just as important, when there is disagreement, as there often is, our hope is that we can learn to disagree in ways that are civil, caring, and supportive of our shared humanity.
We hasten to add that we do not think the issue presented here is primarily one of “academic freedom.” Just because something may be permissible does not make it right or good. Whether or not these students are “entitled” to express themselves through the ceremony of a “Black Mass” as a matter of law or University policy is a distinct question from whether this is a healthy form of intellectual discourse or community life. We submit it is not.
We urge the student organizers of the “Black Mass” to re-consider going forward with this event. If the event does go forward as planned, we would urge the rest of the community not to dignify it with your presence.