P versus NP…the Hodge conjecture…the Riemann hypothesis…the Yang–Mills existence and mass gap The Navier–Stokes existence and smoothness. The Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture. These are some of the unsolved problems of mathematics, but they are child’s play compared to the unsolvable ethics dilemma concocted at Harvard College.
Is Harvard right to allow students to hold a historic recreation of a Black Mass? Is Harvard wrong? Is it unethical for the students to engage in the project? Is it gratuitously insulting to religion, particularly Catholicism? Does it even matter if it is?
To bring you up to date:
The Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club is planning to recreate a “satanic black mass” on campus next week, enacted by Satanic Temple, a New York-based, Satanist group that engages in outrageous displays to draw attention to First Amendment rights. “Our purpose is not to denigrate any religion or faith, which would be repugnant to our educational purposes, but instead to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices,” the HECSC said in a statement.
The statement lays the foundation for a hung jury in seeking an ethics verdict. Since the Black Mass was originally devised to denigrate the holy mass, saying that recreating the mass isn’t intended to denigrate religion is the kind of thing Captain Kirk used to say to evil, logic-bound computers to make smoke come out of their hard drives. “It-is-true-but- it’s-not-true-but-nothing-can-be-true-and-not-true–KABOOM!“
The recreation certainly has all the trappings of a scholarly event; the mass will follow a talk by Harvard Kennedy School of Government lecturer Christopher Robichaud. The Black Mass is arguably historically and theologically significant, and heaven knows the university has courses on topics with no more social utility, and some with less, that nobody has complained about.
“We see the black mass as something that is degrading to the Catholic religion,” said the Rev. Michael E. Drea, senior chaplain at the Harvard Catholic Center and pastor of St. Paul’s Parish in Harvard Square. “The black mass is a contradiction to the Catholic faith and is rooted in hatred and bigotry. The university shouldn’t tolerate something like this under the guise of academic integrity.” The Archdiocese of Boston called on Harvard to “disassociate itself” from the event.Predictably, Harvard isn’t backing down, because the guise of academic integrity and freedom is indistinguishable from the real thing. Extension school spokesman Jeff Neal responded to the protests by endorsing “the rights of students and faculty to speak and assemble freely.”
Of course that’s the school’s position. It should also be the school’s position if a group decides to hold an authentic recreation of a slave auction, or reenact Kristallnacht, or the rape of the Sabine women, all of which have more sound claims to historical significance than the Black Mass. Would it? I don’t know. I’m dubious. I doubt that anyone would propose these at Harvard. If any were proposed, the school’s position should be that academic freedom makes objections secondary. I wonder.
If the motive behind the faux Black Mass is purely academic, then the fact that it is offensive shouldn’t factor into the decision at all, not at an institution of higher learning. If offensiveness is going to limit scholarly inquiry, then everything from evolution to genetics to bioethics is at risk. Arguing on the other side, however, I think it is very likely that hostility to religion and not interest in history spawned this exercise, and that its objective is to offend Catholics—to cause them pain, and to undermine the Church. That would not be an ethical objective, and would make the Black Mass unethical.
The starting point for any ethical analysis is to describe the problem accurately: What’s going on here? In this case, it is impossible to determine that. It is even impossible to characterize the predominant role of the agent, Harvard University, so its conduct can be assessed as responsible and ethical or otherwise. Is Harvard operating in an isolated academic environment, responsible only to its students and employees? Is it a member of the greater community or Cambridge and Boston, and therefore obligated to be a positive force in that community? Is it a cultural role model, demonstrating and modeling ethical conduct and values for American society at large as well as for the young minds it is molding? Or is it properly a cultural provocateur, testing the boundaries of conventional wisdom and traditions, such as free speech and the avoidance of taboos?
Harvard, at various times, has been and is all of these, and the Black Mass becomes something different according to which role the school is assuming now. The problem is that there is no way to determine this. I doubt that Harvard itself knows what its role is.
If the exercise is a legitimate, educational demonstration to help students understand what a Black Mass was like (assuming it has any historical veracity, which is a matter of debate), and occurs in the context of academic inquiry, it is ethical, no matter whom it offends. Utilitarianism applies, given the hierarchy of priorities on campus. If it is, however, a stunt designed to test tolerance for the First Amendment, the Mass becomes political as well as educational, and perhaps political only. Demonstrating that the Bill of Rights allows one to be offensive is an arguably ethical act if it is reasonably designed to accomplish something positive, like promoting tolerance or enlightenment. If, however, the only likely objective is gaining attention (for Satanic Temple, for example, which has no affiliation to Harvard or educational significance) and sticking it to Catholics, that makes the Black Mass a malicious act—unethical.
Short of a public statement to this effect, however, it is impossible to conclude this. Nor can we question Harvard’s integrity in the absence of a proposed re-creation of a slave action. I must confess, if I were still a student, I would try to find an academic sponsor to stage one. (I already staged on an actual stage, in a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It was difficult to watch.)
Thus we are left with the raw fact of the Black Mass itself, a historical ritual denigrating Christianity and celebrating evil. At a university, the default verdict must be that the event is ethical.
Determining whether it is or not, however, is like squaring the circle.
(As an exercise in futility, try applying this ethics problem solving model to Harvard’s Black Mass.)