Harvard’s Black Mass: An Ethics Problem With No Answer




P versus NPthe Hodge conjecturethe Riemann hypothesisthe 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.)


Sources: Yahoo, Boston Herald

28 thoughts on “Harvard’s Black Mass: An Ethics Problem With No Answer

  1. To examine Harvard’s culpability, we would have to know what Harvard’s policy of freedom of expression is.

    If it does not regulate the content of the expression, but merely the time, place, and manner of expression, it is not morally or ethically culpable for allowing the Black mass, any more than a BBS administrator who allows all posts would be culpable for a BBS post by a user advocating for the genocide of all Jewry.

    However, if Harvard exercises editorial control over the messages it allows students to convey, then it is morally and ethically culpable for speech that it does allow, such as the Black Mass.

    (Bill Levinson explains the nexus between exercising editorial control over speech and moral culpability for allowing speech .)

  2. In Nigeria, the young men who sell pornography call it “sex education.” Content with this designation, they happily display it openly, next to the gospel music discs and the self-help books, where it is intensely ogled by preadolescent boys.
    Perhaps the best test of this sort of thing is whether performances or enactments or displays which ostensibly run counter to apparent liberal orthodoxies would be considered acceptable: the public showing of an abortion procedure; the side-effects of marijuana addiction; a detailed account of black-on-black violence.
    Paraphrased Zulu saying: “I can’t hear what you’re saying, because what you’re doing is shouting at me!”

  3. It looks also like Harvard accepts Federal student loans. Such an argument has been used in the past to justify banning many religious expressions, and even brings the school closer to the strict “no-anything-which-could-be-viewed-as-religious” policy recently found on other school campuses. Not that such a policy is a good thing, but it would be best if it were applied equitably.

  4. Perhaps Harvard should consider reaching out to theologians who have studied and can offer a further perspective on what can result from taking part in this type of ritual. Rather than limit knowledge which any attempt to stop this “Black Mass” will result in accusations of (unfairly, I believe). Bring in those who will be able to explain the historical antipathy with Christianity.

    Ethically this would be the right thing to do for those of us who do believe in a very traditional brand of evil. For those who have no opinion either way, I defer to Pashal’s Wager.

    • Erudite comment of the day!
      Pascal’s wager is discussed here…

      Pascal’s wager is non-ethical and cynical, and also conveniently ignores the power believing in a Supreme Being gives to organized religion, which frequently abuses it.

      • I would describe Pascal’s wager as utilitarian rather than cynical. Ultimately belief in a Supreme Being is a highly individual process and can take a lifetime to come to a true understanding of traditional moral theism which is an important part of every religion. Christian apologist C.S Lewis referred to these underlying truths as the “natural law” or the “tao”. The type of abuses perpetrated by “organized religions” are man-made and of a separate quality than genuine faith.

        • It’s cynical. And man made abuses are what ethical people try to avoid and minimize. Gratuitous professed belief in God makes abuse more likely, and is irresponsible, if the justification is supposedly “rational.”

  5. To the academics at Harvard who let this go through, I offer the following quotation: “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

    ~Albert Einstein

  6. As long as our culture says “anything goes” and “any ‘truth’ however ridiculous” — for example the trash ‘History’ channel pushes as ‘history’ — then of course we allow the Black Mass. Shoot, if even Wikipedia describes the practice with words like ‘alleged’ and cites primary sources from the 60’s, then damn it, Black Masses get their day in the sun.

    • Hosting this “Black Mass”, which is by definition in opposition to the Roman ritual, as a stand alone production is questionable. It is at best one-quarter history, no commentary and any knowledge gained would lack any solid foundation historical fact. This lack of any other participants speaks volumes as to the quality of this program.

  7. 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.

    Or to demonstrate the grave error by a Mayor and police chief…

  8. If a question requires as much erudition, angst and Gordian knot untangling as thls does it seems like a good idea to abandon the whole thing. But, that would be simple and require only decency. Something Harvard seems to have in short supply.

  9. One has to have some sympathy for college students these days. How to outrage authority? Let’s face it, their Dads have better tattoos; their Moms have piercings that they don’t want to hear about (trust me); the guy that handed them their high school diploma used to tour with Aerosmith; dorm room sexcapades have been de rigueur for 40 years; they suspect that their parents got to take better drugs than they do, and they’re certain that their professors did; boring old lefties are constantly trying to organize them into civil rights style marches in support of this or that; and, their music sucks.
    This is silly, and should be treated with the same indulgence that has filled this generation’s shelves with trophies for showing up. These are simply children aching for attention. Make them hold the thing in the Betty Friedan Genital Sculpture Garden (sponsored by Captain Morgans Rum!) or someplace equally meaningless.

  10. Here is a ink to Harvard’s response or statement on the black mass: http://www.harvard.edu/president/news/2014/statement-on-black-mass. I don’t know that this sheds much light on the issue. Based upon its position statement, and taking the university at its word, I would have to agree that the university is acting ethically, notwithstanding the actual groups’ (Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club and the Satanic Temples) motivations. In an open, free, ordered and pluralistic society, speech that offends should be granted as much (if not more) protection. While Catholics and other Christians rightly take offense at this (because it seems obvious from the Satanic Temple’s website that it is directly contrary to Catholicism), denial of this spectacle creates a sloppy, slippery slope of denial of thoughts and speech others may deem offensive. Orwell, in “1984”, clearly demonstrated that control of language is control of thought, and control of thought is destruction of liberty. The Ministry of Thought destroyed dissent, and promoted totalitarianism and oppression, by eradicating contrary language.


    • The problem is they are using campus facilities.

      About 5 years ago the Latino Men’s Collective at Harvard was hosting a party in Adam’s Hall and some people found the name offensive so Adam’s Hall revoked permission to host the party. Initially Harvard’s position was that providing facilities was an endorsement of the offense, although that later changed to denying the use of facilities for offensive expression in no way harms the right to expression. The president’s position now (same president though) is the opposite, Harvard has no choice because the commitment to freedom of expression leaves Harvard unable to refuse to allow a student group use campus facilities to reenact a Black Mass.

  11. If only the church was as outraged at their own culture of fostering and covering up the rape of children as they are by this ridiculous non-event. In the grand scheme of things, who is more “evil”?

    Not to mention Harvard bending over backwards to show they are against bigotry by attending a ceremony of a religion that celebrates its hatred of homosexuals. Confused yet?

    If there was an organization called The Joe Smith Society that systematically aided child rapists, and publicly decried how evil homosexuality was, would the President of Harvard rush to show her support of them? No, but rename that “The Catholic Church”, and suddenly everything changes.

    In short, the “Black Mass” is dopey, I couldn’t care less if it’s held or not. But anyone portraying the Catholic Church as a “victim” of anything is laughable. It’s a multi-billion dollar self-serving entity, with an unfortunate moral track record. I feel sorry for them like I do for Exxon-Mobil.

    • Such a total load of crap, your first line that you intend as a throw away cheap shot.

      Firstly, the vast majority of Catholics, including the clergy, are disgusted by the priests who raped children. It is unfounded to claim otherwise.

      Secondly, people have an innate right, indeed ethical duty, to defend themselves from slander and ridicule. The “Black Mass” is a ridiculous, tedious, and obvious attack against the church to have been portrayed by a group who’s “Tenets of Satanism” specifically decry needlessly harming other individuals.

      Thirdly, the church’s primary response to the “Black Mass” is pray, which is what it was going to do anyways (it’s a church after all). Meanwhile, its primary response to the pedophilia and hebephilia crisis has been to implement extensive safe guards in its programs to keep children from being isolated with any adult, to protect them from abuse. It has mandatory training for any adult who works with children on how to spot red flags, such a grooming behavior that lulls a child into accepting inappropriate behavior, and how to spot signs of abuse that has already occurred.

      • Excellent rebuttal. I don’t see that the Church’s problem with predator priests has any relevance to this issue at all. Essentially, Nbefor’s rationalization is the equivalent of saying that it’s OK to mistreat someone who’s mistreated others. Unethical argument.

  12. In a black mass they desecrate the Eucharist and they do it by doing sexual rituals or urinating and defecating on it. I wonder if Harvard would allow the desecration of a Koran in the same way. Something tell me they wouldn’t allow it because it’s something disgusting and wrong. Well, desecrating the Eucharist is wrong too. As a Catholic and a Christian I’m repulsed by the whole idea.

    • I am sure that Harvard would refuse to host the event, and would likely potentially expel or discipline the organizing students if they were to actually steal or otherwise acquire consecrated hosts for the “reenactment”. Using hosts actually blessed, however, was never intended for this event.

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