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Tug of War at Harvard Is a Sign of Good Civic Health

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 11:02 AM Comments (26)

There is much to puzzle over in yesterday's Black-Mass-That-Wasn't-(Or-Was-It?) debacle. First we thought they were planning to use a consecrated Host; then they said they wouldn't; then we thought they might after all. Then it was supposed to take place at Harvard; then it looked like it would be off campus; then it seemed like it didn't happen; and now some people are saying it did happen, but it was just quiet. All in all, the story reminds me of one of those fairy tales where the dragon gets smaller and smaller until it becomes an insignificant lizard that scuttles away through a crack in the floor.

One puzzle remains, though, and that is this: why do so many Catholics feel uneasy about the way things went down? I'm hearing an awful lot of, "Well, it's a victory, but . . . " Here are a few objections I have been hearing, and here are my answers:


Objection #1: This is a religious liberty issue. In order for there to be religious liberty that Catholics can enjoy, there must be religious liberty for people who claim their religion is Satanism.

My answer:  No, it's not a religious liberty issue. Religious liberty guarantees that the government will do nothing to interfere with the way religious people practice their faith. Not even the Satanists themselves are claiming that their religious freedom has been violated, as the event in question was supposed to be an educational reenactment, not a religious ceremony.  And nobody has said, "Satanists may not have a Black Mass in our country." Harvard simply said they may not have it on the campus of Harvard, and a private pub said they may not have it in their private pub.


Objection #2: This is a free speech issue. Freedom of speech means that people ought to be able to say what they want, and what happened here was censorship, which is bad for everybody.

My answer: This argument is slightly more persuasive, at least legally, since Harvard receives federal funding, and so may be required to give an equal forum to everyone who wishes to speak.  But freedom is not the same as anarchy, and rules are not the same as unjust discrimination.  Harvard, like every other school, has a student handbook which explains how it makes decisions about what may occur on campus

Behavior evidently intended to dishonor such characteristics as race, gender, ethnic organization, religious belief, or sexual orientation is contrary to the pursuit of inquiry and education. Such grave disrespect for the dignity of others can be punished under existing procedures because it violates a balance of rights on which the University is based.

This description of unacceptable behavior clearly describes what the Black Mass would have done. Harvard would also, for instance, rightly censor or discriminate against a reenactment of a cross burning, because that form of speech that would violate the rights of others.  Again: freedom is not the same as anarchy. There is such a thing as just (as in "fair") discrimination. Is it a tricky balance, to encourage free speech without damaging people who disagree with that speech? Yes, it is. But no sane organization has a policy of allowing everything all the time.


Objection #3: It's great that so many Harvard students and employees signed a petition, because that shows decency still exists; but we don't want to be making decisions based on petitions signed by the many.  We don't like it when anti-Catholics sign petitions against Catholics.

or even:

Jesus wouldn't approve of shouting people down just because we don't agree with them. This is akin to forced baptisms. We're supposed to be loving, not demanding.

My answer: This is the one that puzzles me the most. What is the concern, here? That a petition that makes people in authority change their minds is the same as mob rule?  It's not. It's free speech from one party vs. free speech from another party, and a third party freely choosing whom to listen to.

No, we don't like it when lots of people organize against us. It happens all the time, and often times it turns out very badly for Catholics. But let me say it one more time: this wasn't a petition to alter the bill of rights. This wasn't a petition to force Lucien Creepypants to attend Sunday school. This was a public outcry against something the public doesn't want, and the private organizations involved either saw the light, or at least decided that it didn't pay to back this particular horse. 

In other words: This is how the country is supposed to work.

We have laws that protect people's rights, and then we have the freedom, as citizens, to figure out how to apply those rights. The Satanists are free to celebrate a Black Mass; Harvard is free to let them celebrate a Black Mass on its property; and Harvard is also free to decide not to let them celebrate a Black Mass on its property. A little tug of war between free people is a sign of civic health.

Sometimes we Catholics don't like what that tug of war looks like. We don't like it, for instance, when Dan Brown writes a dumb novel full of lies about the Church. But he is free to do so. We shouldn't be trying to pass laws to criminalize the writing of Dan Brown novels (although it's tempting).  But we are free to contradict him -- to write rebuttals, to give talks, to use his words as an opportunity to educate people. And we are most certainly free to argue that his book doesn't deserve a reading. If a high school teacher wanted to assign The DaVinci Code to his class, parents could circulate a petition explaining why his work doesn't belong in the classroom. If the teacher responded by scrapping the book, that would not somehow be proof that there is no freedom of speech or freedom of religion in this country anymore. It would simply be proof that people who make decisions get bad ideas sometimes, and smarter people should correct them.  Again: this is not a sign of dangerous oppression, this is the sign of a vigorous society that still knows how to think.

So, what's a sensible response from Catholics to what happened or didn't happen at Harvard?  How about a happy sigh of relief that there is so much sanity and decency left -- and a prayer for the souls of the people who are playing such a dangerous game? Nobody went in with hobnailed boots to break some Satanist heads in the name of decency. Instead, the Holy One, blessed be He, was borne through the streets in a show of strength and courage, and the lizard shrank and scuttled away one more time. That's what freedom looks like. We won this one, guys. It's okay to be happy.

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About Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher
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Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and nine children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.