Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The limits of academic freedom: final thoughts on the 'black mass' episode at Harvard

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 22, 2014

“The last temptation is the greatest treason:
to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

—T.S. Eliot. 

Harvard University President Drew Faust did the right thing when she announced that she would attend a Eucharistic holy hour on the evening when a black mass was scheduled for the Harvard campus. But she took that step for the wrong reason. She had decided to show her sympathy for Catholics, rather than to prevent the atrocity that offended them; she made a symbolic gesture—admittedly a powerful one—rather than taking substantive action.

This story, thank God, has a happy ending. The black mass did not take place on the Harvard campus, and instead hundreds of young Catholics bore public powerful witness to their love for our Eucharistic Lord. Still, as I reflect on the remarkable events that took place at Harvard, I am struck by the realization that the leader of America’s most prestigious university was unable to summon up an argument for stopping a display that she herself labeled as “abhorrent”—while the president of a tiny Catholic college knew exactly what he should do.

In explaining why she would not intervene to prevent the black mass, Faust cited Harvard’s commitment to the free flow of ideas on campus. In an institution of higher learning, academic freedom—the freedom accorded to scholars in pursuit of the truth—does indeed play a central role. But the performance of a black mass has nothing to do with academic research. It is not done to inform, to persuade, or to explore; it is a deliberate sacrilege, done solely to offend.

Academic freedom makes sense only in the context of a community dedicated to the pursuit of truth. Unfortunately, at Harvard today (as at most other universities), the prevailing wisdom among administrators and faculty members is that there is no absolute truth—or no way that human knowledge can discern it. So university leaders like Faust have no clear standards by which they can discern that a grossly offensive act—in this case a Satanic parody of the Eucharistic sacrifice—strikes at the heart of the academic community.

An academic community profits from open debate: the free exchange of ideas and opinions. That free exchange, in turn, depends upon mutual respect. Whatever differences they might have, the members of a healthy academic community are bound together by their shared commitment to seek out and honor the truth. Scholars work on the assumption that in a debate, everyone involved will engage in rational dialogue, seeking to understand and to persuade, not to distort or to intimidate. If that confidence is shaken—if a debate degenerates into name-calling and insults—the cause of scholarship suffers.

Now, at Harvard, an ill-advised student group was proposing to host an event that would insult others—not even in the context of a true debate, but gratuitously. In an open letter to President Faust, William Fahey, the president of tiny Thomas More College in New Hampshire, asked the right question: “Can we pretend that even a single lie or act of hatred does not tear at the unseen fabric of a community?”

Harvard’s President Faust, who had the authority to stop the black mass, did not take direct action. But at Thomas More College (TMC), Fahey—who obviously had no power to stop the outrage on another campus—nevertheless sprang into action. He planned a 3-day program of prayers and penance, in which the TMC faculty and student body joined in an all-out campaign of spiritual warfare to stop the atrocity at Harvard. On the date that the black mass was scheduled, TMC students who were taking final exams asked permission to leave the testing rooms just long enough to join others in reciting the Divine Mercy chaplet. Later the same day, the whole TMC community joined in singing Vespers. When they finished, they learned that the black mass would not take place on the Harvard campus.

Am I suggesting that the prayers of the TMC students were directly responsible for stopping the black mass? No, not their prayers alone. There were thousands of people praying at the same time, for the same intention. But I have no doubt that it was prayer that prevented the blasphemous display. It certainly wasn’t any action by Harvard administrators!

My reason for mentioning the prayer crusade at TMC is to show how one little Catholic college took effective action against the black mass, at a time then Harvard’s leaders believed, irrationally, that their hands were tied. Drew Faust chose to take symbolic action. Ask the students at TMC, and they will assure you that their prayers were not just symbols; they were engaged in spiritual activism.

In his open letter to President Faust, TMC’s Fahey compared their positions:

In many respects, our two institutions could not be more removed. Mine is a small Catholic liberal arts college; yours is a prestigious Ivy League university. And yet our work is not so radically different. We and our institutions ought [to be] both dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom and preparing our students for some noble purposes which—it is hoped—they will discern during the years they spend with us.

With one sentence in that paragraph, I must respectfully disagree. As a practical matter, today, the work that Faust does at Harvard, and the work that Fahey does at TMC, is indeed “radically different.” Harvard, like most secular universities—and, sad to say, many Catholic univerities as well—has lost sight of the essential goal that should inspire academic life: the pursuit of truth.

If there is no such thing as objective truth, then the engines of academe are not oriented toward any discernible goal, and can be driven in any arbitrary direction. A small Catholic school like TMC has only a miniscule fraction of the material resources that Harvard can command. Yet a school truly dedicated to the ideal of the Catholic university has one great advantage: a healthy confidence that there is a Truth, and that ultimately we can know Him.


Disclosures: I am a Harvard graduate. William Fahey is a personal friend.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jacquebquique5708 - Jun. 06, 2014 7:20 PM ET USA

    What a name for such an episode in "Faust". If "academic freedom" was the only issue, then Dr. Faust would have been right. One has to know the true nature of the satanic or Black Mass. The entire ritual is sexually deviant in nature. I have no doubt of the violation of sexual ordinances even in the wonderful state of Massachusetts. Even Masters and Johnson in Missouri had the "courtesy" to perform their research behind closed doors.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - May. 23, 2014 8:01 PM ET USA

    Phil congratulations on this very clear comment. Also congratulations to TMC and its students. Unless there is the honest pursuit of Truth then society falters as we have seen down the centuries of man's existence. Christ is the gateway to that Truth. On prayer, I remember the old (and always true) "the family that prays together, stays together." We (and I include myself) seem to have forgotten that message.