This is what happens when we separate freedom from truth.
Last night, the Satanic Black Mass didn’t take place on the campus of Harvard. But, it did take place elsewhere. I’m told it occurred on the second floor of the Hong Kong restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue.
But, that doesn’t mean that the problem the ritual represents was rectified, however. As a matter of fact, I would suggest that the problem is just starting to rear its head. (Or, depending on how one parses these things, the problem is on-going.)
What I found more troubling than the Satanic ritual itself – granted, little else could be more troubling than that – was the logic used to defend the event’s "right" to take place.
Sure, Harvard’s President called it "abhorrent," and she issued some strong words against it. But, in the end, she permitted it to take place. Truth be told, she did something worse than that: She gave the impression that academic freedom demanded it – or, what comes to the same thing – that it requires the protection of such expressions. As if to add insult to injurious impressions, she reasoned that pulling the plug on the event would amount to censorship. And, censorship of Satanism would be worse than … well, there I’m stumped.
But, her logic was flawed, and her statement was weak.
Here’s the point: freedom and truth are not extrinsic to one another. The truth isn’t incidental to the nature of freedom. For freedom to be free, it must stand in dialogical communion with the truth. Freedom has content. To round out the point, we aren’t made free in circumventing the truth. We’re made free on account of – because of – the truth. When freedom is severed from the truth, all that remains is the will or rule of the powerful.
When St. John Paul II went up against and did battle with the Nazis and later the Communists, he didn’t speak about freedom in a vacuum, divorced from the truth. He staked his claim on a freedom tethered to the truth about God and man.
Yet, Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust disagrees. Her role as Harvard’s 28th President isn’t to ensure that the freedom of that school’s students, staff, and faculty stands in the service of truth. Harvard can’t impose truth on the members of its academic community. All it can do is offer a freedom divorced from the truth in the hopes that Harvardians will come to the truth, nonetheless. That is, if such an end is deemed desirable.
The frightening thing is this: none of this reasoning is itself far afield of Satanism.
A while back, while I was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I was assigned to work with a Satanist. I was charged with the task of bringing him along to God’s truth. That was a frightful experience. Imagine a freshman pastoral intern, sitting across the table from a high-school aged Satanist, battling out the most important questions about God and human existence. I learned more about the faith in the course of those conversations than in the whole of seminarian formation, but I digress.
The Satanist told me that the individual is the sacred center. Nothing prevails over the will of the individual. Love is a charade. Seek first, not God’s kingdom, but the reign of one’s will and desires. It is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. Freedom comes through the assertion of the self. Think Ayn Rand. You’ll be close enough. That’s the Satanist creed in a nutshell.
Now, Harvard’s campus isn’t a Satanic stomping ground. Not all Crimsonians or Cambridgians are Satanists. One doesn’t have to be a Satanist to claim a rightful spot on Harvard Yard. And, President Faust seems altogether lovely. That’s all clear enough.
But, in another sense, Satanism has all the world to do with academic life at Harvard.
Harvard’s President wants to cultivate the sort of academic environment where creeds like those of the Satanists are welcome to express themselves. The beliefs of individuals are sacred and cannot be transgressed, so goes the doctrine of the hour. No roadblocks must impede the individual from searching out her or his self-expression. To impose limits on freedom, to tether it to truth, makes freedom less free. All that’s starting to sound indistinguishable from the Satanic creed, isn’t it?
What galls me – what I think should gall all of us – is the duplicitous nature of the decision of Harvard’s President to permit the re-enactment of the Black Mass. She said her decision was about taking a stance against censorship and it was made in order to honor academic freedom. But, truth be told, the decision itself was an exercise in censorship. It censored the rightful relationship that ought to exist between freedom and truth, it placed the will of Harvard’s President over and against the demands of freedom-in-truth, and it turned a deaf ear to the persecution of Catholics — in effect, suggesting that their complaints didn’t have the character of public reasonableness.
But Harvard’s President didn’t understand that. She said that the kind of freedom Harvard wants to offer to its students, professors, and staff is the kind of freedom that permits the re-enactment of a Satanic ritual. As a matter of fact, it is the sort of freedom that necessitates such re-enactments. And, she said – through her actions – that the sort of truth that prevails at Harvard is the sort that comes through the dictates of the administration. In other words, objective truth takes a back seat to bureaucratic and administrative opinion at Harvard. It isn’t the sort of place where truth itself has an authoritative voice.
To be quite frank, I’m glad I never attended Harvard. I’d never want to attend a school where, to be free, Satanic rituals have to be permitted. And, I wouldn’t want a degree from a school that didn’t recognize the existence of objective truth, that didn’t acknowledge something above the dictates of the professors and administration. For, if Satanic rituals have to be performed in order for Harvard to be said to be free, then it must not be free at all. And, if that school is incapable of recognizing objective truth, then it must not be filled with learned individuals.
What troubles me is that the notion of academic freedom – the one that severs freedom from truth, that celebrates the will of the individual over and against the authoritative voice of reason and truth, and where the rule of an elite band trumps matters of objective truth – isn’t going out of fashion at Harvard. For the foreseeable future, it is sticking around. The Black Mass might have been canceled or held off Harvard’s campus last night, but a more troubling logic is taking up a more permanent residence there.
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church. Readers can find him on Facebook and Twitter. He maintains a website and blog entitled John Paul Shimek, The Pilgrim Journalist. And, he can be contacted at email@example.com.