May 23, 2014

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Christian joy is a means to overcome contempt of faith in society

Sean GallagherA student organization at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., recently made headlines across the nation when it announced that, in the name of cultural awareness, it was going to sponsor a “black mass” that was to take place on May 12.

This is a Satanic ritual in which the Mass is mocked and which, at times, involves the desecration of a consecrated host, presumably obtained in a surreptitious way from a Catholic church.

As soon as the ritual began to be publicized, people within and beyond the Harvard community criticized the university for allowing it to take place under its auspices. A petition decrying it was signed by some 60,000 Harvard alumni, students and faculty.

Other critics pointed out that the black mass is akin to a ritual burning of a Torah or Quran, something that would be highly offensive to Jews and Muslims, and something that Harvard would presumably never allow a student organization to sponsor.

On the morning of May 12, just hours before the ritual was to take place, Harvard president Drew Faust issued a statement in which she described the ritual as “abhorrent” and “a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community.”

However, she stopped short of forbidding the ritual, saying that to do so would be an action against freedom of expression on the campus.

At the last minute, the student organization withdrew its sponsorship of the ritual. Nonetheless, according to The Boston Globe, a “scaled-down version” of the ritual still took place at a restaurant near the campus and was carried out by members of the New York-based Satanic Temple.

Now the goings-on at Harvard University can seem a world away from the life of central and southern Indiana. But the cultural acceptance of various degrees of the scorning of the Christian faith—and of religious faith in general—has become so widespread that it can affect us, too.

That’s in part because, at least to a lower degree, the federal government seems to pay little heed to the religiously-informed consciences of individual citizens.

As has been reported in The Criterion, the federal Department of Health and Human Services—in setting forth regulations for the Affordable Care Act—has required that nearly all employers supply free of charge in their employees’ health insurance plans that cover sterilization procedures, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.

Many employers, both religious organizations and secular businesses whose owners are guided by their faith, have objected to this mandate, arguing that it runs counter to their deeply held beliefs.

Despite these objections, government leaders have refused to respect the business owners’ consciences and change the mandate. Therefore, scores of individuals and families across the country who own businesses have sought relief from the mandate in the federal courts. The Grote family in Madison, Ind., is one such family. They are a Catholic family that owns a commercial transportation lighting company.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering two cases, one brought forward by the family that owns Hobby Lobby, regarding private business owners and the mandate. A decision in the cases is expected to be announced sometime next month.

Taking legal action, setting up petitions and persuading community leaders to issue strong statements of denunciation can be legitimate ways for people of faith to defend the place of religion in society. In some cases, they are sadly necessary.

But I would argue that, at least in the long run, their effectiveness is slight. People who already hold religious faith in contempt are unlikely to change their minds because of a court decision or the statement of a university president.

What can move their hearts, however, is the daily witness of joy that is inspired by a person’s Christian faith—or whatever faith he or she adheres to. Whether a person has faith or not, everyone ultimately seeks happiness in this life, a happiness that is not ephemeral but will stand up to the inevitable challenges of life.

The Christian faith in particular, I believe, is well suited to encouraging such joy because in Christ we have been given assurance of an ultimate victory over all kinds of suffering.

Prayer is another indispensable means to keep religious faith a positive aspect of the life of our society. The renewing of the helpful role that faith can have in society can seem like a huge task at times like these. When faced with such an important but challenging mission, the help of God will never be lacking to those who ask for it.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

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