Harvard Catholic Center responds to “spin” on atheist chaplain

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The Harvard Catholic Center on Monday clarified information about the university’s new atheist “chief chaplain”, saying the post is administrative and will not affect the center’s Catholic mission.

Last week, The New York Times reported that Greg Epstein, an atheist and humanist chaplain at Harvard University, had been elected “chief chaplain” of the Harvard Chaplains, the association of more than 40 chaplains serving the students of Harvard of various faiths.

Epstein heads the school’s humanist chaplaincy, which represents humanists, agnostics, and atheists. The Times reported that his work “reflected a broader trend of young people across the United States who increasingly identify as spiritual but not affiliated with religion.”

“His role is not that of chief chaplain,” Nico Quesada, director of marketing and media at Harvard Catholic Center, told CNA on Monday. “It’s actually as chaplain chaplain at Harvard.”

Quesada told CNA that Epstein’s role as chair of the university’s chaplains will be purely administrative.

“There is really no influence in the role other than the fact that he has the title of chaplain chaplain of Harvard and that he is the liaison between this group and the president of Harvard,” said Quesada. He added that Epstein, in his new role, “is only conveying the message from the Harvard chaplains to the president of Harvard” and is “under the watchful eye of his colleagues.”

Another of Epstein’s duties will be to summon all of the chaplains when they have questions to discuss, Quesada said.

“So he represents the whole group but he doesn’t represent his own opinions if that makes sense.”

The Harvard Catholic Center is the university’s Catholic student chaplaincy, based in the nearby St. Paul Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is made up of three priests who are part of the association of university chaplains.

Quesada told CNA that following reports of Epstein’s new role as president, the Catholic center received numerous emails asking if he would play a leading role in chaplaincy. Catholic. He also said that some people thought the university “was forcing him on us. [the center], which is not the case.”

These misconceptions, Quesada said, prompted the Catholic center to respond on Aug. 29 to a “spinning” in news reports.

Epstein was unanimously endorsed as chaplain facilitator by members of the chaplain association, including Catholic chaplains. Before being unanimously elected, Epstein was appointed for the post by a committee of chaplains that did not include Catholic chaplains, Quesada explained.

In April, the Harvard Catholic Center had concerns about “the global message that its [Epstein’s] elections would send, ”Quesada said. However, the center recognized the administrative nature of the role and believed it would not impact religious life issues on campus.

Quesada said the presiding chaplain’s term lasts for one year, but is sometimes extended for a year for courtesy purposes. Catholic chaplains have served as president in the past, he noted.

According to the Huffington Post, Epstein was previously vice president of the Association of University Chaplains.

Quesada said there had never been a “head chaplain” at Harvard. “It’s just an organization of over 40 different chaplains and that’s why they elect the individual who changes every year, so that every denomination can have an equal voice,” he told CNA.

In its August 29 statement, the Harvard Catholic Center said that “we are pleased to reaffirm our commitment to proclaim here at Harvard and beyond that Jesus Christ is the Lord most fully revealed in the Catholic Church.”

The Harvard Christian Alumni Society also released a statement noting the “minor part-time role” of Epstein’s “short-term rotating post”.

“This was not a top-down nomination but an ascending vote choosing a rotating representative from a group of peers,” the group said. “Previously, this role was filled by chaplains from a variety of backgrounds, including Christians and Muslims. “

Epstein has been a university chaplain since 2005, the group noted, and “made it clear that he believes Christians should have a place at the table.” The company added that Epstein “invited Christian chaplains to speak to his group” and helped co-host discussions between Christian and lay students.

Epstein was the national chairman of Humanists for Biden in the 2020 election, leading the group’s advisory board for Biden’s presidential campaign on behalf of “humanists, atheists, agnostics and others.”

He is also the author of the book “Good Without God: What Do a Billion Non-Religious Believe”. The book was written in response to prominent atheists on humanism.

“We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein said in his interview with The Times on August 26. “We are each other’s answers.”

On his chaplaincy webpage, Epstein’s particular interests include “ethics in technology; meaning and purpose beyond religion; existentialism and humanism in literature and popular culture; developing healthy masculinity from a feminist perspective; secular humanist Judaism; racial justice and healing; the philosophy and practice of interfaith work.

Epstein is also a humanist chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The goal of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, as stated on the university’s website, is to create “a new model for how humanists celebrate life, promote reason and compassion, and improve the world.” for everyone “. The chaplaincy aims to foster community between atheists, agnostics and “allies”.

“Humanism is a progressive life position which, without supernaturalism, affirms our capacity and our responsibility to lead an ethical life of personal development, aspiring to the greater good of humanity,” explains the page.

According to Epstein’s 2013 interview on the Harvard YouTube page, the Harvard Humanist Chaplain was founded by former Catholic priest Tom Ferrick. Epstein said Ferrick ultimately lost his belief in God due to encounters with students at Dartmouth College while he was assistant chaplain there.

“The students dissuaded him from believing in God,” Epstein said. “He also realized that he was a gay man and that it was a bit of a challenge in a Catholic setting.”

“What finally pushed him to the limit was the decision of Vatican II … not to allow contraception. Ethically, he just couldn’t stand the idea, ”Epstein said of Ferrick. “It was not compatible with his vision of an ethical world.”

Joe F. Gerstein, a man described as one of Ferrick’s longtime friends, said Ferrick was ultimately excommunicated from the Church, according to an interview with Harvard Crimson, the Harvard academic newspaper. Epstein took over the humanist chaplaincy after Ferrick’s death.


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