Quesada said that the chaplain president term lasts for one year, but is sometimes extended by a year for courtesy purposes. Catholic Chaplains have held the role as president in the past, he noted.
According to the Huffington Post, Epstein previously served as the vice president of the university chaplains’ association.
Quesada said that there never has been a “chief chaplain” at Harvard. “It's just an organization of over 40 different chaplains and that’s why they elect the individual which rotates every year, so every faith can have an equal voice,” he told CNA.
In its Aug. 29 statement, the Harvard Catholic Center said that “we are happy to restate our commitment to proclaim here at Harvard and beyond that Jesus Christ is Lord, most fully revealed in the Catholic Church.”
The Harvard Christian Alumni Society also published a statement noting the “minor part time role” of Epstein’s “short-term rotating position.”
“This was not a top-down appointment but a bottom-up vote choosing one rotating representative from a group of peers,” the group stated. “Previously this role has been filled by chaplains of various backgrounds including Christians and Muslims.”
Epstein has served as a university chaplain since 2005, the group noted, and “has made it clear that he believes Christians should have a seat at the table.” The society added that Epstein “has invited Christian chaplains to speak to his group” and has helped co-host debates between Christian and secular students.
Epstein was the national chair of Humanists for Biden during the 2020 election, leading the group’s advisory council to Biden’s presidential campaign on behalf of “humanists, atheists, agnostics, and others.”
He has also authored the book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” The book was written as a response to prominent atheists on humanism.
“We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein said in his interview with the Times published on Aug. 26. “We are each other’s answers.”
On his chaplaincy web page, Epstein’s special 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 humanistic Judaism; racial justice and healing; the philosophy and practice of interfaith work.”
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Epstein also serves as 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 better the world for all.” The chaplaincy aims to foster community among atheists, agnostics, and “allies.”
“Humanism is a progressive life stance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to humanity's greater good,” the page explains.
According to Epstein’s 2013 interview on Harvard’s YouTube page, the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard was founded by former Catholic priest Tom Ferrick. Epstein said that Ferrick eventually lost his belief in God through encounters with students at Dartmouth College while serving as an assistant chaplain there.
“The students talked him right out of believing in God,” Epstein said. “He also realized that he was a gay man and that was a bit of a challenge in a Catholic setting.”
“What finally set him over the edge was the Vatican II’s decision...not to allow contraception. He just couldn’t, from an ethical point of view, stand that idea,” Epstein said of Ferrick. “It wasn’t compatible with his view of an ethical world.”