“I didn’t want to write about this because it’s so stupid. I didn’t want to write about this because it’s clearly a publicity stunt….But this changed when I found out that the Black Mass planned by a Harvard club would use a consecrated host. This literally changes everything.”
This excerpt from a Catholic Patheos blog encapsulates what many people saw as the central issue at stake in last week’s fiasco. As you may have heard by now, a Harvard Extension School student group called the Cultural Studies Club invited a New York-based organization called the Satanic Temple to lead a reenactment of a Black Mass at an on-campus bar one night during finals period. Satanic Panic ensued. Clergy, students, alumni, professors, university administrators, and bloggers galore complained, and tens of thousands of people signed petitions demanding that the event be cancelled. The student organizers and the members of the Satanic Temple were accused of everything from offensive speech to hate crimes to conjuring actual demons.
Many commentators named the potential desecration of a consecrated host as their primary concern. During a traditional mass, a wafer is consecrated by the celebrant, at which point in Catholic doctrine it transforms into the literal body of Jesus Christ. Before the priest’s blessing, it’s just a wafer; afterward, it’s God incarnate. For the blogger quoted above and for many others, the significance of the Black Mass hung on the question of whether or not a consecrated host would be used. If people dressed up in costumes and stepped on a plain old wafer, they might be doing something offensive, but it could be shrugged off. If that wafer is replaced by a consecrated host (which could only be obtained by stealing from a church), defiling it becomes a physical attack on God Himself and a much more serious crime to believers.
This implication that Satanism somehow doesn’t count as a legitimate belief system places it outside the safe umbrella of pluralism and allows the chaplains to circumvent their obligation to support those of their students who belong to or wish to explore an unpopular minority religion.
Despite the fixation on the host in the media, I believe it embodied just one facet of a larger issue of whether or not the Black Mass was “real.” Would it use a “real” host, or a mundane cracker? Is it a “real” ceremony, or merely a performance? Is Satanism a “real” religion? People on all sides of the debate made the “real”-ness of the event a focus of their arguments, although claims of both its reality and its unreality were used as evidence to support each position. Although reality seems to be a key issue for everyone in evaluating this event, its implications are different for each observer.
To my deep disappointment, the Harvard Chaplains, who are supposed to be a resource for all Harvard students regardless of religious affiliation or belief, made a public statement condemning the Black Mass: “Some of our students believe that an appropriate way to engage in learning about the religious beliefs and practices of others is to denigrate them through a mock performance like a ‘Black Mass’” (original scare quotes left intact). Dismissing the Satanists as “others” denies the possibility that any of “our students” could actually identify with them and share their beliefs, just as calling the event a “mock performance” categorizes it as a charade rather than a sincere spiritual practice. Greg Epstein, one of the Humanist chaplains, made an individual statement as well, similarly waving off the event as “satire” and “parody.” This implication that Satanism somehow doesn’t count as a legitimate belief system places it outside the safe umbrella of pluralism and allows the chaplains to circumvent their obligation to support those of their students who belong to or wish to explore an unpopular minority religion.
Others disagreed, arguing that Satanism must be taken seriously as a worldview and its adherents treated with respect. “What we find most disturbing,” said a representative of the Cultural Studies Club in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, “have been the demands that the rituals and beliefs of marginalized members of society be silenced.” In this and many of their other [gutsy] statements, the club defends the Satanists on the grounds that their belief system is as worthy of respect, tolerance, and First-Amendment-style rights as the Catholic Church or any other religious/convictional organization. Joseph Laycock takes a similar stance in an excellent Religion Dispatches piece. In response to accusations that the group is “less of a temple and more of an excuse for political activism,” Laycock counters that “the Satanic Temple’s members are more than political atheists with a gimmick. Although they reject supernaturalism, they comprise a community that values self-determination and finds meaning through a shared tradition of ideas and rituals.” By articulating the positive values espoused by Satanists, Laycock shuts down the many uneducated assertions that their mission is to denigrate the beliefs of others.
Meanwhile, a parallel debate took place through the looking glass, in which opponents of the Black Mass objected to its potential for very real religious danger, while defenders tried to soothe their fears by emphasizing the performative, historical, political, and educational aspects of the planned event. In their official statement, the Archdiocese of Boston unequivocally identifies the event as an instance of “Satanic worship” and warns that it “is contrary to charity and goodness” and “places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil.” Two leaders of Harvard’s undergraduate Catholic community agree in a Crimson op-ed that “while the Satanic Temple rejects the idea of the supernatural and does not believe that their actions have metaphysical implications, we believe they are summoning true evil into the heart of the campus.” On the most dramatic end of the spectrum, a contributor to the ultra-conservative American Thinker blog panics about “dangerous ventures into the Dark Side,” and an actual exorcist warns that even non-participating spectators of the event would be at risk for literal demonic possession.
Nobody has questioned the possibility that a Catholic event could be both a political “protest” and a sincere, “real” religious ceremony. Could the Black Mass serve both functions as well?
Against these cries of terror, defenders of the event highlighted the student group’s plans to reenact a Black Mass, not actually conduct one. “The event was originally intended as a lecture on the history of legends surrounding the black mass followed by a performance,” according to Laycock. “It’s like the difference between actually staging a KKK rally and pretending to stage one for a documentary about the KKK,” wrote a Harvard College student who wishes to remain anonymous in a personal email to the author. From this perspective, one act is hateful; the other is educational. Others went so far as to turn many churchgoers’ words against themselves, using the fearful response as an illustration of why the Black Mass exists in the first place. “Begun during the Middle Ages, the ritual is best understood as a protest against the Church’s repressive influence,” two Jewish students assert in a counterpoint to the Catholic op-ed. And in my single favorite piece out of the whole kerfuffle, a Catholic graduate student criticizes his own community’s response by declaring that “the Satanic ‘black mass,’ with all of its evil conjurings and alleged Eucharistic desecrations, is a modern fabrication from a Christian mind that for centuries has been found guilty of falsely accusing others of ritualistic evil conspiracy (think of the witch-hunts throughout early modern Europe and America).”
It’s probably become obvious where I stand on the Black Mass’s right to life, if you will. I hope to write a follow-up piece soon to further explore the question of what the Satanic Temple truly is and what actually transpired at the event when it finally half-happened off campus. For now, I still don’t have a clear answer to whether the Black Mass at Harvard could be considered “real” or what the implications of its “realness” would be, but I suspect this question might miss the complexity of spiritual practice. While the Satanists were preparing for their event (whatever it was), hundreds of local Catholics and their allies were participating in a “Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction” which was organized “as a protest to the Black Mass.” Nobody has questioned the possibility that a Catholic event could be both a political “protest” and a sincere, “real” religious ceremony. Could the Black Mass serve both functions as well? We know that the lived Catholic experience is rich enough to resist simplistic categorization as either spiritual, or educational, or historical, or political; religion is all these things and more, and none of these facets is more “real” than the others. Let this week’s failure of pluralism inspire us to acknowledge and respect this same complexity in less privileged worldviews.
Chelsea Link is an Editor at Large for Cosmologics and an alumna of Harvard College, where she studied History and Science.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.